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CHARITY SCOTT STOKES
The marriage of John and Margery Kempe took place when she was about twenty years old (6/25–27). As a young wife she taunts her husband with his inferior standing (9/18–25). Their social background was similar, and his trade as brewer was not inferior to that of her brother as hosier, but her father-in-law was not mayor, alderman, member of parliament, justice of the peace, or coroner, as her father was. John Kempe junior’s own election to the Magna Jurata resulted in a brief term of office only. Whatever the perceived differences in social standing, Margery Kempe records that her husband was always good to her (32/26), and as an old woman she recalls her inordinate love for his person in youth (181/10–12).
A tenement of John Kempe in Lynn, mentioned in several deeds, was in Fincham Street alias Burghard’s Lane (now New Conduit Street), which ran from the end of Bridgegate, half-way between Saturday Market and Tuesday Market, along Purfleet in an easterly direction (App.III.III.6, pp. 366–367). It is very likely that this property in Fincham Street was the Kempes’ home for the first twenty-five years of their married life, after which time they lived apart until his infirmity in old age (pp. 179–181).
Margery Kempe was severely ill preceding and following the birth of the first of her fourteen children (pp. 6–8). The symptoms described in the book have been associated with post-partum psychosis. At the time of her first child’s birth she believed that she was close to death, and wished to receive absolution and confess a previously unconfessed sin of youth, but was deterred by the haste of the priest. Commentators have surmised that this unconfessed sin is likely to have been associated with sexuality or Lollard heresy. On the whole the latter seems more probable. Sins of sexual temptation fit into the common confessional and penitential framework and are freely admitted to, a little later in the book. There is no obvious reason for an earlier opportunity for confession, penitence and forgiveness to be concealed. Association with Lollard heresy on the other hand, so vigorously denied whenever Margery Kempe was under ecclesiastical examination, would have become increasingly damaging as the years passed. A lapse during the 1380s, when she was in her teens, could have been – and, if it occurred, ultimately was – forgiven. But it could have been literally fatal to admit to any association with Lollardy once the stringent measures had been taken which led to such events as the burning of William Sawtry at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the execution of Sir John Oldcastle at the end of the year 1417 in which Margery Kempe was herself most frequently examined by ecclesiastical authorities, and the Norwich heresy trials which took place from the late 1420s, when the first draft of her book was being written.
After half-a-year, eight weeks and odd days of post-natal sickness and derangement, Christ appeared to her in purple silk, sitting at the end of her bed, and asked why she had deserted him (p. 8). Her wits returned, and her husband aided her recovery. She endeavoured to be God’s servant, but was drawn again to the ways of the world, to finery and to competition with neighbours (p. 9). In her attachment to worldly goods she set up in business, unsuccessfully, as brewer and miller (pp. 9–11). She had good servants and knew about brewing, and attributed her failure to bad luck. The context makes it clear that vre (9/33) means ‘luck’, rather than ‘experience or practice’ (the gloss given p. 436, col.1, and followed by subsequent commentators and translators):
And than, for pure coveytyse & for to maynten hir pride, sche gan to brewyn & was on of ?e grettest brewers in the town N. a iij |er or iiij tyl sche lost mech good, for sche had neuyr vre ?erto. For, thow sche had neuyr so good seruawntys & cunnyng in brewyng, yet it wold neuyr preuyn wyth hem. (9/30–35)Several years after the vision of Christ in purple silk she heard a sound of heavenly melody one night as she lay in bed with her husband. After this she sobbed with longing for the bliss of heaven when she heard any mirth or melody, spoke frequently of the bliss of heaven, and aroused the hostility of neighbours who said she had no more knowledge of heaven than they had (p. 11). The gift of holy tears formed a strong and continuing link with a distinctive tradition of affective piety (31/3n, 194/5n). Her kindred and those who had been her friends became her worst enemies (2/14–16). Conjugal relations became abhorrent to her, she went to confession two or three times a day, and undertook penance (p. 12). She continued to bear children.
Two years of penitential life were followed by three years of temptation, during which time she followed the instructions of her confessor and was granted daily two hours of compunction and tears, but at other times she was tempted by sins of lechery and despair. She was tempted to commit adultery, but was rejected by her tempter, and blamed herself (pp. 12–16).
