Trying to Achieve Sainthood, Female Mystic Inadvertently Wrote First English Autobiography

4d413-margery-kempe-mysticAlmost 600 years ago, sometime in the 1430s, an English woman in her sixties was asked by several male priests to write her biography for others to learn from. She was not a nun. She was not a vestal virgin. She was a married woman with 14 children who used to own and operate a brewery.

Margery Kempe was born around 1373 into a well-to-do family in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in the county of Norfolk, England. Her father was a prosperous merchant, member of Parliament, and 5-time mayor of the town. At the age of 20, she married John Kempe and the two enjoyed a privileged life. Margery was focused on making as much money as possible to maintain the luxury to which she had become accustomed. To sustain their lifestyle, Margery even ran two failed businesses, a grain mill and a brewery which were two popular business for medieval women.

When Margery gave birth to her first child she suffered severe post-partum depression. She became suicidal, had manic hallucinations, and even self-mutilated. Thought to be such a danger to herself and others, she was imprisoned for six months. It wasn’t until she told everyone that she had received a vision from God and was now calm again that she was able to secure her freedom. This lesson Margery learned would stay with her all her life: the fine line between madness and holiness.

For roughly the next 20 years everything appeared normal with Margery. Just a typical medieval wife who bore children, supported her husband, and contributed to the town’s economy. Around the age of 40, either out of guilt, boredom, or a true calling, Margery decided she was a child of God. This was not going to be easy for her. Only unmarried women or widows could become nuns. However, Margery was an upper-class business woman and daughter of a merchant. She was educated and knew a thing or two about the world and what her options were.

Margery was living during a time when many questioned the hierarchy of the church and experimented with individual interpretations of faith. Women were especially drawn to this movement because it gave them a place and voice in an otherwise masculine world. Think of Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich. There were many examples, especially from Germany, Prussia, and the Low Countries, of mystical woman who claimed devotional piety expressed in direct visions from God and uncontrollable sobbing. Add in Mary Magdalene, a popular figure at the time, and Margery knew she could be a born again Virgin. All she had to do was convince her husband.

In 1413, Margery was able to negotiate an agreement with her husband to live a chaste life. Whether her fourteen children and extreme post-partum played a factor into this is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, Margery secured what she needed to become a true independent woman. This agreement was considered the permission she needed to travel. Margery traveled the world as a pilgrim to the world’s holy sites, from Spain to Rome and as far as Jerusalem, without her husband. She was welcomed into the homes of the Roman aristocracy as a holy woman and sought after by the sick as a healer and mystic (someone who felt God’s presence through the five senses).

This radical new life was not without hardship. Margery experienced painful criticism and abuse for her decisions. Her fellow Englishmen accused her of hypocrisy because she now chastised the wealthy even though the majority of her life she led a materialist existence. She was attacked for wearing the white clothing that only pious widows could wear even when her husband was still alive. At any given moment during a service she would break into devotional outbursts which got her banned from several churches. Her fellow pilgrims would ditch her during travel because she had become such an annoyance. There were long stretches of time when she would not bathe or eat. Several times she was throne in jail under suspicion of being a Lollard, the precursor to Protestants. All she would ever talk about was religion and what everyone was doing wrong at any given moment. For some, Margery became the girl at the party everyone tried to avoid.

When Margery decided to tell her story, she decided to go for broke. She was going to tell her story as a hagiography – the life of a saint – in the hopes of canonization. Because she was an upper-class woman, Margery used two scribes to dictate her biography. Many have supposed Margery was illiterate because of this and because her contemporaries describe her as unlearned. However, during English Medieval times this only meant she could not read Latin which was reserved for the church and the nobility. As an upper class business woman, Margery possessed lay literacy and the ability to read vernacularly. People who could afford it, like Margery, always used secretaries. Even Alexander the Great used a scribe, Callisthenes, to write his biography.

