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CHARITY SCOTT STOKES
After the death of Margery Kempe’s son and husband, her German daughter-in-law stayed in Lynn for one-and-a-half years, after which time it was agreed that she should return to her family in Danzig. It was gradually revealed to Margery Kempe that she should go with her, although it was clear to her that her daughter-in-law did not want her to, and she did not have leave to do so from her parish priest and confessor, Robert Spryngolde. It is recorded that she was bound in obedience to him, but the nature of the bond – whether more formal or voluntary – is not specified. He was doubtful about the suitability of her even going as far as Ipswich, given her age and a recent foot injury (226/18–20). The two women embarked at Ipswich on the Thursday before Easter, 1433, having travelled from Lynn via the shrine at Walsingham, and Norwich, where Margery Kempe’s felynge that she should board ship for Danzig was strengthened. A storm drove the ship off course so that Easter was celebrated on the Norwegian coast (pp. 229–231).
As with the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so also with the visit to the Baltic and subsequent itinerary, the well-known fact that the journey took place may obscure the temerity of the undertaking for a woman travelling with little support, and sometimes entirely alone. At the time when Margery Kempe visited the Baltic and returned via Stralsund, Wilsnack, Aachen and Calais – being unwilling to venture on another voyage across the North Sea – the Hundred Years’ War with France was not yet ended, Joan of Arc had recently been burnt at the stake, the troubles between the men of Lynn and the Hanse were intense, King Eric of the Nordic Union was at war with the Hanseatic League, and there were hostilities between Poland and the Teutonic Order, in whose territory Danzig lay.
Whereas the earlier continental journeys to Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella, and the subsequent journey from Danzig to Wilsnack and Aachen, were motivated by the wish to visit sacred places as a pilgrim and to obtain indulgences, the book gives no reason for Margery Kempe’s urge to visit Danzig, and says very little about the time spent in Danzig. It was revealed to her that she should leave the country after five or six weeks, which she regretted because she was made welcome by many people, if not by her daughter-in-law, and would have liked to stay (231/25–32). It seems very likely that people and places associated with St Bridget and Blessed Dorothea of Montau, renowned for her visions and holy tears, drew Margery Kempe to Danzig,81 and that, once more, caution or expediency caused her or her amanuensis to avoid explicit mention of St Bridget at this point, and of Dorothea of Montau throughout the book, lest their orthodoxy, and, by association, her own, be in doubt.
St Bridget had been canonised in 1391 and her sanctity had been confirmed by Pope John XXIII at the Council of Constance in 1415, but her order was still under threat in the 1430s, as is demonstrated by a letter written by King Eric of the Nordic Union in July 1434, in which he requests that the Council of Basel should not alter or abolish the order. The Marienbrunn monastery in Danzig was one of the earliest Brigittine foundations outside Sweden. Founded not later than 1396, from an earlier community of reformed prostitutes, it had with some difficulty survived the charges of impropriety which were causing unease at the time of the Council of Constance, 1414–1418. The Council of Basel investigated St Bridget’s Revelations and identified 123 errors in it, before finally confirming its orthodoxy in 1436. At the same time the order lost some of the privileges which had helped to finance the early foundations, namely income from indulgences.82 When Margery Kempe visited Danzig, however, it was still possible to purchase indulgences from the Brigittine nuns, and it is probable that she availed herself of the opportunity to do so, here as elsewhere.
Blessed Dorothea of Montau lived for some years in Danzig, and died during Margery Kempe’s youth.83 Although there is no mention of her in Margery Kempe’s book, it has long been recognised that she is likely to have been a formative influence (App.V, pp. 378–380). Dorothea of Montau spent her married life in Danzig, 1363–89, and lived there as a widow 1390–91, after which time she was enclosed in a cell attached to the cathedral in Marienwerder. From July 1392 to June 1394 her confessor, Johannes Marienwerder, noted down her visions in German, tested them against the authorities, and then composed a Latin record of them. 84 He used this material both to shape several different versions of her life, and to compose other texts, including a tract on tears. She was one of the female mystics to weep profusely in contemplation of her own sins and the redemption offered by Christ’s Passion, and to experience visionary marriage with the Lord, as did Margery Kempe. There is no proof of connections between Dorothea of Montau and the Brigittine monastery in Danzig. However, five days before her death she had a vision in which Christ and St Bridget admitted her to their company, which suggests a special veneration for the saint, and makes an interest in her order likely.85 The processus for the canonisation of Dorothea had begun in 1394, and continued until 1521, without full success.