The period of penitence alternating with temptation ended with the first of many extended visionary colloquies with Christ. It took place in the Chapel of St John in St Margaret’s Church on a Friday before Christmas (pp. 16–18), probably in 1410, since it seems to pre-date by three years her departure for the Holy Land in 1413. Many of her extended revelations occurred on Fridays, days of fasting, before the great festivals, often in chapels or churches. In the pre-Christmas vision of 1410 she heard that her sins were forgiven, she would never enter hell or purgatory, she should call Christ her love, she should not eat meat, she should receive the Blessed Sacrament every Sunday, she would never be forsaken even though she would be reviled by the people, she would be given grace to answer every clerk, she should spend more time in meditation and less time in vocal prayer, and she should go to the Dominican anchorite, her confessor, and tell him of these revelations (pp. 17–18). The Dominican anchorite confirmed the divine origin of her visions. Revelations followed in which Margery Kempe participated in the re-enactment of biblical and apocryphal birthing, nurturing, caring, Passion and Compassion. Assured of forgiveness, she nevertheless took every opportunity to obtain renewed assurances of the certainty of forgiveness and bliss in heaven. She purchased indulgences on behalf of herself and others in the various places of pilgrimage that she visited.
The cycle of revelation, reassurance given by confessors and spiritual advisers, penitence, prayer, mockery, and revilement, was to be repeated many times, to the end of her life. Hostility was expressed most frequently by lesser clergy or friars, or townspeople, especially women, but sometimes also by the highly placed or highly born. Accusations of hypocrisy, immorality, leading others astray, and Lollard heresy – in particular of teaching and preaching, from which women were explicitly debarred from the early fifteenth century – were uttered by clerics in the misogynist tradition, and taken up by the people. Comparison between her statements made under examination, for instance before the Archbishop of York (pp. 123–128), and the statements of her contemporary Margery Baxter, who was convicted of Lollardy in the Norwich heresy trials of 1428–1431,56 shows that Margery Kempe held orthodox rather than Lollard views on the sacraments of baptism, confession, eucharist, confirmation and matrimony, on idols and pilgrimages and indulgences, although she shared with the Lollards a critical stance towards priests perceived to be falling short of their professed ideals and duties, and towards swearers of oaths.57
On an occasion later than the extended colloquy with Christ, but before the years of pilgrimage, it was revealed to her by the Blessed Virgin that she would sit with Christ in heaven. Asked whom she would choose to have with her, she named her parish priest, Robert Spryngolde, rather than her family. She was assured that her wish would be granted, and that her father and husband and children would also be with her in heaven. No mention is made of her mother. She named Christ as her true executor (pp. 20–21).
Towards the end of her years of child-bearing, it was revealed that she should go to Norwich, to Richard of Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, and make confession to him and tell him of her revelations. Then she should go to the Carmelite friar, William Sowthfeld, and to Dame Julian of Norwich, with whom she spent several days. Richard of Caister, William Sowthfeld and Julian of Norwich strengthened Margery Kempe’s belief in the divine origin of her visions (pp. 40–44), and gave her encouragement, but other people maligned her. The Dominican anchorite in Lynn foretold troubles that she would have on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and prophesied that a broken-backed man would help her when everyone else turned against her (pp. 43–44). Whenever she was in Norwich after this Richard of Caister was her confessor, until his death in 1420. He accompanied her when she was summoned to appear before the Bishop of Norwich (40/20–28).
On one occasion at Mass she saw the sacrament shake and flicker like a dove beating its wings, and it was revealed to her that the truth of St Bridget’s Revelations would be made known through her, and that St Bridget never saw Christ in this way (p. 47). This is the first of several references in the book to St Bridget and her writings. St Bridget died in the probable year of Margery Kempe’s birth, 1373, and was canonised in 1391, shortly before Margery Kempe’s marriage. Margery Kempe sought out the saint’s old maidservant in Rome, who had been miraculously cured some sixty years previously, and she visited a chapel of St Bridget in Rome, the chamber in which the saint died (95/11–29). On her return from the Baltic she visited the Brigittine Syon Abbey, to obtain indulgences (pp. 245–246). It has even been suggested that her pilgrimage routes reproduced the routes taken by St Bridget.58 Yet however much she may have emulated the Swedish saint, whose order enjoyed royal backing and exceptional status in England (while being severely criticised at several Councils in the early fifteenth century), the situation of the English merchant’s wife was fraught with difficulties.
On the Friday before Whitsun in the year when she set out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, 1413, she was kneeling at Mass in St Margaret’s Church, with her book in her hand, when a stone weighing three pounds and a piece of wood weighing six pounds fell onto her back and her head from the highest point of the church vaulting. After a short while she felt no pain. The burgess John of Wyreham and the Carmelite Alan of Lynn regarded this as a miracle; some others said it was a token of wrath (pp. 21–22).
