Reviewed by Harriet
Margery Kempe (c.1373-after 1439) was an extraordinary woman, and this is an extraordinary book. It’s often referred to as the first autobiography to be written in the English language, but technically it’s not an autobiography, since Margery probably could neither read nor write (or chose not to do either). The book refers to her throughout as ‘this creature’, and seems to have been written down initially, at her request, by a man who was possibly her son, and then transcribed by a priest who later added a final section. But it purports to be, and certainly appears to be, a true account of her life and her powerful and enduring mystical experiences.
Margery was born into the family of a wealthy merchant, in the town of King’s Lynn in Norfolk. She married, at 20, to John Kempe, who, though he too came from a wealthy family, seems not to have made much success of his life. She gave birth to fourteen children, but how many of them survived is not known. She then took a vow of chastity and embarked on the spiritual quest that would occupy her for the rest of her life. She had had her first mystical vision after the birth of her first child, and she now entered into a profoundly intimate relationship with Christ, who would come and sit on her bed ‘in the likeness of a man’, and engage in long and intense conversations:
“Oh dear God, I have not loved you all the days of my life and I regret that so bitterly! I have run away from you and you have run after me; I would fall into despair, and you would not let me.”
“’Oh, daughter, how often have I told you that your sins are forgiven and that we have been united together without end? You are to me a unique love, daughter, and therefore I promise you that you shall have a unique grace in Heaven, daughter…’
Margery’s life of prayer and penitence frequently took her on long and arduous pilgrimages. She visited all the major shrines in Europe, including Rome and Santiago di Compostella, but her greatest transformative moment took place on her visit to Jerusalem. It was here that she had her first experience of what would become a major feature of her life: frequently protracted bouts of weeping and crying, which would overcome her at the very thought of the suffering of Christ. She was quite unable to prevent herself from doing this, and though sometimes it brought her respect and admiration (‘when these good women saw the creature weep, sob and cry…they arranged a fine soft bed and laid her on it’), it was just as likely to annoy people, who ‘cursed her roundly’, and to get her thrown out of churches. In fact she made rather a lot of enemies, especially on pilgrimages, when her travelling companions sometimes deliberately abandoned her or even, once, stole her sheets and cut her skirt short. Fortunately she was able to attribute this persecution to the necessity of suffering in order to make spiritual progress (‘the more shame and scorn I suffer, the merrier I may be in our Lord Jesus Christ’). She was completely fearless when it came to reprimanding people who she saw as behaving badly: this often included monks and priests, and she even told the Archbishop of York that he needed to improve his behaviour if he wanted to get to heaven.
Though known to exist since its first appearance in the middle ages, the actual manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was only rediscovered in the 1930s. When it was published, it met with a predictably mixed response. Early reviewers tended to see it as a record of abnormal psychology: one described Margery as ‘quite mad – an incurable hysteric with a large paranoid trend’. Scholars interested in the history of mediaeval mysticism took a different view, of course, but it was really only in the 1980s that the book found its way onto university curricula, where it remains, offering food for discussion in terms of gender studies and feminist literary history.
Readers today probably have reactions as mixed as those of her earlier reviewers, or indeed of Margery’s own contemporaries. But whatever view may be taken of Margery’s visions, the book is extraordinarily lively and enjoyable, and gives an unparalleled glimpse of everyday life in that distant period of English history. This new translation by Anthony Bale is presented in idiomatic modern English, but aims to stay true to the style of the original, sometimes homely and familiar, sometimes high-flown and Latinate. It’s wonderfully readable, and has an excellent introduction and notes. Altogether a great pleasure.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by Anthony Bale (Oxford World Classics: Oxford, 2015). 9780199686643, 275 pp., paperback.