(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Margery Kempe 1373?-1440?

English autobiographer.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

* The Book of Margery Kempe (autobiography) c. 1436

*Although this work was originally written c. 1436, it was not published until 1936, when it appeared in a modern English version by W. Butler-Bowden. The first Middle English version was published in 1940.

(The entire section is 38 words.)

Janel M. Mueller (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Autobiography of a New ‘Createur’: Female Spirituality, Selfhood, and Authorship in The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Syracuse University Press, 1986, pp. 155-68.

[In the following essay, Mueller maintains that The Book of Margery Kempe has been overlooked as an autobiography and has instead been examined primarily as an example of late medieval literature and spirituality. Focusing on the Book's narrative and thematic design, Mueller analyzes the work as an autobiography exploring the issues of female spirituality and selfhood.]


(The entire section is 6788 words.)

Karma Lochrie (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “From Utterance to Text: Authorizing the Mystical Word,” in Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 97-134.

[In the essay that follows, Lochrie asserts that medieval mystical texts, such as The Book of Margery Kempe,strive to “authorize the oral text within their written text.” Lochrie examines the way Kempe attempts to legitimize her oral text in The Book of Margery Kempe, and argues that this task is particularly difficult for Kempe due to her illiteracy.]

This book is not written in order, everything after the other just as it was done, but as the matter came to this...

(The entire section is 17241 words.)

Wendy Harding (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Body into Text: The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, edited by Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 168-85.

[In the following essay, Harding contends that The Book of Margery Kempe is a dialogue between Kempe's scribe, as a representative of the literate, celibate, male clerical segment of society, and Kempe, as a representative of a “disenfranchised class of illiterate, married women” who were not attached to a religious order. These historical and hierarchical oppositions, Harding stresses, are disrupted in Kempe's Book.]

Since it was first made...

(The entire section is 8669 words.)

Lynn Staley (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Conclusion: Fictions of Community,” in Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, pp. 171-99.

[In the following essay, Staley analyzes the episodic structure of The Book of Margery Kempe and Kempe's “sophisticated” choice of words, which works to both communicate and obfuscate meaning.]

If The Book of Margery Kempe is a fiction, which I believe it to be, it is a fiction that attempts to create a social reality and to examine that reality in relation to a single individual. By situating Margery squarely within the topography, social structures, and ideological conflicts of England during the first...

(The entire section is 13561 words.)

Cheryl Glenn (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Reexamining The Book of Margery Kempe: A Rhetoric of Autobiography,” in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Andrea A. Lunsford, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, pp. 53-68.

[In the following essay, Glenn offers a reading of The Book of Margery Kempe that focuses on the rhetorical strategies Kempe employs in the work. From within the “discourse of Franciscan affective piety,” Glenn maintains, Kempe reveals herself to be a skilled rhetorician who employs “dialogism,” or conversation among the conflicting values and opinions represented by the various personas Kempe creates.]

Chaucer's Wife of Bath...

(The entire section is 7525 words.)

Ruth Shklar (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Cobham's Daughter: The Book of Margery Kempe and the Power of Heterodox Thinking,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, September, 1995, pp. 277-304.

[In the following essay, Shklar investigates the issue of Kempe's religious dissent, as it is revealed in The Book of Margery Kempe. Shklar explains that the Lollards—a sect of religious reformers under the leadership of John Wycliffe—offered a framework of discourse from which Kempe developed her own methods of dissent and sense of “vernacular spirituality.”]

For the most part, critics have approached the problem of dissent in The Book of Margery Kempe as something...

(The entire section is 11204 words.)

Sarah Beckwith (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “A Very Material Mysticism: The Medieval Mysticism of Margery Kempe,” in Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, edited by Jane Chance, University Press of Florida, 1996, pp. 195-212.

[In the following essay, Beckwith studies the issue of Kempe's female mysticism in The Book of Margery Kempe,focusing particularly on how the work affects patriarchal order. Beckwith reviews the critical reception of the Book,assesses Kempe's Franciscan mysticism, and provides a re-reading of the Book with an eye toward clarifying the interests of the work for feminist critics.]

To the precise degree that the absolute is made to...

(The entire section is 9325 words.)

John Skinner (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by John Skinner, Image Books, 1998, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, Skinner offers a brief manuscript history of The Book of Margery Kempe and comments on Kempe's illiteracy, as well as the work's structure and historical context.]

News of the discovery of The Book of Margery Kempe was broken in a letter to The Times of London on December 27, 1934, by the distinguished American medievalist Hope Emily Allen. “Previously,” she wrote, “scholars had been forced to conclude that medieval old ladies did not write their reminiscences.” Yet now the first known autobiography in the...

(The entire section is 3387 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Fienberg, Nona. “Thematics of Value in The Book of Margery Kempe.Modern Philology 87, No. 2 (November 1989): 132-41.

Examines the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe manipulates the “evaluative system” of Kempe's society.

Holbrook, Sue Ellen. “‘About Her’: Margery Kempe's Book of Feeling and Working.” In The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays on Chaucer and Medieval Culture in Honor of Donald R. Howard, edited by James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher, pp. 265-84. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Analyzes Kempe as a female writer, rather than as simply a...

(The entire section is 326 words.)