Earlier in the same year she had learnt in answer to prayers for chastity that she must fast on Fridays. From the Wednesday in Easter week her husband had no power to touch her (p. 21). On the Friday before Midsummer’s Eve 1413, on the way from York to Bridlington, John and Margery Kempe struck a bargain. He agreed to vows of chastity on condition that she would share his bed as previously (which is not referred to again), would give up fasting on Fridays and eat with him, and pay his debts before going to the Holy Land. Turning aside and praying to God in a field, she learnt that the instruction to fast on Fridays had been given for this very purpose, namely to enable her to procure the chastity she desired by letting it go (pp. 23–25). Her father John Brunham’s death, which occurred by October 1413 (App.III.II.11, pp. 361–362), may have furnished her with the financial means to settle debts and to travel.
John Kempe was a faithful companion to his wife on her early travels in England. No indication is given of their mode of travel, or, for much of the time, of the routes taken. They went from Lynn northwards to Yorkshire, and south to London and Kent. They probably travelled northwards through Lincolnshire and across the Humber by ferry to Hessle, a route used by Margery Kempe in a southerly direction on a later occasion, following her arrests and appearances before the Archbishop of York in 1417 (pp. 121–136). They probably travelled southwards via Ely and Cambridge, the route taken later by both Kempes towards the end of the year 1417 when they went to London for her to obtain letter and seal from the Archbishop of Canterbury (pp. 136–137). The account of the Kempes’ journey from York to Bridlington suggests a leisurely pace of travel, on foot or on horseback.
On one occasion during these early travels an old monk in Canterbury wished that Margery Kempe were enclosed in a house of stone; but it is not clear whether he had a prison or an anchorage in mind. She was threatened by monks, and then by townspeople, with burning as a Lollard (pp. 27–29, 33–37). John Kempe disappeared temporarily. She learnt by revelation that she should wear white (p. 32), but she did not do so until she reached Rome, on the return journey from Jerusalem, after several repetitions of the instruction.
After the agreement struck on the road between York and Bridlington, the Kempes went together to take oaths of chastity before Bishop Repingdon of Lincoln, the see of Norwich being vacant. Margery Kempe wished to be given the mantle and the ring, that is to say, to become a vowess, professing a life of chastity, prayer and piety while remaining in the world,59 and she wished to be clothed in white. After questioning her and consulting with his advisers, the bishop expressed unease, particularly with regard to the white clothing – which he may have associated with the continental sect of the Free Spirit, viewed as heretical60 – and he said that as she was not of his diocese she should make her request to Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. She was critical of Repingdon’s faint-heartedness, and said that she would go to the archbishop, but not with these requests. Repingdon gave her 26s 8d to buy clothing and to pray for him (pp. 33–36). She was received by the archbishop at Lambeth. He gave her leave to choose her confessor, and to receive communion every Sunday, and he gave her the reassurance that she sought regarding the divine source of her visions and her tears (pp. 36–37). There is no evidence that she ever made formal profession as a vowess. However, the vow of chastity was made and she did succeed in adopting a secular life of penitence and prayer, interspersed with works of mercy whenever opportunities arose.
It is likely that a span of years referred to later in the book began before the travels to Jerusalem and Rome, namely the years during which the priest newly arrived in Lynn read biblical and devotional texts to Margery Kempe. The texts included the Bible and biblical commentaries, St Bridget’s Revelations, and other didactic and mystical works frequently used in the early fifteenth century to stimulate the contemplative piety of the individual: Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, the Stimulus Amoris, and the Incendium Amoris (pp. 142–144). Not long after the death of Richard of Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s Norwich, which is dated 1420, Margery Kempe visited his tomb in Norwich in order to give thanks for the recovery of the priest who had read to her for seven or eight years – hence the probability that the reading began by 1413.
It is possible that an account of the youth of the Kempes’ son who later lived in Danzig – the only one of the fourteen children about whom any information is given in the book – belongs chronologically to the period before his mother’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, although it was not written until 1438 (pp. 221–222). If he was her first child he would have been nearly twenty years old in 1413. When he was a youth in Lynn his mother disapproved of his unchaste living. She castigated him, he became sick, and she was blamed for his sickness both by him and by the citizens of Lynn. His subsequent reform belongs to a later period.