Margery Kempe has been called many things: madwoman, hysteric, vain, petty, neurotic, painfully boring, and a hypocrite. She was never declared a Saint and probably never will be. The details of her life are only known to us from one source, her own book, which many now site as the first autobiography in English. The window into the life and options for Medieval women that her writings give is priceless. Margery was a wife, mother, caregiver, grain miller, brewer, mystic, female priest, and world traveler. Insane or not, Margery did it her way. In her own words: The Book of Margery Kempe (Penguin Classics)

Further Reading:
Margery Kempe: A Medieval Eccentric
The Enigmatic, Threatening Margery Kempe
The Alleged Illiteracy of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe: Madwoman or Mystic
Patterns of Polemic: Medieval Women and Christian Doctrinal Reform


1,000 Years Ago, Depressed Housewife’s Diary Spawned Japanese Heian Literary Tradition

Illustration of Michitsuna no haha's husband: Fujiwara no Kaneie, by Kikuchi Yosai, a 19th century historical portraitist.
Illustration of Michitsuna no haha’s husband: Fujiwara no Kaneie, by Kikuchi Yosai, a 19th century historical portraitist.

Known only to us as Michitsuna no haha (mother of Michitsuna), the secondary wife of a noble Japanese aristocrat, this anonymous woman authored the oldest surviving work of Japanese literature known as nikki bungaku – diary literature. She was born the daughter of a governor in 935, and married a nobleman named Fujiwara no Kaneie in 954. At the time he was a captain, but he soon climbed the ranks of the Emperor’s courts and became regent, mostly because his daughters gave birth to future Emperors. He was already married to Tokihime, who bore him at least five children, and the aforementioned emperor bearers.

I use the word marriage with caution. During the Japanese Heian period (794-1185), marriage customs left a lot to be desired. Marriage was based around the “duolocal residence” principal in which the husband lived in his own home, and the wife lived in hers, typically never moving out of her parents’ home. Which I guess would just be still living with your mom.

During courtship, the man wrote poems and letters to the woman. If they were well received, he would begin visiting her. After about three visits they were considered married. If the husband stopped visiting, at any point in their lifetime, they were considered divorced. You can see this left the woman in a very precocious social position. As it went, Kaneie stopped visiting Michitsuna and they became estranged after almost twenty years of marriage.

To top this off, aristocratic women of the Heian period lived secluded lives, relegated to the interior rooms of their homes and imprisoned by the heavy fashion of the period. Think Kimono’s on steroids. Plus, Kaneie had at least six other wives/lovers besides Michitsuna and Tokihime.

The Kagerō Diary is Michitsuna’s haunting and poetic tale of her life and contains the opening words:

“There once was a woman who led a forlorn, uncertain life, the old days gone forever and her present status neither one thing nor the other. Telling herself that it was natural for a man to attach no value to someone who was less attractive than others and not very bright, she merely went to bed and got up day after day. But then it occurred to her as she leafed through the many current tales of the past, that such stories were only conventional tissues of fabrications, and that people might welcome the novelty of a journal written by an ordinary woman. If there were those who wondered what it might be like to be married to a man who moved in the very highest circles, she might invite them to find an answer here. Her memory was not good, either for the distant past or for more recent events, and she realized in the end that she had written many things it might have been better to omit.”

In some translations, kagerō means mayfly and in others it means heat mirage. The book is divided into three parts. The first is a recollection of the courtship with her husband. The second is the struggles and hardships of her marriage falling apart. The final section is her acceptance of her life and devotion to her children. Appreciated for her prose and raw emotionality, Michitsuna describes nights she was at home taking care of her son while her husband was with other women and a thwarted attempt to join a Buddhist nunnery to escape her life.

Historically, The Kagerō Diary is the first piece of literature that describes in detail the customs and court life of the Heian period. It is also the only major work of prose surviving from the Heian period that pre-dates the Tale of Genji, the de facto work of Japanese literature of the era (also written by a woman).

The diary was the first of its kind and had a major influence on all later diary literature of the period. Scholars are divided on the legacy of the work and promote two opposing motivations, both based on 20th century sensibilities. One school of thought suggests the diary is a conscious social commentary and protest of the Heian marriage system. The other projects that Michitsuna was an extremely depressed woman and the diary was her emotional catharsis.

Regardless, Michitsuna seems to be ahead of her times in attempting to define herself in contextual terms and offering her worldview. The work is a testament to the literary arts flourishing during the Heian period and a unique voice for the women of the time.