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Visionary or Heretic? The Controversial Margery Kempe
Throughout history, there have been a select number of women with extraordinary talent, intelligence, and passion that have challenged and defied society’s subjugation of women and have stood their ground under the pressure of patriarchy. The Middle Ages, in particular, generally cast women in a negative light. Some medieval women used their abilities in the arts to leave a lasting impression on a society that affiliated women with Eve, who was believed to be the reason for man’s fall from grace. Others had a religious perspective, immersing themselves in God’s work on earth. One such woman was Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century visionary who was widely criticized as being a heretic and worshipper of Satan. Kempe set aside her roles as wife and mother to pursue what she felt was her true calling: preaching God’s Word. Labeled a religious mystic by some, Margery was a highly controversial figure in late medieval England. Not only was her public behavior deemed ridiculous and motivated by evil, but she broke the rules of proper conduct for women in the Middle Ages, reversing power roles and defying societal expectations. From a vain, materialistic young girl in an upper middle-class household to a loud, confrontational (and often annoying) woman who drew much attention and criticism through her public displays of grief, Margery experienced much opposition and created controversy at all levels in late medieval society. But throughout her life, which included bearing fourteen children, failing at two business ventures, and traveling to holy places, Margery insisted that Jesus communicated with her and chose her specifically as His messenger on earth.
Born in 1373 in the trade town of Lynn, England, Margery Kempe was the daughter of John Brunham, many times the mayor of the town. She dictated what is believed to be the first woman’s autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, based on spiritual revelations she experienced throughout her life. Its reliability remains a central concern of historians and biographers with her Book, since she began recording her divine encounters almost twenty years after they began. Also, since Margery was illiterate, she dictated her work to a priest, who may have altered her words and doctrines to make them more acceptable and in tune with the religious beliefs of the time.
Since Lynn was a busy town of commerce and trade, the middle-class inhabitants were wealthy. The status of Margery’s father, John, several times mayor of Lynn, helped to instill Margery with self-respect. She was very much influenced by the people of Lynn’s concern with status and wealth: “She had a very great envy of her neighbors that they should be as well arrayed as she.” In her Book, she even goes so far as to say that her marriage to businessman John Kempe did no justice to her “worthy kindred” and was a socially-imbalanced relationship, although they both belonged to the same social class. This haughtiness and sense of pride are distinguishing features of Margery throughout her life.
In 1393, at the age of twenty, Margery married John, who was well-known for his talent in business. Becoming pregnant soon afterward, she began to have frightening encounters with Satan, whom she claims tortured her by making her feel guilt and extreme remorse for a sin she previously committed that was not confessed. According to her Book, Margery battles spiritually with her conscience, believing Satan when he tells her that God will never forgive her and that she should just lead a life full of sin and folly. She continues with this internal struggle after giving birth to her first child, even falling into a deep depression that brings her to self-loathing and causes her to inflict wounds on herself. Some historians and critics attribute her state to what is now known as postpartum depression (Wilson). But, for the most part, her experience may have arisen from the burden of guilt and anguish over a sin she committed as a teenager. To make matters worse, after delivering the baby, Margery sends for her confessor so she can finally reveal her inner turmoil, but she is then faced with his criticism and reproach. Instead of being comforted, she is now burdened with the fear of damnation for her sin as well as a lack of support and understanding from her confessor. For almost two years afterward, Margery describes herself as living a sinful life, tortured by the temptations of evil spirits and the Devil himself. Indulging in all sinful behaviors, Margery hits a low in her life until the Lord intervenes and saves her. Jesus Christ speaks to her one night, asking “Daughter, why have you forsaken me and I never forsook you?” According to Margery, she is then touched by the grace of God and the power of his love, an experience that begins her journey of repentance and spiritual devotion (an often tumultuous one).
During the Middle Ages, women were believed to be excessively sexual and easily given to the passions of the flesh. Husbands were expected to regulate and keep to a minimum sexual encounters with their wives lest they should fall into the hands of Satan, the tempter. The Virgin Mary and many female saints and martyrs were praised in sermons, with the design to keep single women chaste and married women virtuous. Margery describes herself as a very lustful woman at the beginning of her marriage, a time when she knows no constraint or inhibition with her husband in bed. Even after she experiences conversations with Christ and other saintly figures, as described in her Book, she is constantly tempted by the flesh (perhaps one reason she bears fourteen children). Margery has times of doubt and uncertainty about God’s love and support for her since she is still tempted by lust and has passionate sexual thoughts. At one point, she even contemplates committing adultery, the memory of which subsequently haunts her with immense guilt and shame. “At the last through the persistence of temptation and the lack of discretion she was overcome and consented in her mind and went to the man to know if he would consent to her. And he said he would not for all the good of this world; he would rather be cut up as small as meat for the pot.” Being insulted in such a harsh way, Margery recoils shamefully and repents her sin “with many bitter tears of compunction.”
