Margery Kempe: England’s Most Colorful Mystic

Opinions on Margery Kempe have varied widely. In Karen Armstrong’s anthology of English mystics, Visions of God, Kempe is conspicuous in her absence. On the other hand, Martin Thornton, a popular twentieth-century Anglo-Catholic writer, considered Kempe’s book to be more useful to the ordinary Christian than either Julian of Norwich or The Cloud of Unknowing. Many scholars would stop short of calling Kempe a great mystic, yet it is evident in The Book of Margery Kempe, her colorful and at times hilarious autobiography, that Kempe had, in her own indomitable way, a profound relationship with God. The last of the five mystics during England’s golden age, she essentially belonged to the generation after Julian, having been born probably in the 1370s and living well into the fifteenth century. Kempe’s book was probably written around 1430, almost certainly dictated, since she describes herself as illiterate.

The daughter of the mayor of the town of Lynn in Norfolk, England, Margery married John Kempe and went on to give birth to fourteen (!) children. She writes with a frank candor about experiencing both madness and mystical visions, and eventually talks her husband into joining her in taking vows of chastity. Margery was a businesswoman who at one point owned her own brewery, which ultimately failed, so perhaps she wasn’t the savviest of entrepreneurs.

According to her own testimony, Margery Kempe’s spirituality involved deeply passionate experiences of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Kempe had “the gift of tears” — meaning that, for years, she was unable to attend mass without crying profusely, and, as often as not, sobbing loudly and theatrically. This did not endear her to her peers, and especially caused problems with the clergy. Outspoken and opinionated, she was not afraid to take anyone to task for a perceived sin or failing. Her adventurous life included a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — where much weeping and wailing took place — and tanglings with several Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. On a quieter — and extremely fascinating — note, Kempe recounts seeing the anchoress Julian of Norwich for spiritual direction. Her reporting of Julian’s advice presents a theology of spirituality consistent with the ideas found in Julian’s own writing — a testament not only to the veracity of Kempe’s description of meeting the great anchoress, but also an insight into the clarity that she brings to her book; a clarity that might not be immediately obvious, given how emotionally over the top much of the narrative is.

The extremes of Margery Kempe’s spirituality may be off-putting for some, but personally I find her disregard for the censure of others and her willingness to flout convention deeply refreshing. Anyone who struggles with religious authority might benefit from Margery’s insistence that her direct relationship with God was more important than being obedient to the priests and bishops of her day. Beneath the tears and the wailing, Kempe truly had a warm and loving relationship with the Divine — a beautiful quality in anyone, no matter how eccentric they may be.

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