Kempe, Margery

Kempe, Margery
(ca. 1373–ca. 1440)
   Margery Kempe was born into a prosperous middleclass family in the Norfolk port of King’s Lynn in ca. 1373. She was the daughter of John Brunham or Burnham, an influential burgess of Lynn who served, according to extant archives, as mayor and member of Parliament, and in numerous other positions of importance.Much of what we know about Kempe herself derives from what has been called the earliest autobiography in English, The Boke ofMargerie Kempe of Lynn. Thus any attempt to summarize her life and work needs to take into account the version of events she represents in the Boke. The proem to the Boke reveals that the book is “not wretyn in ordyr, every thyng aftyr other as it wer don” (Windeatt 2000, ll. 134–35), yet it is possible to reconstruct a hypothetical chronology of Kempe’s life based upon the information she includes in her Boke. Margery married John Kempe when she was approximately 20 years old (ca. 1393), and although she dates her first vision of and “conversation” with Christ to a period of illness following the birth of her first child (some critics have attributed her illness to post-partum depression), her full conversion into a life dedicated to Christ does not occur for another 20 years, 14 children, and various worldly enterprises including brewing and milling. Kempe is unsuccessful in her occupational attempts until she feels “the drawt [pull or attraction] of owyr Lord” (Windeatt 2000, 1. 252). After many years of spiritual growth and travels,Kempe enlists two priests to write her life and visions.
   Although Kempe’s account of her life, in which she refers to herself as a “creature,” contains instances of spiritual doubt and backsliding, and temptations entered into, for the most part the narrative focuses on her particularly emotional form of piety, her teachings and preachings (a contested issue in the 14th and 15th centuries because women’s teaching was associated with the LOLLARDS, and Margery is often accused of this specific heresy), and, in particular, the ways in which her community slanders her behavior and beliefs. This last is key: Slander becomes, for Kempe, the proof that she is Christ’s beloved as he assures her over and over in her narrative that the more she is slandered, the more she suffers for him, and the more he loves her. Much of her narrative is concerned with her travels in England and abroad, her pilgrimages to holy shrines, and her interactions with lay and clerical figures during her travels. Kempe’s disruptive behavior, which includes loud crying, excessive emotional responses to the Passion, a tendency to correct others, an often reiterated claim to a personal and singular relationship with Christ, and a disregard for clerical authority, invite slander from those around her. Yet the more she is slandered, the more certain she is of Christ’s regard and her ultimate salvation. In addition to accounts of her travels and interactions (mostly negative) with others, Kempe recalls visions in which she participates in, variously, the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, and the Passion. These scenes, in which Kempe becomes a central figure in biblical narratives, can be read as a literalization of common spiritual injunctions to contemplate and figuratively participate in the life of Christ. Kempe takes the injunctions further than is usually encountered; however, there is precedence in the visions of continental mystics, with whose works Kempe shows familiarity. Realistic and fantastic in turn, Kempe’s narrative is, at the least, a fascinating account of a late medieval woman’s untraditional quest for spiritual vocation and validation in a culture barely tolerant of nonconformity. For centuries what was known about Kempe was drawn from a seven-page quarto pamphlet, A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Ihesu cryste, or taken out of the boke of Margerie Kempe of Lynn, printed ca. 1501 by Wynkyn de Worde. This quarto pamphlet contains devotional extracts from Kempe’s Boke and nothing of the somewhat idiosyncratic account of her life and behavior and visions. As a result,Kempe was thought to be either an anchoress or a woman of spiritual enlightenment in the tradition of JULIAN OF NORWICH.When the sole surviving manuscript of the complete book was discovered in 1934, scholars were forced to revise their opinion of her life and work, and much of the revision was ungenerous as scholars struggled to validate what seemed to be the product of a “queer, unbalanced creature.” Learned discussions about hysteria, post-partum depression, degraded spiritual understanding, and excessive sexual obsessions were the commonplaces of critical discourse regarding Kempe and her narrative. In the last two decades, however, feminist scholars and others have offered interpretations and contextualizations that provide analyses of Kempe and her work without the negative adjudication of earlier scholars. One approach is to contextualize Kempe in the continental mystical tradition, and as her work shows clear derivation from this tradition, these arguments are sound and allow us to place her emotive spirituality within a specific historical trajectory of spiritual development.Another approach, and one that is increasingly the basis for other approaches, divides Kempe the author from Margery the character and claims that Kempe’s character (Margery) is the means by which Kempe critiques her social community, lay and clerical. Lynn Staley’s work in this area is astounding in its implications of authorial intentionality and craft, and has influenced many scholars who are currently working on Kempe and her narrative. Kempe’s extraordinarily materialistic and realistic version of life and spirituality, including her failings and faults, is fundamentally, as the proem suggests, intended for “synful wrecchys,” and may have been received more easily by an audience of similarly sinful folk than high-minded, elegant, and theologically accurate treatises. One thing we may be certain of is that Kempe’s life and work will continue to be the focus of lively analyses for some time to come.
   ■ Aers, David. Community, Gender, and Individual Identity. London: Routledge, 1988.
   ■ Ashley,Kathleen.“Historicizing Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe as Social Text,” Journal ofMedieval and Early Modern Studies 28 (1998): 371–388.
   ■ Beckwith, Sarah. “A Very Material Mysticism: The Medieval Mysticism of Margery Kempe.” In Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History, edited by David Aers, 34–57. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
   ■ Delany, Sheila. “Sexual Economics, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and The Book of Margery Kempe.” In Writing Women: Women Writers and Women in Literature Medieval to Modern. New York: Schocken Books, 1983, 76–92.
   ■ Kempe,Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited and translated by Lynn Staley. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
   ■ Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennyslvania Press, 1991.
   ■ ———.The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Barry Windeatt. Harlow: Longman, 2000.
   ■ Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Kempe, Margery — (c. 1373–c. 1433)    Mystic.    Kempe was born Margery Burnham, the daughter of the Mayor of Bishop’s Lynne, England. She married John Kempe and was the mother of fourteen children. She is remembered for her Book of Margery Kempe in which she… …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Kempe, Margery — born с 1373 died с 1440 English mystic. She had 14 children before beginning a series of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain in 1414. Apparently illiterate, she dictated her autobiography, Book of Margery Kempe, describing her… …   Universalium

