The manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was discovered in 1934 in the library of a private house; previously it was known only through extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501 and reprinted by Henry Pepwell in 1521 in a collection of mystical writings. Although these early selections refer to Kempe as “anchoress,” the rediscovered manuscript—a close copy of the original—describes in vivid detail how, while remaining secular, Kempe adopted the life of a mystic and pilgrim and how this new role provoked her subsequent encounters with a largely scornful public. The Book of Margery Kempe is a unique kind of spiritual autobiography, and as such it is generally held to be the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe, however, like most middle-class women of her day, was illiterate, and so she dictated the work to two scribes, who may in some sense deserve the status of collaborators. Moreover, the book characteristically describes Kempe not in the first person but rather as “this creature.” Thus if Kempe’s book is to be regarded as autobiography, her readers’ expectations for the genre must be carefully qualified.
What is known of Kempe’s life comes largely from the book itself, although some independent facts about her life can be ascertained from archives, such as the fact that her father, named in the text as John Brunham, was five times mayor of Lynn. Because some of her activities can be specifically dated and because she refers to her age at one of these, her birth has been placed in or around 1373. The Book of Margery Kempe begins with an account of her marriage, when she was twenty “or somewhat more,” and describes the birth of her first child, after which she lapsed into a madness characterized by visions of devils and by self-mutilation. A vision of Christ ends this episode, and, after a brief period of waywardness, Kempe’s life is occupied with visions and conversations with God, and with the devout weeping which is the hallmark of her particular brand of piety.
Most of The Book of Margery Kempe describes Kempe’s life from about the age of forty onward. She says...
(The entire section is 886 words.)