Margery Kempe

  Margery holds the distinction of having dictated the first known autobiography in the English language. This seems a likely task for one who was very focussed on herself! Her case is an extreme illustration of how one’s will can be turned to God when one genuinely seeks union with him – even if the particulars are not to be imitated. Margery is a prime example of how God’s grace not only works through our failings but quite in spite of ourselves (in a Christian tradition begun with a manipulative conversation initiated by a criminal who hung next to Jesus on the cross).

Much of this disjointed, and often very confusing, work is quite hilarious, particularly when Margery recounts dialogue. Yet there is an underlying tragic quality, because she clearly had a mental disorder which caused extremely obsessive thought and behaviour. Margery references a sin for which she would seek to "atone" for the remainder of her life, and all of her history shows one of terrible agitation and an intense need to be humiliated and punished.

Mental illness hardly precludes holiness, but Margery shows none of the detachment of the saint. First to last, her concern would be her mystic experiences. She states, repeatedly, that those who heed and support her will be blessed – those who do not, quite the contrary. She constantly seeks assurance of the validity of the experiences, yet sees the hand of God as ready to smite anyone who questions them. Sadly, Margery is completed centred on herself (undoubtedly because of her illness), and even the few occasions mentioned when she serves others who are ill (including her husband) show concern only for the service being an atonement for her sins, not for the welfare of the other.

Margery’s contrition (for that unnamed sin of youth and for others) is genuine, and one could not doubt her seeking union with God, however misguided her efforts may have been. Her love of neighbour expresses itself in her willingness to share her mystic experiences with others, assured, as she imagines was revealed by God, that "he who worships you(Margery) worships Me." Many of the "revelations" are far off the mark theologically, but, though Margery feared diabolical deception, she does not seem to have had the wise caution about self-deception which was characteristic of the mystic saints.

As with most of us, the traits which Margery mentions as having led her into sin (slander, over attachment to wealth, and vanity) will surface in her attempts at practising virtue. She not only recounts, at great length, how wrong and evil were those who opposed her, but assumes not only their motivation but the divine punishment that is ahead because of this rejection.


Quotations from Margery – with footnotes by Gloriana