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CHARITY SCOTT STOKES
In the autumn of 1413 Margery Kempe settled her own and her husband’s debts, perhaps with an inheritance from her recently deceased father, and set off for the Holy Land (p. 60). Frequently short of money on her travels, but inclined to give to the poor whatever she received, she was at once the subject and object of charitable giving. At times the gift of money was accompanied by a request that she should pray for the donor, as in the case of Bishop Philip Repingdon. She may have financed her travels in part by such means. It was very unusual in the late Middle Ages for women to travel to Jerusalem. Those who did make the pilgrimage were usually nuns, in the company of other nuns, or married women travelling with their husbands. Nuns on pilgrimages, as well as lay women, were subject to satirical and misogynist attack throughout the Middle Ages. A list of German pilgrims to the Holy Land, 1346–1588, names no women.61 On the spring voyage of 1458, as documented by Roberto da Sanseverino, Gabriele Capodilista, Giovanni Butigella, Anton Pelchinger, an anonymous Dutch pilgrim, and William Wey, there were no women.62 The Jerusalem pilgrimages of Margery Kempe, St Bridget of Sweden and Chaucer’s fictitious Wife of Bath are so well known that it is easy to overlook the exceptional fortitude and determination required of women travelling across the Alps, voyaging in pilgrim galleys, and facing the hardships of travel in the Holy Land, where the pilgrims were overseen by Saracens. Pilgrims were captured in the Holy Land on numerous occasions, for instance in the year 1404.63 From 1408 there was legislation in Venice for the compulsory defence of pilgrim galleys after attacks in which people had been killed, wounded, or sold into slavery. In 1417 steps were taken to prevent extortion, malnutrition and maltreatment of pilgrims by the captains of the vessels. A galley carrying 170 pilgrims required 140 persons for management and defence, including twenty crossbow men.64
Margery Kempe travelled in a small company of pilgrims by way of Norwich to Yarmouth, and from there to Zierikzee in Zealand (p. 60), in the autumn of 1413. The book describes in some detail the hostility of her fellow pilgrims, including the priest appointed as her confessor, during the pilgrimage: their cutting of her skirt – sometimes interpreted as indicative of alleged immorality – the alienation of her maidservant, and the pilgrims’ refusal to keep her in their company after reaching Constance. In Constance she received assistance from an English friar who was papal legate, and made the acquaintance of William Weaver, a man from Devon who accompanied her to Bologna (pp. 61–63). The Council of Constance 1414–1418 was about to consider several issues which must have been of keen interest to Margery Kempe, such as the controversy over St Bridget and the Brigittine Order: should the canonisation of St Bridget be confirmed? should the Brigittine penitentes of Danzig, former prostitutes, be debarred from office in the monastery, or even ordered to return to street life?65 In 1415 the Council ruled that only virgins and widows should be allowed to hold office in the monastery. That the book scarcely touches on issues of religious and political controversy, except in its accounts of investigations of Margery Kempe’s own orthodoxy, may indicate that she took little interest in such matters, or, more probably, that she or her confessors or amanuenses felt it expedient that she should refrain from comment.
One of the English delegates to the Council of Constance in 1415 was a fierce opponent of Lollardy, Thomas Netter, who had been present at the trials for heresy of John Badby and Sir John Oldcastle. Ten years later, as Carmelite Provincial, it was probably he who instructed Alan of Lynn not to communicate with Margery Kempe (pp. 168–170). On her later journey to the Baltic she was also travelling in a sense in Netter’s footsteps: he had been sent as envoy to the King of Poland and to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order in 1419, 66 and may well have been informed there of troubles between the men of Lynn and the Hanse. Again, the fact that this important and well-known opponent is never mentioned by name in Margery Kempe’s book suggests caution rather than ignorance.
