Margery Kempe 1373?-1440?
The following entry presents recent criticism on Kempe's work. For further information on Kempe's life and career, see LC, Vol. 6.
Credited with composing the first extant autobiography in English, Kempe was a self-proclaimed mystic who dictated an account of her spiritual experiences to two scribes in The Book of Margery Kempe. The work has been critically evaluated as autobiography and as an example of medieval mystical literature.
The Book of Margery Kempe offers the only information available about Kempe's life. The work reveals that Kempe was born in King's Lynn (now known as Lynn), an important economic center in Norfolk, and that her father, John Brunham, served as mayor of the town. At age twenty Margery wed John Kempe, a burgess of Lynn. Following the birth of the first of their fourteen children, Kempe fell ill and for eight months claimed to suffer from terrifying visions. Her cure, she asserted, came in the form of a vision of Christ. Increasingly drawn toward a religious life, Kempe avowed that she heard heavenly music and frequently conversed with Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints and angels, by whom she was instructed on a range of matters. Kempe's spirituality was often displayed through actions and observances that were viewed unfavorably by her contemporaries. One such practice was the uncontrollable weeping that possessed her whenever she approached the sacraments or contemplated the Passion of Christ. When she was approximately forty years old, Kempe convinced her husband (by promising to pay his debts for him) to join her in a vow of chastity, and she began a series of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and sacred places in Europe. Due to her behavior—including the fits of weeping, her habit of wearing white, and her insistence on the veracity of her visions and mystical conversations—Kempe was publicly ridiculed and tried on several occasions for heresy. She was always acquitted and found to be within the bounds of orthodoxy in her theology. The Archbishop of Canterbury proposed to Kempe that she write down her experiences and revelations, a suggestion that, Kempe claims, was mystically ratified by Christ. Since she was illiterate, in 1436 Kempe dictated her story to the first of two scribes, but following the man's death, Kempe found that no one could decipher his handwriting. In 1438 a second scribe completed a new transcription based on the first compilation, which the second scribe was eventually able to comprehend.
For many years Kempe's only known writings were brief excerpts from The Book of Margery Kempe printed in the early sixteenth century, and it was assumed that only these fragments survived. In 1934, however, a complete manuscript dating from the mid-fifteenth century was discovered and identified. Although some critics have questioned the scribe's role in the Book's composition and have doubted the authorial integrity of the work, many assert that the manuscript accurately records Kempe's own words. The narrative is told in the third person, an uncommon method of recording firsthand experiences in Kempe's time. The Book also differs from most medieval mystical writings in its broad scope. While such works typically focus exclusively on revelatory incidents, Kempe records reminiscences of her travels and daily life as well as her spiritual revelations. These spiritual experiences are, however, presented in the manner of other religious mystics, such as Saint Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich.
Modern criticism of The Book of Margery Kempe often focuses on the work alternatively as autobiography or as a specimen of medieval mystical literature. Although critics such as John Skinner have suggested that The Book of Margery Kempe should not be viewed as autobiography, or even as a “diary of a soul,” others, such as Janel M. Mueller, have emphasized the work's autobiographical characteristics. Mueller maintains that critical interest in the work for what it tells of medieval social history and the history of the English language has hampered its being examined as an autobiography with a specific narrative thrust and thematic design. Mueller argues that Kempe shaped her autobiography to demonstrate how her unique spirituality allowed her to remain in and actively participate in the secular world. Critics such as Karma Lochrie and Sarah Beckwith emphasize the medieval mystical qualities of The Book of Margery Kempe. Lochrie contends that like other medieval mystical texts, the Book must somehow “authorize” or legitimate the oral text that lies within the written work. For Kempe, Lochrie states, this task is particularly difficult due to her illiteracy, which causes critics and readers to question Kempe's authority. While Beckwith acknowledges Kempe's work as the first autobiography in English, she also points out that the Book is concerned with both femininity and subjectivity, and that it was written within the framework of medieval mystical Christianity. In exploring the significance of this context for the interpretation and understanding of The Book of Margery Kempe, Beckwith maintains that female mysticism was viewed either as a possible source of disruption of the patriarchal order (of Christianity), or as an opportunity for patriarchal order to relegate women to “a mystified sphere.”
Other critics center their studies on the narrative structure of The Book of Margery Kempe, and on the effect of the work's structure and themes on its reader. Wendy Harding sees the Book as a dialogue between two segments of medieval society. Kempe represents disenfranchised, illiterate, married women who are not identified with a particular religious order, whereas her scribe is identified with a male, celibate, literate priesthood. Harding demonstrates the ways in which these oppositions are disrupted and overturned by Kempe in her Book. Taking another approach, Lynn Staley assesses the Book as fiction, maintaining that Kempe utilizes the literary conventions of her day in order to examine the basis of Christian society in England. Staley focuses in particular on the work's episodic structure, and on Kempe's ability to manipulate language in order to both “convey and confuse meaning.” Like Staley, Cheryl Glenn acknowledges Kempe's skillful use of language and defends the Book's episodic structure. Glenn asserts that the absence of a strict chronology does not result in logical incoherence, as some critics charge. Rather, she argues, the structure is “cyclical and associational” and provides a “double-voiced discourse” that “blur[s] the line between public and private” and serves to express Kempe's private sense of disenfranchisement “through the public discourse of religion.” Similarly, Ruth Shklar examines the way in which Kempe adapts the contemporary language of religious dissent and reform, such as that identified with the Lollard movement (a religious reform movement led by John Wycliffe), in order to express her own criticism of the religious discourse that in her day defined heresy.