Today is the celebration in the Anglican community of Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438), an English Christian mystic, known for The Book of Margery Kempe, which she dictated and which is generally considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Her Book chronicles her domestic tribulations, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honored in the Anglican Communion, but she was never made a Roman Catholic saint even though she was a devout Catholic; her views were not considered orthodox at the time, nor now. My considered opinion is that she is not hailed as a saint within the Catholic church because she was a woman and has been written off as a “crazy lady,” whereas if she had been a man and done what she did, she’d be in the list of saints.
She was born Margery Burnham or Brunham around 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, mayor of the town and Member of Parliament. His mercantile fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy of the 1390s (especially in the wool trade), although he was clearly a successful politician. The first record of her Brunham family is a citation of her grandfather, Ralph de Brunham in 1320 in the Red Register of Lynn. By 1340 he had joined the Parliament of Lynn. Margery’s kinsman, possibly brother, Robert Brunham, became a Member of Parliament for Lynn in 1402 and 1417. That is, unsurprisingly, she was well connected and had considerable means at her disposal.
Margery was almost certainly illiterate, although scholars do seem to want to hash out this point now and again. No records exist of any formal education for Margery and, as an adult, a priest read to her “works of religious devotion” in English, which suggests that she was unable to read them herself. She seems to have learned various texts by heart which would have been common for an illiterate, but intelligent, person. Margery appears to have been taught the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), Ave Maria, the Ten Commandments, and other “virtues, vices, and articles of faith.” At around 20, Margery married John Kempe, who became a town official in 1394. Margery and John had at least fourteen children, some of whom likely died during infancy. A letter survives from Gdańsk which identifies the name of her eldest son as John and gives a reason for his visit to Lynn in 1431.
Margery was an orthodox Catholic and, like other medieval mystics, she believed that she was summoned to a “greater intimacy with Christ,” in her case as a result of multiple visions and experiences she had as an adult. After the birth of her first child, Margery went through a period of physical crisis for nearly eight months. During her illness, Margery reports that she envisioned numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to “forsake her faith, her family, and her friends” and that they even encouraged her to commit suicide. Then, she reports that she had a vision of Christ in the form of a man who asked her “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?” Margery affirms that she had visitations and conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures and that she had visions of being an active participant during the birth and crucifixion of Christ. These visions physically affected her bodily senses, causing her to hear sounds and smell unknown, strange odors. She also reports hearing a heavenly melody that made her weep and want to live a chaste life. Margery was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Margery did not join a religious order, but did carry out her life of devotion and crying quite publicly. Her visions provoked public displays of loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing which frightened and annoyed both clergy and laypeople. At one point in her life, she was imprisoned by the clergy and town officials and threatened with the possibility of rape. However, Margery does not record being sexually assaulted. Finally, during the 1420s Margery dictated her Book, known today as The Book of Margery Kempe which illustrates her visions, mystical and religious experiences, as well as her sexual temptations, her travels, and her trial for heresy.
Nearly everything that is known of Margery’s life comes from her Book. In the early 1430s Margery decided to record her spiritual autobiography. In the preface she describes how she employed as a scribe an Englishman who had lived in Germany, but he died before the work was completed and what he had written was unintelligible to others. A 1431 letter discovered in Gdańsk suggests the likelihood that this first scribe was John Kempe, her eldest son. She then persuaded a local priest, who may have been her confessor Robert Springold, to begin rewriting on 23 July 1436, and on 28 April 1438 he started work on an additional section covering the years 1431–4. The complete text in Middle English can be found here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/staley-the-book-of-margery-kempe There are “translations” available in modern English, but you should be able to read the original.
The narrative of Margery’s Book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. After describing the demonic torment and the apparition of Christ that followed, Margery undertook two domestic businesses: a brewery and a grain mill (both common home-based businesses for medieval women). Both failed after a short period of time. Although she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, she dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, in the summer of 1413 Margery negotiated a chaste marriage with her husband. Although Chapter 15 of the Book describes her decision to lead a celibate life, Chapter 21 mentions that she is pregnant once again. She later relates that she brought a child with her when she returned to England. It is unclear whether the child was conceived before the Kempes began their celibacy, or in a momentary lapse after it.
Some time around 1413, Margery visited the female mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich at her cell in Norwich – https://www.bookofdaystales.com/julian-norwich/ According to her own account, Margery visited Julian and stayed for several days. She was especially eager to obtain Julian’s approval for her visions of and conversations with God. The text reports that Julian approved of Margery’s revelations and gave Margery reassurance that her religiosity was genuine. However, Julian did instruct and caution Margery to “measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians.” Julian also confirmed that Margery’s tears were physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in her soul.
The manuscript of the Book was copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, and contains annotations by four hands. However, Margery’s Book was essentially lost for centuries, being known only from excerpts published by Wynkyn de Worde in around 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521. In 1934 a manuscript (now British Library MS Additional 61823, the only surviving manuscript of Margery’s Book) was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family. It has since been reprinted and translated in numerous editions.