Margery Kempe arrived in Bologna before the other members of her earlier pilgrim fellowship, probably early in 1414, and spent thirteen weeks in Venice prior to embarkation (pp. 63–66). Pilgrims often arrived in Venice with plenty of time to spare: time needed to be allowed for crossing the Alps and for further possible delays; there was often only one pilgrim galley a year sailing to Jaffa; the time of embarkation was uncertain; there were practical arrangements to be made in Venice, since the pilgrims had to purchase bedding and other equipment for the voyage. After embarkation there were squabbles over ownership of bedding. A temporary reconciliation in Venice between Margery Kempe and her fellow pilgrims was followed by six weeks of isolation because of her failure to adhere to an agreement not to speak of holy matters at table. Taking literally what was more probably intended as a sarcastic response to clerical questioning on her return to Norwich – regarding what she had done with the child begotten and born while she was “out” (103/1–27) – it has been surmised that during the weeks of isolation in Venice she bore a child.67
Information about the routes, distances, modes of travel and lodgings along the way to Venice, and Jerusalem, can be gained not from Margery Kempe’s book but from other contemporary, or slightly later, sources, such as the pilgrim Itineraries of William Wey.68 The distance from the ports of Northern France and the Low Countries to Venice was just over 1000 miles. Favoured pilgrim routes from the ports led via Diest to Aachen, both in the diocese of Liège, renowned for its holy women and beguinages in the late Middle Ages. Travellers stopped for food and lodging in inns and hostelries in the towns, or in friaries. The average distance covered on horseback was about thirty miles per day.69 William Wey’s route from Aachen in 1462 led via Metz, Basel, and Schaffhausen to Constance, and from there via Bludenz, Arlberg, Landeck, Nauders, Meran, Kaltern, and Tramino to Trient. Margery Kempe may well have followed this route, although there were several other routes across the Alps. From Trient, the route to Bologna and Venice was via Roveredo, Chiusa, Verona and Mirandola.70 The last part of the journey to the lagoon of Venice was necessarily by water. From Venice the pilgrim galleys sailed along the Dalmatian coast, and then via the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus to Jaffa.
Several pilgrim narratives dwell on the hardships of delays in disembarkation and the obligatory night spent in the caverns of Jaffa, while arrangements were made for the final stages of the journey to Jerusalem (note on 67/9–10, pp. 288–289), whereas Margery Kempe’s account of the three weeks spent in the Holy Land centres on the visits made to holy places, in particular the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Her ecstasy as she approached Jerusalem almost caused her to fall off her donkey (67/23–26). On Mount Calvary she was overcome by the penitential shrieks, cries, convulsions, and leaden colouring of the face, for which she was notorious during the ten years following, in addition to penitential weeping. A comparable instance of pious women visitors to the Holy Land shrieking as in childbirth is attested by Felix Fabri in the late fifteenth century:
Super omnes autem mulieres peregrinae sociae nostrae et sorores quasi parturientes clamabant, ullulabant et flebant ....71When her fellow pilgrims dissociated themselves from her in the Holy Land she was helped by the Franciscan friars officiating there, and even by the Saracens (pp. 67–75).
On returning to Venice she was left on her own, but found Richard, a broken-backed beggar from Ireland who helped her along the way to Assisi and Rome, fulfilling what had been foretold by the Dominican anchorite in Lynn. She was in Assisi for the feast of Lammas tide, 1 August 1414 (p. 79), and there she also made the acquaintance of a great lady, Margaret Florentine, who helped her to complete the journey to Rome, and helped her also some months later when she was reduced to begging (pp. 79, 93). In Rome she finally followed the instruction to put on white clothing. She visited the former servant of St Bridget and the chapel dedicated to the saint. She was initially received at the Hospital of St Thomas of Canterbury in Rome, but the slander of her earlier pilgrim company resulted in her being evicted over the winter months 1414–1415.
