Margery Kempe

Biographical: ca.1373-1438; born in King's Lynn, East Anglia. Her father, John Brunham, was a wealthy burgess, the Mayor of Lynn five times, and held one of the town's two seats in the parliament. Margery married John Kempe at age 20, 14 children; briefly, though unsuccessfully, owned a brewery and mill. Most of Margery's later life was spent in pilgrimages, within Britain and also to Jerusalem, Italy and Campostella. Her "preaching" led to her being questioned by inquisitors on numerous occasions, including confrontations with the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of York, though she was never found guilty of heresy.

Bibliography for Quotations:

Triggs, Tony (translator),
The Book of Margery Kempe: The Autobiography of the Madwoman of God
Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England: Burns and Oates, 1995


Page 109

(Increase and multiply refers) not only to the physical bearing of children but also to the begetting of virtue - the fruit of the spirit. We can do this by hearing God's word, by setting a good example, by meekness, patience, charity and chastity and so forth. As for patience, it is worth far more than the working of miracles.

Weakness eternal

Speaking of before her conversion (page 23):

My neighbours were very jealous of me, and wished that they were as well-dressed as I was. My only wish was to be admired. I would not take correction, and unlike my husband I wasn't content with the things God gave me; I always wanted more than I had.

Things changed, of course, following the conversion experience

No vanity about dress (this being one of countless incidents where Margery stresses how God willed for the mother of 14 to wear virginal white):

Page 86 -

I was to ask (my confessor(1)) to let me wear my white clothes again, for he had made me give them up as a point of obedience, as I have already explained. When I told him that it was God's will he didn't dare to think of refusing(2).

Undue need to be admired?

Page 62

On Sundays I received the sacrament wherever time and place allowed, and I wept and sobbed so violently that many people were struck with amazement that God had given me so much grace

Page 72 - during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem:

I realised the truth of what God had told me before I left England: 'Daughter, I shall make all the world wonder at you.'

Page 76 - now in Assisi

This noteworthy scholar said that I owed a great debt to God; he had never heard of anyone in the world(3) living as close to God in love and intimate speech as I did.

Ability to take correction

Chapter 33 - referring to dealing with her confessor, who believed God was at work within Margery:

"…when he did have doubts our Lord, speaking through me, sent him signs of his own misconduct and wrongful living."

Chapter 52 - confrontation with the archbishop of York, during which Margery had another weeping fit:

(The archbishop): "Why do you cry in such a way, woman?"

I answered, "Sir, you will one day wish that you had wept as surely as I do."

Special privileges?

Chapter 32 - page 77:

"The priest was very pleased to hear how contrite and full of compunction I was … because he could not understand any English, our Lord sent John the Evangelist to hear my confession…"

Questionable that this was the voice of God

Wifely devotion

Chapter 9 - page 32

I was praying to God to let me live chastely with my husband's permission(4), and I heard Christ say to me inwardly, 'On Fridays you must go without both food and drink, and your wish will be granted before Whit Sunday, for I will suddenly strike your husband dead.'(5)

Margery is freed of vainglory (and well connected)

Chapter 10 - page 22

(Jesus told me) 'Daughter, don't be afraid. I shall free you from vainglory. For those who worship you worship me; and those who despise you despise me, and I shall punish them for it…. those who hear you hear the voice of God.'

Divine insights about a priest who was unfavourable to her

Chapter 34 - page 81

'Daughter, don't worry about what he says to you, because even though he goes trotting off to Jerusalem every year I don't have any regard for him.'

Much truth spoken in a curious fashion

Chapter 48 - page 105 - as Margery defends herself before the inquisitors of Leicester

(Speaking about how God had commanded her to wear white clothes…)

I have told my confessors the same thing, and they've ordered me to go round like this because they've too much respect for God to oppose my inner feelings; they'd be more than ready to do so if they felt they could(6).

Chapter 52 - Margery addresses the Archbishop of York & company

Page 113-115

Then the archbishop said to me, 'I hear bad reports about you; I hear it said that you're a thoroughly wicked woman.'

And I replied,' And I hear it said you're a wicked man, sir. And if you're as wicked as people say, you will never enter heaven unless you mend your ways…'

Then he said, in his violent way, 'Why you!… What do people say about me?'

I replied, 'Others can tell you well enough, sir.'

(Now to one of the scholars:) " the place where I live for most of the time is an upright cleric who preaches well and speaks out against the people's wrongdoing. He won't stoop to flatter anyone, and he says from his pulpit, 'If my preaching upsets anyone, take good note because it means he feels guilty.' And I'm causing you the same discomfort. May God forgive you!"

Margery's Meeting with Julian of Norwich

Some of the points which Margery mentions Julian's having related to her:

§ Obey the will of our Lord God and do my best to fulfil the promptings in my soul as long as they didn't conflict with the worship of God or the well-being of my fellow Christians.

§ The Holy Spirit never prompts us to act unkindly; if he did he would be acting contrary to his own nature, for he is pure love.

§ (The Holy Spirit) stirs each soul to perfect chastity(7), for those who live chastely are known as temples of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes every soul unswerving and steadfast in the true faith and teaching(8).

1. 1 Wenslawe, one of Margery's extensive procession of confessors, understood no English - which may well be how he managed to endure the lengthy stint with Margery. Margery made her confession ("right from childhood to this very moment") and related her consolations, so she tells us, up to three times daily… and one cannot help but wonder whether the latter disclosure was the greater trial for the listener! I'm sure her being well heeled had nothing to do with her being able to maintain listeners.

2. 2 Enlightening the clergy, bishops in particular, about the specifics of God's will apparently was Margery's main apostolic work. It is quite intriguing that God spent most of his effort willing matters directly affecting Margery. The bishop who recommended that Margery consider the matter of the "white clothes," not making the gesture until she returned from her pilgrimage, was rebuked for his concern with worldly opinion - it was a day when God had more taste for the virtue of zeal than of prudence, I imagine.

3.  The vocal inflection and facial expression with which the good friar delivered these remarks sadly are not recorded.

4.  Married couples were permitted to observe total continence as an ascetic practise, but only if there was mutual agreement and commitment. It was not uncommon as a temporary penance, but was not generally encouraged as a permanent commitment. For example, some women with living husbands entered the monastic life, but permission for this depended on the husband's also entering a monastery.

5. 5 Margery's husband lived for decades afterward. When, three years later, John agreed not to engage in sexual relations with her, Margery prayed for him to be spared out of divine mercy… I daresay the dual penance of being married to Margery and waiting to be struck dead was sufficient for any life.

6.  It does not occur to Margery, of course, just why they well knew that they couldn't.

7. 7 Julian's writings, which pre-date this meeting, do not deal with any virtue in particular, except for humility, and this obviously is a response to a question from Margery, whose anxiety related to chastity was great. Julian's words about chastity being a calling of each soul have a subtlety which Margery missed - one wonders if she grasped that Julian clearly was referring to the virtue, not the vow!

8. 8Some of the more violent heretical groups of the time were known for their common practise of … rather extreme "free love", to put it mildly - and some of the bizarre "theological" ideas they set forth were tied into a backward argument wherein, since the celibate hierarchy were corrupt, an approach drastically opposed to any form of chastity was a reform. Whether Julian is addressing this is unclear, though she certainly would have been aware of the situation. In any case, all of the great theologians would have agreed that persistent grave sin of any kind eventually leads to a weakening or loss of faith, especially considering that one's justification of this is both a denial of divine law and deceit.