Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Book of Margery Kempe, the first known autobiography in English, is the account of a fifteenth century mystic. Unlike most medieval mystics—persons who enjoyed an intimate rapport with God—Kempe was neither a recluse nor a member of a religious order, but rather the wife of a town burgess and the mother of fourteen children. Although she worried that her wifehood made her less pleasing to God than if she had been a virgin, Christ assured her through her meditations that He loved married women too and that her reward in Heaven would be equal to that of the virgin martyrs and holy, celibate widows. This assurance, to which Kempe makes repeated reference, offset the prevalent medieval opinion that only those women who were physically chaste could attain a high degree of spirituality.

While the chronology of Kempe’s religious experience is somewhat ambiguous, her book centers around the key events that shaped her life: her conversion from worldliness to a close communion with Christ; her vow of marital chastity; her voyages to the Holy Land and elsewhere; and her fits of loud weeping. After she had been married for several years, Kempe suddenly heard melodious sounds and leapt from her bed, exclaiming, “It is full merry in heaven!” From that time on, she abandoned her preoccupations with beauty and material success, turning her thoughts to Christ. At the approximate age of forty, she exacted from her husband a promise of chastity, for,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kempe’s conflicts over the worthiness of her marital status and her desire for chastity undoubtedly arose from a long-lived consensus, originating in the fourth century, that in the eyes of God, virgins and celibate widows were closer to sanctity than were wives. One of the sources supporting this stance in the Middle Ages was Hali Meidenhad, an early thirteenth century treatise for young women. The author claims that in heaven, wives will have their reward “thirty fold”; widows, “fifty fold”; and virgins, “one hundred fold.” The opinion was still flourishing more than two centuries later, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath challenged the Catholic church’s lauding of virginity, arguing in favor of Christian women who embraced marriage and the sexuality that accompanied it. Although Kempe could not have read either piece of literature, she could hardly have escaped their import: that wives were more remote from God than their chaste sisters—especially since this conviction was frequently voiced in church pulpits.

Despite Kempe’s negative self-assessment, others apparently did not view her wifehood as an obstacle to spirituality. The abbess was a case in point. Presumably a virgin or widow, she nevertheless revered the mysticism of Kempe—who was a wife and mother, her chaste marriage notwithstanding—and valued her counsel to the nuns. Moreover, a priest in Lynn read to Kempe from Scripture and the writings of the church fathers; in this way, he acknowledged not only her spiritual understanding but also her intelligence, thereby contradicting the conventional opinion of the clergy that women—particularly those who had succumbed to the lures of marriage and maternity—were limited in mental acumen.

While there is no direct correlation between the production of Kempe’s narrative and later literature, some scholars view her work as a forerunner of religious writing by women. Furthermore, the combination of her mysticism and marital status seems to foreshadow a new attitude which had its inception in the sixteenth century: that marriage and motherhood, rather than chastity and seclusion, were the means by which women could achieve sanctity. This attitude was promulgated especially through the teachings of Martin Luther and the writings of such Catholic humanists as Thomas More, Erasmus, and Francis de Sales.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Atkinson, Clarissa W. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. Kempe is compared to other female mystics, especially Saints Brigitta and Dorthea. Atkinson also provides background material on affective piety and the religious education of medieval women.

Atkinson, Clarissa W. The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Examines the status of maternity from early Christianity to the late twentieth century, along with nuances in the concept of “mother.” Atkinson classifies Kempe among the Christian mothers whose prayers wrought the salvation of their children and calls attention to the Virgin Mary’s position as the perfect mother of the Middle Ages—a position which may have influenced Kempe’s image of Mary as a nurturer.

Cockayne, Oswald, ed. Hali Meidenhad. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. An anonymous Middle English treatise with a modern translation. Written for young women, it attempts to promote virginity by detailing the hassles and sordidness of marriage, childbirth, and child rearing. Although it was composed in the early thirteenth century, Hali Meidenhad had a significant hold on the thinking of the later Middle Ages, convincing some married women, such as Kempe, that they were “unfit” for a spiritual life.

Glasscoe, Marion. English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith. London: Longman, 1993. Compares Kempe to other mystics, both English and continental, and discusses her life within the context of fifteenth century urban society. Glasscoe also explicates particular passages from The Book of Margery Kempe.

Glasscoe, Marion, ed. The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1984. A collection of essays on various English medieval mystics, including Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. The selection on Kempe provides an overview of affective piety, while another discusses the medieval mentality and its fusing of “inner” and “outer” realities.