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Margery Kempe’s early years seem to have followed the norm for a wealthy merchant’s daughter in late fourteenth-century Lynn, living at the hub of commercial and religious activity, trade and travel, in an atmosphere of keen religious, social, and commercial competitiveness.

The approximate date of her birth can be inferred from an incidental remark towards the end of the book. It is mentioned that she was about sixty years old when she travelled to the Baltic:

It was gret merueyl & myracle ?at a woman dys-ewsyd of goyng & also  abowtyn iii scor |er of age xuld enduryn cotidianly to kepyn hir jurney & hir pase wyth a man fryke & lusty to gon  (234/17-21)
It has been argued that this journey took place in 1433 (note on 237/34–37, pp. 346–348). If this is correct, and if her estimate of her age is accurate, she was born around 1373.

Her paternal grandfather was Ralph de Brunham, and it is known that he was a burgess, a member of the class of potentiores, since his son, John Brunham, Margery Kempe’s father, was admitted to the Holy Trinity Guild in 1353 by virtue of birth without payment (App.III.II.1, p. 359).29  In fourteenth-century records the family name is usually spelt (de) Brunham, less frequently (de) Burnham. In Lynn it was common practice until the late fourteenth century for ‘de’ to precede the place-name in such family names.30 

Margery Kempe’s father is often referred to as John Brunham senior, and his son, Margery Kempe’s brother, as John Brunham junior. John Brunham senior held office at different times as mayor (elected on Michaelmas Day 1370, 1377, 1378, 1385, 1391), alderman of the Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants, member of parliament (elected on six occasions between 1364 and 1384), chamberlain, coroner and justice of the peace (App. III.II.2–8, pp. 359–361). Three of his terms of office as mayor and four terms as member of parliament fell during Margery Kempe’s childhood. Like other affluent merchants in the town, John Brunham senior probably traded in exports of wares such as cloth and wool, and imports in raw materials, such as timber, particularly from the Baltic and Scandinavia. A John Brunham was fined for obstructing the Tuesday market with timber, presumably unloaded at the nearby quay, in 1375.31  Since John Brunham senior is known to have died between 19 December 1412 and 16 October 1413 (App.III.II.11, p. 361), the John Brunham listed as hosier in records of chamberlains’ accounts in 1412–141332  was probably his son, John Brunham junior. A family association with hosiery, and with exports of cloth and wool, and imports of fur, may have encouraged the competitive love of fine attire for which Margery Kempe reproaches herself as a young married woman (9/9–18). John Brunham junior was admitted to the Holy Trinity Guild by virtue of birth in 1394, shortly after his sister’s marriage to John Kempe.

John Brunham senior’s name occurs in late fourteenth- and very early fifteenth-century documents in connection with property in Bridgegate (now High Street) which runs north from St Margaret’s Church and Saturday Market, towards Tuesday Market.33  His name is also mentioned, less frequently, in connection with property in Stonegate, which runs south from the vicinity of St Margaret’s towards Millfleet.34  The Bridgegate property belonged after his death to his son (App. III. II, 11, pp. 361–362). It seems likely that during Margery Kempe’s childhood the family home was the Bridgegate rather than the Stonegate property. The locations are close to one another, close to parish church and priory, and Saturday Market, a hundred yards or so from the waterfront, with its constant bustle of traders and travellers and pilgrims from home and abroad.

