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Margery Kempe – Medieval Christian Mother and Mystic

August 4, 2008

This post is one of a five-part series on women mystics, one from each of the five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Click here for the full series.

As soon as I decided to run this series, I knew I had to start with Margery Kempe (1373 – 1439). That’s because not only was Margery a mother – of fourteen children, no less – but also because in a sense her spiritual journey began with the birth of her first child. She was also a ‘working mom’, running a brewery, a common medieval home-based business, and dictating the first autobiography by a woman in English, which is how we know her today.

Soon after the birth of her first child, according to her own account, she went ‘mad’. Many contemporary historians believe she suffered a severe case of post-partum depression. After weeks of violent and self-destructive behavior, and at the urging of her family, her husband finally strapped her to her bed, out of fear she would harm herself or others. Then suddenly one evening, in a kind of half-sleep, she experienced a profound spiritual vision, in which Jesus came to her and said “Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?” A profound peace descended upon her, and she returned to her senses. When she awoke, she calmly asked her husband to release her, which he did, in spite of others’ warnings that her seeming sanity could just be a satanic ruse. Fortunately, she remained calm and resumed her household duties, never suffering such madness again.

Her experience changed her life forever. Although she had never before been spiritual, now it was central to her life, and she strove to balance her responsibilities with her religious interests. This wasn’t easy, as many people considered her newfound faith an annoyance, and she was often told to give it a rest.  In addition, she was illiterate, and so had to gather her scriptural knowledge through others reading to her, and in conversations with whichever religious leaders would meet with her. She persevered, studying both scripture and the lives of other mystics in this way. She was particularly interested in other medieval women mystics, including Julian of Norwich (who she met with) and St. Bridget of Sweden (another mother mystic – although she had ‘only’ eight children.) In many ways, Margery’s autobiography is her attempt to make her own life and visions as signifigant as these other more famous women mystics of the period.

Although during her lifetime Margery never achieved the status or respect that Julian or St. Bridget did, she did gain many advocates – and enemies. With a quick tongue and no patience for hypocrisy, she did not hesitate to chastise local townsmen or even priests for their moral failings. Several of them attempted to try her as a heretic, but she always won her cases, based on the strength of her own witty defense, and the power of her continuing visions, which few were willing to deny.

After her fourteenth child, she convinced her husband (based on another vision) that chastity was in the best interest of both their spiritual lives, and embarked on a series of pilgrimages to visit sacred spots and saints throughout England and Europe. During these trips she began to experience her hallmark mystic state – intense bouts of crying over the Passion of Christ and the many lost souls she encountered. While this might sound extreme, or even unbalanced, it was the norm among medieval mystics, many of whom valued emotionally dramatic displays of their faith.

Margery’s pilgrimages and visions form the basis for most of her autobiography, although her family is woven in and out of the story, demonstrating her continuing attempts to balance her responsibilities with her mystic calling. She aids in the repent and conversion of one of her adult sons, and cares for her daughter-in-law after his untimely death. When her husband suffers a major injury, she halts her travels, returning to care for him for the remainder of his life. Today her autobiography is regarded as an important record of women’s lives and spirituality in medieval times.

For more info on Margery, check out these takes on her autobiography: The Book of Margery Kempe (Norton Critical Editions), by Lynn Staley, or Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe, by Louise Collis. You can also try this website: http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/margery.htm.

The other posts in this series are on Hannah Rachel Verbemacher (Jewish), Sukhasiddhi (Buddhist), Rabia Basri (Islamic), and Mirabai (Hindu). For books on more women mystics, check out the Women’s Spiritual Book List or the Women Mystics page.

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