Written in Middle English, in the dialect of the East Midlands, The Book of Margery Kempe typifies the style of medieval prose. Like many authors of her time, Kempe was humble and self-effacing, referring to herself as “this creature.” Furthermore, the sentence structure employed by her amanuensis is similar to that found in other writings of the fifteenth century. Virtually all the sentences are simple or compound, often beginning with “and” or “then,” thereby producing a “string-along” effect which may seem monotonous to twentieth century readers.
Its style notwithstanding, the work portrays Kempe in the context of her time and offers rich examples of medieval thinking and faith. Although the intimacy of her dialogues with Christ and the Virgin Mary was extraordinary, her basic ability to conceive of the supernatural in concrete terms was not. Since the twelfth century, Christians had been steeped in the devotional tradition of affective piety (so named by later scholars for its appeal to the affections, or emotions), the purpose of which was to incite feelings of love and pity toward Christ. Initiated by the Cistercian monks, affective piety emphasized Christ’s humanity, stressing His physical suffering throughout the Passion and the inevitable grief of Mary. During the following centuries, the Franciscans carried on the tradition through their sermons and lyrics. By graphically describing Christ’s pain, the monks made their audiences feel that they were there with Him at the Crucifixion. Thus, Kempe’s participation in the life and suffering of Christ differed only in degree from that of other devout Christians. Although she acknowledged that Christ and Mary appeared to her “ghostly sight” and spoke to her “in her mind,” she considered these apparitions and conversations as real and substantial as those she encountered in the earthly realm.
The Book of Margery Kempe also bears witness to the prevalence of unquestioning faith in the supernatural, particularly in the convictions of Kempe’s neighbors that her tears and swooning came either from God or from a demon. In another example, Kempe recounts a fire that broke out in the center of Lynn. Fearing for the safety of the people, the pastor of Saint Margaret’s Church carried the tabernacle containing the Eucharist to the scene of the conflagration and prayed as the flames began to spread. Followed by his parishioners, he proceeded back to the church, where the congregation importuned God to send either rain or snow to extinguish the blaze. According to Kempe, it was the prayers of the faithful, including herself, which brought about a snowfall. Not once did anyone take control by trying to extinguish the fire; the townspeople were convinced that their lives depended solely upon the will of God and that only petitions could sway that will.
In the beginning of her narrative, Kempe refers to God’s turning things upside down: “health into sickness, prosperity into adversity, worship into reproof, love into hate.” Although The Book of Margery Kempe is loosely structured, a careful reading reveals a turnabout in Kempe herself. During her young and...
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