Faded image of a young medieval lady

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Born at Lynn in Norfolk in about 1373, Margery married and had fourteen children. After she had received several visions, she and her husband went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Book of Margery Kempe, which is almost the sole source of information about the author, describes her travels and mystical experiences. Opinions on Margery Kempe vary widely. Sarah Beckwith, for example, is of the opinion that Margery is an abysmal failure as an ascetic for “she doesn’t so much show forth the glory of God as compete with him for divinity” [Beckwith, “Problems of Authority in Late Medieval English Mysticism: Agency and Authority in The Book of Margery Kempe, ” 178]. Yet it is evident in The Book of Margery Kempe, her colorful and at times hilarious autobiography, that Kempe had a deep and rich relationship with God.

To some clerics of her time, Margery seemed concerned mostly with self–aggrandizement. A typical instance of this perception is Margery’s adventure in the Cathedral Church at Canterbury. Margery recounts that she had been weeping and praying in church almost the whole day, so much so that the priests, monks and laypeople greatly despised and reproved her because they had had enough of it. Even her husband went off for the rest of the day, pretending not to know her. An old monk, formerly a person of power and prestige in the secular world, asked Margery to tell him something about God. Most obligingly, Margery responded and repeated a story from the Scripture by way of illustration. Distressed at Margery’s response, and her daring to respond, the monk replied, “I wish you were enclosed in a house of stone so that no one could speak with you” (The Book of Margery Kempe eds. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen, EETS, o.s., 212 [London: Oxford UP, 1940.] 27).

On pilgrimage, Margery has a vision in which she becomes married to the godhead. On her return to England, she wears white clothing, symbolizing her new status as a bride of God. This naturally causes trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. Chapters forty-three through fifty-five detail Margery’s attempt to negotiate official recognition of her special spiritual identity. Eventually Margery’s confidence in her new role as a member of the Holy Family leads to her receiving permission to wear white wool clothing in public as a bride of God. Permission is obtained when Margery and John journey to London to receive a letter and seal from the Archbishop of Canterbury [ch.55].

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Margery Kempe c. 1373-1440—illustration of Margery Kempe in front of a stained glass window