© Sarah Stanbury and Virginia Raguin
This is a short structural outline explaining the organization of The Book of Margery Kempe
A brief outline of this structure may serve to clarify the ways in which the stories of the Book compose her life in a more orderly way than may at first be apparent when one reads the text. Because Kempe dictated her book, chapters will often pick up where she last left off. There are few clear "transition" points within the Book that define where one thematic unit ends or another begins, but instead a shift may take place over several chapters. Some chapters serve to mark transitions; some of the other divisions may span several chapters.
Chapters 1-11. The Book of Margery Kempe begins not with childhood, but with marriage. The Book opens with her marriage at age 20, and then quickly moves to a description of her post-partum depression or even psychosis following the birth of her first child, a response that involves a spiritual crisis and transformation. Emphasizing her spiritual transformation and decision to re-negotiate her marriage contract so that she will be able to live chastely, this first section revolves around the first twenty years of Kempe's married life, including her failed businesses as a brewer and a miller, and, as briefly mentioned later in the book, the births of 14 children. This episode concludes in Chapter 11 with the deal that Kempe strikes with her husband. Key chapters: 1, postpartum crisis; 11, agreement with her husband.
Chapters 12-16. Following her agreement with her husband for a chaste marriage, in these chapters Kempe describes her struggles to gain approval for her new role as a public virgin. Describing as well her fits of holy tears that cause people to revile her, a theme that will recur throughout the Book, these chapters follow Kempe to Canterbury, Lincoln and London in search of permission to wear white clothing and to take the mantle and the ring, signs of married chastity. At Lambeth Palace, the house of the Archbishop, Archbishop Arundel grants her permission to receive weekly communion and to choose her own confessor. These special privileges will be challenged repeatedly throughout the rest of her Book. Key chapters: 15-16, meeting with Bishop of Lincoln, Philip Repyngdon, and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel.
Chapters 17-22. The chronology of these
chapters, involving flashbacks to periods before Kempe's chaste marriage,
is the most confused of the book.
Chapters 23-25. The anecdotes in these chapters, chronologically following the audience with Archbishop Arundel and anticipating her pilgrimages abroad, describe her role as a public authority and prophetic "holy woman." A shrewd judge of character, she is also able to influence local events by prayers, such as when God intercedes in local efforts to gain independent status for the chapel of St. Nicholas. Key chapter: 25, font in the chapel of St. Nicholas.
Chapters 26-45. This section recounts Kempe's overseas pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome, and then, after a return to England and an interval of time, a pilgrimage to Santiago, though the Book gives very little information about the latter pilgrimage. Key chapter: 28, beginning of Kempe's crying out, at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Chapters 46-55. Kempe continues her life as a pilgrim, but now locally, visiting famous shrines in England. Her travels are repeatedly interrupted by arrests and trials for Lollardy. While these chapters ostensibly recount pilgrimages, they focus on her persecution by powerful male authorities and her skillful self-defense. Key chapter: 52, audience with Archbishop of York Henry Bowet and trial for Lollardy; story of the bear.
Chapter 56. Transitional chapter and passage of time. She describes an eight-year illness.
Chapters 57-71. This section describes Kempe's exclusion from local parishes and her troubled relationships with priests who exclude her from their churches, irritated by her cries and weeping. Her conflicts with male clerics continue, only now her drama becomes decidedly local in place and character. Key chapters: 61-62, Kempe's exclusion from church by famous preacher and support by priest who writes down her Book.
Chapter 72. Transitional chapter, beginning "so be processe of tyme," that introduces a more contemplative and less fractious period of her history.
Chapters 73-79. The general movement of the final chapters is toward the development of compassion. Here we hear of her desire to kiss lepers and her help of a woman suffering, much as she herself suffers in Chapter 1, from a post-partum psychosis. She also moves toward a new familial role as a caretaker, a comprehensive role that transforms her spiritual, familial, and social relationships. In Chapter 76 she gives a moving account of her reunification with her husband and of her new role as his caretaker in his old age. Key chapter: 76.
Chapters 79-81. These chapters echo guided meditations on the Passion, such as the Meditations on the Life of Christ, or scenes from medieval drama in telling the story of the Passion. Her role is again defined as a caretaker as she imagines herself present in these scenes from Christ's life. Key chapter: 81, Kempe attends the Virgin following the burial of Jesus and attends both the Virgin and Mary Magdalene in the Resurrection.
Chapters 82-89. Concerns of these final chapters center on salvation and on a redefined relationship to family. In chapter 82 she describes her powerful response to Purification Day and also to weddings, a response that describes, perhaps, her new sense of her service to both her own family as well to as larger social and spiritual groups. Key chapter: 86,. Christ speaks to Kempe and praises her for "homeliness."
The short Book 2 was written by the same priest in 1438.
Chapters 1-3. As with many saint's lives that describe the saint's conversion of others, often after his or her death, these chapters give an account of a conversion, although in this case it is Kempe's own son that she rescues from a dissolute lifestyle. As much as Book 1 avoids discussion of family, Book 2 describes Kempe as a mother and mother-in-law presents her in a role of service that joins obligation to family with obligation to God. The first chapters describe her son's "conversion" and death, her husband's death, and her subsequent decision to accompany her widowed daughter-in-law home to Danzig, Germany. Key chapters: 1-2, her son's conversion.
Chapters 4-9. The last chapters describe her circuitous and difficult return to England from Danzig via Wilsnack and Aachen, both major pilgrimage sites. Throughout this journey she is repeatedly rebuked and abandoned by her companions. Book 2 ends in a long prayer. Key chapter: 6, journey to Aachen; her rejection by pilgrims and acceptance by a group of poor folk
click here for the introduction