Almost 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)
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