While still in Danzig Margery Kempe met a man who told her of the miraculous Blood of Wilsnack, and the indulgences to be obtained at the shrine there, and he volunteered to accompany her by way of Wilsnack to the display of relics at Aachen, and from there to England. They travelled by sea along the coast to Stralsund, where there was another Brigittine monastery, Marienkron, founded in 1421. From Stralsund they travelled to Wilsnack, with Margery Kempe suffering sickness and discomfort on the way, and finding it difficult to walk or run fast enough to keep up with her companion, who became increasingly impatient with her company.
Wilsnack, which lies 110 miles south of Stralsund and 70 miles north-west of Berlin, just to the east of the river Elbe, was a village which had become a popular and controversial place of pilgrimage for the gullible, issuing multiple indulgences, following the miraculous appearance of three bloody hosts in 1383, amidst the ruins of the sacked church (note on 232/10–11, p. 344). The authenticity of the miracle and the marketing of indulgences were a source of contention from the early fifteenth century between the nearby Bishop of Havelberg, who promoted them, and the powerful and sceptical clergy of Magdeburg, who did not, sixty miles to the south. The receptacle in which the hosts were kept was opened later in the century and found to contain only cobwebs and dust. The receptacle was destroyed at the Reformation, but the painted wooden shrine which housed it from the mid fifteenth century may still be seen in the great church in Wilsnack, which was built to replace the one that had been sacked and burnt. The King’s Lynn Museum has a pilgrim badge from Wilsnack, dating from the first half of the fifteenth century, the only such badge known to have been found in England.86
After leaving Wilsnack for Aachen the travellers crossed water, presumably the river Elbe: at Wittenberge if they were taking a more northerly route westwards towards Aachen, or at Tangermünde if they were taking a more southerly route, the one followed by the pilgrim Philip of Katzenbogen in 1434 (note on 237/34–37, pp. 346–348). They fell in with travelling companions known to Margery Kempe’s unwilling escort, and passed by a Franciscan friary – probably the friary at Salzwedel if they were following the northerly route, or the one at Stendal if they were further south – where the Blessed Sacrament stood open in a crystal, it being still within the octave of Corpus Christi. Stendal is famous for its medieval glass, and there is evidence of Bohemian influence on sculpture and painting in the area.87 When the company came to a good town (236/6) – probably Brunswick if they were on the northerly route, Magdeburg if they were travelling further south – Margery Kempe’s guide returned to her the money he had had for safe keeping, and abandoned her because of her weeping and sobbing, leaving her in great anxiety and distress. She was taunted and insulted, by priests among others, and their lewd threats led her to fear for her chastity (p. 236).88
She made the acquaintance of poor folk travelling in a wain to Aachen, and travelled with them in great discomfort since she did not feel able to follow their example and take off her clothes to rid herself of the vermin she caught from them (p. 237). In Aachen, in July 1433, she saw the four great relics shown only once every seven years (note on 237/34–37, pp. 346–348). From there the pattern of hardship on the road, difficulties in walking fast enough to keep up with others, difficulties in finding any place of lodging, shunning and abuse by potential travelling companions, was repeated once more, but she found a poor monk to be her companion on the last stages of the journey to Calais. Having negotiated the crossing from Calais, she found herself alone on the road from the coast to Canterbury, knocked on a door to hire a horse and guide to take her to Canterbury, and managed to proceed to London. After spending some time, perhaps the best part of a year, in London, she went to Sheen to procure her pardon – presumably to the Brigittine monastery of Syon Abbey, as indicated by the marginal annotation Syon,89 rather than to the Carthusian monastery. From Sheen she returned to Lynn, to encounter initially the sharp words of her confessor who had given her leave only to travel as far as Ipswich, and then the good love of her confessor and her friends (pp. 237–247).
The book contains no information about Margery Kempe’s life after her
return to Lynn, probably in 1434. It ends with her prayers.