Credited with composing the first extant autobiography in English, Kempe was a selfproclaimed mystic who dictated an account of her spiritual experiences to two scribes in The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436). This work has been critically evaluated as an autobiography and as an example of medieval mystic 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 palaces 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 a scribe, but following his 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 revelations are, however, presented in the same manner of other religious mystics, such as Saint Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich.
As the first known autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe met with responses that might be predictable for a work that did not fit into any categories then known to readers. The earliest editions of the book demonstrate the critical confusion: in one case, all chapters relating to Kempe's revelations were displaced and made into a separate appendix, and in another, the more mystical chapters were set in a smaller typeface in order to preserve the primacy of the narrative portion of the Book. Scholarly commentary has followed suit, with some critics interpreting the Book as a work of mysticism in the vein of other medieval mystical writings, and others as an autobiography. Kempe's earliest modern critics found her mysticism overwhelming, categorizing her as neurotic, self-deluded, even psychopathic. Others doubted the validity of her claim to authorship, suggesting that the scribe was truly the author of the book; in fact, the mix of oral and textual discourse in the Book has remained a central part of critical debate. Kempe's reliability as a narrator has also consistently been questioned: passionate in the extreme yet not possessed of the ability to pen her own story, Kempe has appeared to some critics as less an author than a character. Among these, Lynn Staley has gone so far as to approach the Book as a work of fiction, referring to "Margery" as the protagonist and "Kempe" as the author. Yet if scholars have doubted the veracity of her spiritual experiences as well as her self-presentation, many have nonetheless embraced The Book of Margery Kempe as a valuable social history, particularly as it documents the daily life of women in medieval England. Kempe's recent biographer Anthony Goodman (see Further Reading) has suggested that while the Book offers only highly selective evidence about the life of medieval women (and women of a particular social class at that), it gives some insight into what was considered acceptable and what was beyond the norm for women at that time, particularly within marriage relationships. Goodman assesses the Book as "one of our most valuable documents for English social history." The Book of Margery Kempe also reveals a slice of a particular moment in English religious history, and many critics have maintained that Kempe's writing is at its most powerful in this regard. Critics including Staley and Kathy Lavezzo have seen in Kempe's mysticism the potential for subverting patriarchal order, within the male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchy, within private relationships between men and women, and in the public sphere in general. These scholars have reevaluated Kempe's apparent failings—irregular structures, confusing language, and intense emotionalism—as part of an effective strategy for expressing the disenfranchisement of women and the potential for a feminine subjectivity.