After much prayer and fervent pleas for forgiveness from God, Margery asks John to commit to a vow of chastity in their marriage, which he initially refuses to make. He justifies his position by saying he will be forced to commit adultery if he is not able to sleep with her. Margery is disgusted by the act of sex between them but nevertheless allows him to indulge: “She lay be her husband, and to commune with him was so abominable to her that she might not endure it, and yet it was lawful for her in a lawful time, if she had wanted to.” John tries to persuade her and makes subtle advances, which she responds to by praying fervently while clinging to a cross she keeps near her, a humorous example of Margery’s desperate (and literal) desire to embrace holiness (ironically, she doesn’t seem to notice her humor as her readers do). Margery has been regularly fasting, and John threatens to make love to her again if she does not resume dining with him on Fridays. But these rejections soon become too much for him to endure as a married man. In 1413, John eventually submitted to Margery’s wish for a chaste marriage, allowing her to take over the responsibility of the husband to regulate the sexuality in their marriage. In turn, he persuades her to pay his debts before she goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to give up her Friday fasting. Margery continues her fasting but does pay John’s debts. Throughout her Book, John seems to have been very supportive of his wife and sympathetic to her wishes. Ultimately, John supports Margery and allows her to travel to Rome, Jerusalem, and other holy places, to interact with priests and religious figures.
In the Book, Margery’s spiritual devotion dwarfs John’s role as religious head of the household. Her public displays of spiritual intensity and devotion through “cryings and weepings” that shock most people when they witness them bring her many critics as well as a few supporters. She describes the opposition she faces from the Church because women are not allowed to preach of God and act as spiritual leaders. In the medieval church, the doctrines of St. Paul and St. Jerome were both very influential in promoting misogyny and inequality between the sexes. Margery’s outlandish actions (that reflect her religious revelations) and her theatrical emotional responses cause much doubt, many observers, as described in her Book, believing she simply loves the attention they bring. Indeed, her so-called religious behavior may have been just another way to express her pride and conceit. Margery’s outbursts embarrass her husband and the companions she travels with, and appall church officials. Such displays of uncontrolled emotion by women were not generally acceptable during the medieval period (or later). Margery’s attention-grabbing faints, wailings, and weepings lead many to accuse her of heresy and Lollardy, a doctrine that focused on the individual’s direct relationship with God, without mediation from a priest. Lollards believed that sacraments should not be based upon the virtue of priests, since they were sinners as well, and that an individual could have direct communion with God. Margery’s belief that everyone is a sinner and must repent can be seen in her comment to an archbishop: “Sir, so I hear it said that you are wicked man. And if you be as wicked as men say, you shall never come to heaven unless you amend yourself while you are here.” She does not think twice about pointing out the weaknesses and lack of faith of others, including powerful clergymen. To her, it is her duty to proclaim the wondrous grace of God and the need for all to repent.
John endures Margery’s attention-grabbing behavior with patience. Many times he is the only one to defend her against accusations of heresy, witchcraft, or plain insanity. His support of Margery is not lost on her, as she says in her Book: ‘for he was evyr a good man and an esy man to hir.’ But there is only so much he is willing to go through. It is also interesting to note the danger Margery puts John in, as well as herself, during the reign of Henry V (d. 1422), who was very eager to rid England of all Lollards. While on a pilgrimage in Canterbury, a very anti-Lollard town, Margery takes no heed of the dangers that are likely to be presented there. She resumes her outbursts in the church at Canterbury until a senior monk is called to deal with her. Being a well-respected and knowledgeable monk who has enjoyed a secular life at the court of Queen Joanna, the monk confronts Margery and asks what she knows of God and the Bible. As she describes in her Book, Margery’s impressive memory allows her to recall whole passages and parables word for word, defending herself against critics with knowledge of the Bible. This is quite an astonishing ability given her illiteracy. Unfortunately, being well-versed in the Bible was a distinguishing characteristic of Lollards. As she proceeds to tell the monk, and the crowd that has now gathered, a parable from the Bible, the monk is convinced that Margery is a practicing Lollard. Exclaiming this aloud, the crowd starts to call for Margery’s burning. Not knowing what to do, she begins to pray for God’s protection and intervention. Suddenly, from the crowd appear two young men who calmly address the situation by making Margery deny the accusation of heresy. After doing so, she is safely escorted by the young men to the inn where she was staying. Interestingly, Margery usually describes the young men she encounters as physically attractive and handsome). Here, they find John waiting there secretively for Margery. Although he loves his wife very much, John is just as embarrassed by Margery’s behavior as anyone else is and probably fears for their lives because of it.
