Margery Kempe, the subject of the self-dictated Book of Margery Kempe – often referred to as the first autobiography in the English language – is well known in medieval literary circles, albeit perhaps begrudgingly. She was, and continues to be, a woman difficult to ignore. In fact, the word “difficult” would likely be lingering close by any semantic field dedicated to the description of Margery Kempe, alongside others such as: contrary, radical, unconventional, discordant, and outspoken. Whilst these words, individually, are often perceived as negative, women across the world in recent years have been criticised in similar ways for admirable, courageous and unapologetically feminist actions. In her unconventional behaviour, one could see Kempe anachronistically as a precursor to these current women who, in their bid for equality, are deemed too outspoken and contrary — the prevailing backlash against author J. K.  Rowling comes to mind. In this way, Kempe can be seen as an extremely important figure in women’s history, one of the few women who stand out distinctly in an otherwise extremely male-dominated era.

Nevertheless, from reading the Book of Margery Kempe, it difficult not to pity those who encounter Margery on her pilgrimage: there is no denying the fact that she was, indeed, pretty damn annoying. However, in order to outline just how annoying Margery Kempe managed to be to those who encountered her, we first have to investigate the concept of what a women should be in Medieval England. If you are at all familiar with medieval culture, you will not be surprised to learn that the ideal model for feminine behaviour was the Virgin Mary. The general idea is not that different from those that linger even in the less progressive minds of modern society: a woman should be meek and mild, seen and not heard, modest and virginal, passive not active, submissive to the will of ones’ husband, etc. Margery Kempe directly contradicts several of these notions. In her efforts to become more intimate with God, she often manages to alienate herself from those she encounters.

To offer a brief summary for those unfamiliar with the narrative of Margery’s life, to begin with it was not out of the ordinary for the medieval woman: she was a wife and a mother, as many were. In fact, she bore fourteen children with her husband John Kempe. However, she progressively separated herself from her role and mother and wife, with both these aspects of her life becoming subservient to her role as mystic. After a vision from God, Margery’s existence became integrally tied with Christ; she refused to have sex with her husband again (who took the news as you probably expect), wishing to lead from then on a chaste life, and she moved her attention on to travelling across England, and further afield, on religious pilgrimages.

On one occasion in The Book of Margery Kempe, upon crying hysterically amongst meditations on the Passion of Christ after beholding an image of the Pieta, Margery is approached by a priest who, in an attempt to subdue her loud wails, tells Margery there is no use crying so violently, as Christ has been dead for many years.

Margery was compellyd to cryyn ful lowde and wepyn ful sor, as thei sche schulde a deyd. Than cam to hir the ladys preste seying, “Damsel, Jhesu is ded long sithyn.[1]

Margery does not accept this as a viable reason and uses the priest’s comforting words against him: she lectures the priest in his apparent lack of compassion, convinced that it is her emotions that are the more accordant with scripture.

Whan hir crying wascesyd, sche seyd to the preste, “Sir, hys deth is as fresch to me as he had deyd  this same day, and so me thynkyth it awt to be to yow and to alle Cristen pepil. We awt evyr to han mende of hys kendnes and evyr thynkyn of the dolful deth that he deyd for us.[2]

Warning: if a pre-Reformation Catholic priest is telling you not worry so much about the crucifixion because it happened so long ago, then you might be coming across as just a little too intense. However, while the priest was obviously frustrated with Margery’s incessant and disruptive wails, this may not have been the only reason for his grievance with her. In fact, during the Middle Ages, compassion and empathy were desirable commodities. Mystical writings such as those by Richard Rolle (extremely widely read/heard during the Late Middle Ages) demonstrate the desperate desire of many men in the age to possess the skill to conjure empathy and compassion — emotions so associated with the figure of the Virgin Mary. These emotions were seen as second nature to a woman, whereas they could only be achieved in men through learning. As such, Margery Kempe, a lay woman, practically illiterate, who is yet able to feel compassion so strongly and so often, would have no doubt been an annoyance to the common cleric. We see Margery addressing this concept herself towards the Archbishop of York. When he asks the reason for her weeping, she simply responds with the statement that one day he will wish he wept as sorely as she did,

‘“Why wepist thu so, woman?” Sche, answeryng, seyde, “Syr, ye schal welyn sum day that ye had wept as sor as I.”[3]

The Archbishop gets so increasingly frustrated with Margery that he, in his exasperation, asks ‘what schal I don wyth hir?’ To which clerics replied that though she was well versed in the articles of the faith, they refused to suffer her to stay there, in case she perverted the thought of the people.

We knowyn wel that sche canthe Articles of the Feith, but we wil not suffyr hir to dwellyn among us, for the pepilhath gret feyth in hir dalyawnce, and peraventur sche myth pervertyn summe of hem.[4]

Margery Kempe encountered similar contempt for her person at most of the locations she visits:  in the more extreme cases she was accused of lollardy;[5] she was arrested at least twice and was even threatened with being burnt at the stake for heresy. Despite this, she was unyielding in her faith and unapologetic in her actions. Truthfully, I have little doubt that many men and women alike in the modern era, myself included, would find Margery to be absolutely insufferable. But her steadfastness is certainly something to be admired. Lynn Staley perfectly encapsulates why Margery is a woman we shouldn’t want to ignore, even if we wouldn’t be able to anyway. Staley states that in Margery’s”‘attempt to gain personal, financial, and spiritual autonomy is a tale of radical reversal that touches us on many different levels. Margery does what very few are able finally to do, and the fact that she does so as a woman enhances the force of her story — she breaks away”.[6]

[1] The Book of Margery Kempe, Book I, part 60

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Book of Margery Kempe, Book 1, part 52

[4] Ibid.

[5] For those unfamiliar with the term, Lollardy was a heretical sect that followed in the footsteps of John Wycliffe, particularly prominent in the South-East of England. For a brief explanation see http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/lollards_01.shtml

[6] Lynn Staley, “Introduction”, The Book of Margery Kempe, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/staley-book-of-margery-kempe-introduction