Margery and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual life, Margery was challenged by both church and civil authorities on her adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, were involved in trials of her allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). Margery defended her orthodoxy in each case. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade women from preaching.
I am particularly interested in Margery’s travels and pilgrimages which would have been unusual for a Medieval woman, and which show her perseverance in the face of difficulties. She was initially motivated to make pilgrimages by hearing or reading the English translation of Bridget of Sweden’s Revelations. This work promotes the purchase of indulgences at holy sites (much railed against by Chaucer and, later, Luther). Margery went on many pilgrimages and purchased indulgences for friends, enemies, souls trapped in Purgatory, and herself.
In 1413, soon after her father’s death, Margery left her husband to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the winter, she spent thirteen weeks in Venice but she talks little about her observations of Venice in her book. From Venice, Margery travelled to Jerusalem via Ramlah. It is thought that she passed through Jaffa, which was the usual port for people who were heading inland. One detail that she recalls was her riding on a donkey when she saw Jerusalem for the first time, probably from Nabi Samwil, and that she nearly fell off of the donkey because she was in such shock from the vision in front of her. During her pilgrimage Margery visited places that she deemed holy. She was in Jerusalem for three weeks and then went to Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the supposed tomb of Jesus, and the supposed cross itself. Finally, she went to the River Jordan and Mount Quarentyne (supposedly where Jesus had fasted for forty days), and Bethany where Martha, Mary and Lazarus had lived, and where Jesus is reported to have stayed on visits to Jerusalem from Galilee:
After she visited the Holy Land, Margery returned to Italy and stayed in Assisi before going to Rome. Like many other medieval English pilgrims, Margery stayed at the Hospital of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Rome. During her stay, she visited many churches including San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santi Apostoli, San Marcello and St Birgitta’s Chapel. She did not leave Rome until Easter 1415.
When Margery returned to Norwich, she passed through Middelburg (in today’s Netherlands). In 1417, she set off again on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, travelling via Bristol, where she stayed at Henbury with Thomas Peverel, bishop of Worcester. On her return from Spain she visited the shrine of the holy blood at Hailes Abbey, in Gloucestershire, and then went on to Leicester. Margery recounts several public interrogations during her travels. One followed her arrest by the Mayor of Leicester who accused her, in Latin, of being a “cheap whore, a lying Lollard,” and threatened her with prison. After Margery was able to insist on the right of accusations to be made in English and to defend herself she was briefly cleared, but then brought to trial again by the Abbot, Dean, and Mayor, and imprisoned for three weeks. She returned to Lynn some time in 1418.
She later visited important sites and religious figures in England, including Philip Repyngdon (the Bishop of Lincoln), Henry Chichele, and Thomas Arundel (both Archbishops of Canterbury). During the 1420s Margery lived apart from her husband. When he fell ill, however, she returned to Lynn to be his nurse. Their son, who lived in Germany, also returned to Lynn with his wife. However, both her son and husband died in 1431. The last section of her book deals with a journey, beginning in April 1433, aiming to travel to Danzig with her daughter-in-law. From Danzig, Margery visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack relic. She then traveled to Aachen, and returned to Lynn via Calais, Canterbury and London (where she visited Syon Abbey). There is no record of her death.
Margery spent a good part of her life avoiding meat, so a Medieval vegetable dish is warranted to celebrate her life today. This recipe for spiced fennel comes from the Forme of Cury, a 14th century collection of recipes I have called on before. Here’s the original text:
FENKEL IN SOPPES.
Take blades of Fenkel. shrede hem not to smale, do hem to seeð in water and oile and oynouns mynced ðerwith. do ðerto safroun and salt and powdour douce, serue it forth, take brede ytosted and lay the sewe onoward.
Not complicated, although there’s some question as to spices. The recipe calls for “powdour douce” (sweet powder) which is about as useful as saying “mixed herbs” as you sometimes see in modern recipes. My recipe here is probably a decent approximation, but cooks would have made their own choices, and you can too. Ginger is known to have been the principal ingredient. Most likely the ingredients would have been grated or ground in a mortar.
3 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered cloves
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container.
The braised fennel recipe is not difficult to recreate. You can add some white wine to the braising liquid, or use stock if you like instead of water.
Fenkel in Soppes
1½ lb trimmed fresh fennel root, sliced
8 oz onions, minced
1 tbsp sweet powder (above)
1 tspn powdered saffron
2 tspn olive oil
6 slices of wholemeal bread
Put the fennel, onions, spices, oil and salt to taste in a lidded pot and barely cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered for about 20-30 minutes or until the fennel is cooked but not mushy. Stir occasionally during cooking process.
Toast the bread.
Place a slice of bread in a soup bowl and pour over it the fennel and cooking juice.