Yet despite her many controversial actions, Margery finds support among various clergy. One of her first confessors, an unnamed anchorite, seems to have understood her and her experiences, truly believing she has been touched by the Holy Spirit. Master Aleyn is another of Margery’s confessors who gravitates towards her passion and devotion, and who is even somewhat attracted by her insane outbursts. Her principal confessor is Master Robert Spryngolde, who was her priest between 1413 and 1438 (the year Book Two of her autobiography was recorded). Although many times a harsh critic of Margery and often embarrassed by her disruptions during church services, Spryngolde is still intrigued by Margery’s spiritual passion and personal character. Dame Julian of Norwich is another mentor who supports her piety and probably motivates Margery to keep up her religious fervor. “Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mournings and weepings unspeakable; that is to say, He makes us ask and pray with mournings and weepings so plenteously that the tears may not be numbered…Set all your trust in God, and fear not the language of the world, for the more respite, shame, and reproof you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God,” Julian tells Margery during one visit. Margery, of course, takes the advice of her mentor and firmly believes the more she suffers through her anguish and shame of being sinful, the closer she will be to God and his son, Jesus, who embodied suffering at its most extreme.
Despite her fervent displays of grief and immense guilt, Margery is still haunted by the devils of temptation, as she describes in her Book. One temptation in particular involves a young man in church who catches Margery’s eye. Angry at God for not performing a miracle for her since other saints have claimed to have experienced divine action, Margery nearly tosses her religious devotion out the window when she propositions him. Ironically, the harsh and embarrassing rejection from the young man causes Margery to realize that she is going down the wrong path. She ultimately confesses, with plenty of tears, sobs, and swooning, and vows never again to flirt with such behavior or thoughts of men.
One incident in particular that Margery describes as a miracle is her near-death experience in church. On the Friday before Easter, 1413, Margery was worshipping at St. Margaret’s cathedral during mass. According to her Book, there is a great rumbling noise coming from above. Immediately, some of the church members exclaim that God is about to place his wrath on Margery, whom they believe to be Satan’s servant. While crouching in a corner shielding herself and praying for protection, she is hit by a large stone and piece of wood. In shock, Margery lies on the floor mumbling ‘Ihesu, mercy.’ John Wyrham, a mercer in the town, runs to her side and asks if she is injured, since it appears she has been directly hit by the heavy objects. Surprising everyone, including himself, Margery gets up with little difficulty and no broken bones. Some present claim it as miracle of the Lord, while others credit her near-death experience as God’s anger with Margery. Some parishioners say, as cited in Louis Collis’ Memoirs of a Medieval Woman, “the He hadn’t actually killed her this time, as she deserved.” On the other hand, the well-known and reputable Carmelite priest, Master Aleyn, Margery’s confessor, declares
it as a sign of God’s love for her and His wish to keep Margery from being harmed. This experience, of course, becomes one of Margery’s stories of spiritual appointment by God when she is preaching to others.
Margery’s travels to Rome and Jerusalem provide the framework for stories about her quarrels. Her trip to Venice with a group of ‘ryt good men’ turns out to be a constant battle between her incessant preaching and boasting of her own holiness and the travelers’ yearning to be rid of her. She explains how her company becomes violent towards her because of her urge to speak of her religious experiences and divine encounters. Their utter annoyance with her becomes so intolerable that they actually plan to desert Margery somewhere in Germany as they continue traveling. The treasurer of the party even gives Margery her money as a bribe to get her on her way. But realizing that as good Christian men it is not right to leave a woman (no matter how irritating) on her own in a foreign land, they decide to leave her at Constance (the farthest on their journey that they are able to endure Margery). Margery, meanwhile, is none too fearful because she feels God is on her side. The only time she says her companions are under God’s protection is when she accompanies them. The more abuse and suffering Margery endures at the hands of others, the more blessed Margery believes will be her seat in heaven.