Her confessor in Rome was a German priest, Wenslawe, who instructed her to revert to wearing black rather than white, and she obeyed him. Later it was revealed to her once more that she should wear white, and he acceded. After an initial period requiring an interpreter, they were able to understand one another although neither spoke the other’s language and neither could understand other speakers of the other language. Margery Kempe and some clerks regarded this mutual understanding as miraculous, while others viewed it with suspicion. From the account given of an occasion when the mutual understanding was tested by others, it seems that the pious dialogue was highly predictable on both sides. However, it is possible that the trade links between Lynn and the Baltic enabled the trading families of Lynn to achieve an understanding at least of the German spoken along the Frisian and Baltic coast not shared by speakers from other places and backgrounds. The fact that the first amanuensis of Margery Kempe’s book, an Englishman who had spent many years in Baltic lands, was said to write neither good German nor good English (4/14–16) suggests that a fair degree of contamination, and presumably also of mutual understanding, could come about between the Germanic dialects of Norfolk and the Baltic. Margery Kempe mentions difficulties of communication during her time in Italy, but not during her travels to Danzig, Wilsnack and Aachen. The name of the German priest in Rome, Wenslawe, suggests that he came from the Baltic lands.
The focal point of Margery Kempe’s time in Rome was the elaborate revelation of mystical marriage to God the Father, on St John Lateran’s Day, 9 November 1414, in the Church of the Apostles (pp. 86–87). From this time, for sixteen years, a flame of love burnt in her heart (88/28). After months of hardship, poverty, begging, serving the poor, and after borrowing money from Richard the broken-backed man which she immediately gave away and undertook to repay two years later, she was invited back to the Hospital of St Thomas. Eventually a priest from England furnished her with the means to return home, and after Easter 1415 they set out on the return journey. The priest was fearful of brigands on the way, but Margery Kempe reassured him (pp. 99–100), and they returned safely to Norwich via Middelburg in Zealand. There is no mention in the book of the hostilities between England and France which were to culminate a few months later in the battle of Agincourt.
On her return to Norwich, Margery Kempe was welcomed by some and criticised or ostracised by others. She once more dressed in white clothing, wearing it for the first time on Trinity Sunday (104/3–26). Her husband came to Norwich to meet her, and they returned to Lynn together, where she became dangerously ill. She recovered, but was abused by the people of Lynn: some spat at her in horror of her cries and shrieks, convulsions and change of colour (105/18–24), all of which phenomena were familiar to the Carthusian monks of Mount Grace who annotated The Book of Margery Kempe and recognised them as signs of grace and holiness.72
She wished to go on pilgrimage to St James, Compostella, but did not have sufficient means until money was given to her (pp. 105–106). She set out for Bristol on the Wednesday in Whitsun week, probably of 1417, and there met and repaid her debt of two years earlier to Richard the broken-backed man (106/21–25). Waiting six weeks in Bristol for a ship to Spain, she was again abused for her cries and swooning, but was assisted by a Thomas Marshall who gave her money and accompanied her on the pilgrimage to Compostella, and to Leicester after their return from the pilgrimage.
Before embarking she was summoned before the Bishop of Worcester, to his seat at Henbury, Gloucestershire, three miles north of Bristol. The bishop at this time was Thomas Peverel, possibly the Carmelite friar of that name listed forty years earlier in a corrody of the Lynn friary.73 The bishop treated her kindly, saying that he knew well enough that she was the daughter of John Brunham of Lynn. He invited her to eat with him, asked her to pray for him, gave her gold and his blessing, and asked her to visit him again.
The travellers reached Spain on the seventh day after leaving Bristol, stayed there fourteen days, and returned in five days. All that is told in the book of the fourteen days spent in Spain is that Margery Kempe experienced many great cries there, in contemplation of the Passion, and plenteous tears of compassion (110/29–32). Once more it is from the records of other pilgrim travellers such as William Wey that information may be gleaned about pilgrim itineraries, and about the pomp and ceremony of the processions and celebrations witnessed in Compostella. On the Feast of the Trinity in 1456 the ministers at Mass observed by Wey included the archbishop, seven cardinals, the dean, the cantor, five archdeacons and eighty canons.74 There is no evidence that any such magnificence made an impression on Margery Kempe.