  • Kempe, Margery — ( 1373– 1440). Mística inglesa. Tuvo 14 hijos antes de comenzar en 1414 una serie de peregrinajes a Jerusalén, Roma, Alemania y España. Aparentemente analfabeta, Kempe dictó su autobiografía, Book of Margery Kempe [El libro de Margary Kempe], en… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • KEMPE, Margery — (1373 1433)    English MYSTIC whose work The Book of Margery Kempe outlines her mystical experiences …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Margery Kempe — (c. 1373 – after 1438) is known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. This book chronicles, to some extent, her extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites in… …   Wikipedia

  • KEMPE (M.) — KEMPE MARGERY (1373 env. env. 1440) Mystique anglaise, connue par le récit de sa vie, qu’elle a dicté à deux secrétaires différents (et en deux temps). Le manuscrit de Margery Kempe, dont des morceaux choisis avaient paru en 1901 à Londres sous… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Margery Kempe — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Kempe. Margery Kempe (vers 1373 vers 1436 ou après 1438) est une mystique anglaise, auteur du Book of Margery Kempe, considéré par certains critiques comme la première autobiographie de langue anglaise. Sommaire… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Margery Kempe — (* ca. 1373 in King s Lynn, (England); † nach 1438) ist eine englische Mystikerin und Visionärin, die für ihre mittelenglische Schrift The Book of Margery Kempe bekannt ist, ein Werk das von manchen als die erste Autobiographie in der englischen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Kempe — ist eine Burg in Sachsen, siehe Burg Kempe der Familiennamen folgender Personen: Alfred Kempe (1849−1922), britischer Mathematiker Andreas Kempe (1622–1689), schwedischer Philosoph und Philologe Antje Kempe (* 1963), deutsche Leichtathletin… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Margery — ist ein weiblicher Vorname. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Herkunft und Bedeutung 2 Namensträgerinnen 3 Künstlername 4 Siehe auch …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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