Much later in their marriage, Margery and John live separately and lead separate lives. As she continues her travels and preaching, John, as an elderly man, tends to business. After falling down the stairs in his home one day, he severely injures his head. Margery describes in her Book that he then loses the ability to perform basic functions and even live as an adult. Many people also criticize Margery for not being by his side while he is in such a condition. But she soon comes to his aid and takes care of him until he passes away in 1436. Although their marriage suffers much strain and frustration on both sides, Margery and John have a relationship based on support and respect. Had she not loved John or respected him as her husband, she most likely would not have come to his aid and stayed with him while he grew weaker. By this point in her life, I think Margery finally realizes how much she has put John through in their marriage with her difficult demand for chastity and her dramatic, embarrassing behavior. The father of her fourteen children, John Kempe was a man who saw in his wife an unstoppable force that would not rest until she had fulfilled God’s wishes for her on earth. In her Book, Margery describes herself as continuing to preach and pray devoutly, never ceasing in her expression of pain and anguish over the Lord’s ultimate sacrifice and the love He has for her and all creatures He saved through his Crucifixion.
Not many people, whether admirers or critics, can deny the strong, forceful, independent personality of Margery who, once setting her eyes on a task or goal, pursues it with all her might. From trying to maintain her own businesses (at which she failed miserably) to insisting on refraining from sex in her marriage, and eventually traveling to holy places without her husband and against the wishes of her confessors, Margery challenges the status quo for medieval women in the fifteenth century. Anthony Goodman alludes to both “a well-developed sense of duty and a natural waywardness” in Margery’s personality, two seemingly conflicting characteristics that add to her complexity as a saintly figure and medieval woman. Her strong, dominant personality seems to have attracted weaker men, one being her husband, John, who gave her considerable freedom and power within their relationship and household. But Margery is also influenced by high-ranking male religious figures who act as guides and authorities on the scriptures, men who can give her the reputation of being spiritually blessed.
Some medieval historians and theologians believe Margery risked her status in and around the community by allowing herself to be led by the Holy Spirit and by openly confronting evil and sinful behavior. According to John C. Hirsch’s The Revelations of Margery Kempe: “Margery’s challenges to authority are individual and particular. She charged hypocrisy face to face, and names names” (p. 102). In my opinion, Margery seems content to let go of societal standards and hierarchies, only to embrace a spiritual belief that gives her a prominent and demanding presence wherever she is. Her extravagant public displays make her either a heretic or a visionary. Either way, ‘Margery Kempe’ is a name that elicits a strong response, from ridicule and humor to religious admiration. Her revelations reveal traditional Christian values like love, obedience, and humility, while some of her actions suggest she does not always practice these virtues.
Margery is a powerful, genuine character who can be readily compared to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Alisoun, a dominant figure who follows her own path and sets herself apart, no matter what opinions others have of her. Margery is not initially received warmly by many, because of her very strong first impression, which is similar to our first impression of Alisoun. Social norms and gender expectations are bent, even broken to a certain degree, by these women. Margery builds her reputation, and her character, by immersing herself in one main relationship (with God), while Alisoun makes a show of her multiple marriages and the rewards she reaps through them. It almost seems as if men play a secondary role in both of their lives: Margery’s Book is focused mainly on her revelations and experiences, and Chaucer uses the male characters in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” as mere supporting figures in the main narrative of the Wife of Bath. Both women make their presence known, shying away from no one and testing everyone who stands in their way.
Despite her desire for recognition as a visionary and as one spiritually chosen, Margery seems to have had little self-awareness. Her attempts at holiness seem closer to pride and arrogance. In her Book, once she realizes that she has been leading a sin-filled, shameful life, she renounces everything of the world, including her marriage and family. Margery is steadfast in her belief that the Lord is speaking to her and through her when others attempt to confuse her and expose her as heretic. “ 'If any man be ill pleased with my preaching, note him well, for he is guilty.' And right so sir,' said she to the clerk, 'do you fare by me-may God forgive you.' ” Many questions arise after reading Margery’s Book: Did she feel superior to others after her mystical experiences? Or did she truly feel immense sadness and empathy at the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross? Such questions, of course, will elicit many different answers, from a variety of perspectives.
I think Margery Kempe is truly an unforgettable character in history. Defying social expectations of her time, she sets herself apart from all other “saints” and “mystics” by breaking rules and remaining steadfast in her beliefs and convictions. Even though her behavior is embarrassing to most people and earns her the titles of “heretic,” “lunatic,” and “actress,” I think Margery really felt a strong sense of responsibility and devotion to God’s work and the teachings of the Bible. Ignoring her opposition, she embraces the image of sainthood and uses it to promote her own spiritual image. Many people think of her as an annoying character who uses religious experiences to draw attention to herself. I agree that she is an extremely annoying and comical person at times; she would have tried the patience of any saint, but her determination and steadfastness are very admirable. One thing is definite: The Book of Margery Kempe exposes the intricacies and complexities of human character and offers a clear and vivid psychological portrait of a distant, historic figure.