After her return to Bristol she visited the Holy Blood of Hailes, and went from there to Leicester. In Leicester the sight of a crucifix roused her to tears and cries. While Thomas Marshall was writing a letter for her to her husband in Lynn, asking him to come and fetch her home, she was summoned before the mayor of Leicester. In answer to his questions she asserted that she was daughter of a respected burgess of Lynn who had been mayor five times and alderman five years, and also wife of a respected burgess of Lynn. She was accused by the mayor of Leicester of being a false strumpet, a Lollard, and a deceiver of the people, and was detained in the jailor’s house. The steward of Leicester questioned her and spoke lewdly to her. Thomas Marshall and another companion were put in prison on her account, but released after a terrible storm was interpreted as a token of divine wrath at their imprisonment. They feared that she would be burnt as a heretic. She was brought before the abbot of Leicester and the dean of Leicester, in the presence of many canons, friars and priests, the mayor, and townspeople. Examined by the abbot and his assessors, she answered all questions to their satisfaction, and the abbot and dean of Leicester subsequently supported her. However, the mayor, mistrustful in particular of her white clothing and suspecting that she intended to take away the citizens’ wives, insisted that she should obtain a letter from the Bishop of Lincoln discharging him of responsibility for her, which she did. In all she was delayed at Leicester for three weeks (pp. 111–119).
From Leicester she proceeded to York, with no further mention of the letter to her husband in Lynn asking him to come and fetch her. Once more she was scorned by some people, including an anchoress who had previously been well-disposed towards her, while she was revered and supported by others. She was examined on her faith by a priest in York, and then by Henry Bowet, Archbishop of York, at his seat at Cawood, where his retainers called her a Lollard and heretic and said she should be burnt (pp. 123–124). Initially the archbishop questioned her sharply about her white clothing and pronounced her a heretic, but subsequently he was satisfied with her answers regarding the articles of the faith. She defended herself against a charge of preaching, saying that she came in no pulpit. In a later vision St Paul apologised to her for the trouble he had caused her by forbidding women to preach (160/27–29). The archbishop paid one of his men five shillings to accompany her to Bridlington so that she could visit a former confessor, and then to conduct her out of his diocese (pp. 119–128).
When they reached Hessle, and were about to cross the Humber, Margery Kempe was arrested by two men of the Duke of Bedford and taken back to Beverley. Women ran out of their houses clamouring for her to be burnt as a heretic. She was brought once more before the Archbishop of York, this time in the chapter-house in Beverley. A Dominican friar spoke against her. The Duke of Bedford’s men maintained that she was “Combomis dowtyr”, that is, follower of the Lollard knight Sir John Oldcastle also known as Lord Cobham. Oldcastle had been pronounced a heretic by Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury on 25 September 1413, was handed over to the secular authority, but escaped from the Tower on 19 October 1413. His name became associated with treason, with plots on the life of King Henry V. He was re-captured late in 1417, probably not long after Margery Kempe’s appearance before the Archbishop of York in Beverley, and was drawn, hanged and burnt on 14 December 1417 (note on 132/12–14, p. 316). The Archbishop of York once more found no fault in Margery Kempe, but required that she obtain letter and seal from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
When Margery Kempe had crossed the Humber she was again arrested as a Lollard, but released on the testimony of a man who had seen her before the Archbishop of York. She travelled via Lincoln to West Lynn, where her husband joined her, and they travelled together to London. She obtained Archbishop Chichele’s letter and seal. The Kempes remained for some time in London, and were well received there. On the return journey to Lynn they were arrested three miles south of Ely, but released on production of the archbishop’s letter (pp. 128–137).
The fact that Margery Kempe was several times arrested, and questioned,
in Bristol, Leicester, York, Cawood and Beverley in the latter part of
the year 1417, and not with comparable severity at other times, may be
attributed to the intense nervousness of the ecclesiastical and secular
authorities during the months preceding Oldcastle’s re-capture and execution.75
The repeated arrests and examinations are evidence of the unease in the
country at the time, and of uncertainty in the relationships between ecclesiastical
and secular, as also between local and national authorities.