An earlier John Brunham numbered among the friars in the Carmelite Friary at Lynn in 1377 and 1378 was probably a relative.35  There is a further record of a John Brunham who was parson of Wood Dalling and had property in Lynn conveyed to him in 1341.36  A Reginald de Brunham, chaplain, is named as legatee and executor in the will of Robert de Gousele, enrolled in 1341.37  A Laurence Brunham was admitted to the freedom of the town in 1383–84.38  The Robert Brunham, perhaps cousin of Margery Kempe, who was mayor and alderman on several occasions in the early fifteenth century, was more prominent in the town than was John Brunham junior. He was a vintner,39  and also an exporter and importer. A certificate addressed to the Master General of the Teutonic Order in 1408 claims that anchors, ropes, and chains securing vessels of four Lynn merchants, including Robert Brunham, were cut away and stolen at the Malstrom in Norway by the Prussian Nicholas Wapull.40  There was another Robert Brunham, Prior of Holy Trinity Norwich, who let property in Lynn on a 100-year lease in 1407.41  Another burgess likely to have been a member of the same family is Thomas Brunham, apprentice of John Brunham senior and perhaps a younger brother, who became a freeman in 1358–59. This is probably the same Thomas Brunham who was involved in controversy in 1414 over an apprentice who fled to London after making accusations against him. Thomas Brunham purged himself in an ecclesiastical court and filed a suit of fidei lesio against the apprentice Kent.42 

John Brunham senior and John Kempe senior both opposed the granting of privileges to the Chapel of St Nicholas in 1378 (App. III.VII, pp. 372–373). John Kempe senior was elected as one of four chamberlains in Lynn in 1372 and again in 1381, and he was elected as one of four sub-collectors of a tithe for the king in 1374 (App. III.III.2, p. 363). Neither he nor his sons became freemen by birth. John Kempe senior paid 40 shillings for admission to the Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants in 1351, as did John Kempe junior and his elder brother Simon in 1393, the probable year of John Kempe junior and Margery Kempe’s marriage (App.III.III,1–2,  pp. 362–363). John Kempe senior was a skinner by trade, and an importer and exporter. Grievances of English merchants against the Prussians in 1388 include two claims by John Kempe for compensation for goods detained in Prussia.43  Simon Kempe, brother of John Kempe junior, had property in Bridgegate, close to the John Brunham tenement (App.III.III.6, pp. 366–368). John Kempe junior was elected to the Magna Jurata in Lynn in October 1395, but replaced before the electoral year was out.44  A John Kempe, brewer, who was fined in 1403–1404 and 1404–1405 for forestalling the assize of beer and for filling the common fleet with dung, was presumably John Kempe junior, Margery Kempe’s husband (App. III.III.4, p. 364).

Documentary evidence of Brunham and Kempe women is sparse. Margery Kempe’s mother is mentioned only once in the book, and then merely in the listing of those whom she forsook during the course of her post-natal derangement (7/32). An Isabelle de Brunham is mentioned in the codicil of a Lynn will of 1410, at which time Margery Kempe’s father was still alive and her mother could have been, so it is possible that this Isabelle was Margery Kempe’s mother.45  Some of the Brunham and Kempe women may have been involved in their own or their menfolk’s commercial enterprises.46  An Alice Kempe was fined for forestalling the assize of fish in 1333.47  The date makes it possible that she was the mother of John Kempe senior. The Lynn merchant’s property customarily provided both home and workplace, with dwelling-house, quay and warehouse, often with shop and separate kitchen.48  The larger households had their own brewery and bakery. It is likely that Margery Kempe had had experience of brewing and baking in the home when she set up her unsuccessful adult ventures as brewer and miller in the early years of her marriage (pp. 9–11).

The revelations that Margery Kempe experienced from young adulthood suggest that she received in childhood a thorough and orthodox education in the tenets of the church. She was brought up to venerate and celebrate the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin, and also St Mary Magdalen, St John the Baptist, and the virgin saints, St Margaret, St Katharine of Alexandria and St Barbara, all dedicatees of churches, priory, hospitals and nunneries in Lynn and the surrounding areas. She was instructed in the importance of  penitence and confession, and the means of obtaining absolution, including indulgences; she watched the dramatic ritual of the mass and the feasts of the church; she became familiar with visual representations, such as pictures and sculptures of the Passion, the Joys and Sorrows of the Virgin, the lives of saints, the Seven Deadly Sins;49  she heard sermons delivered by priests and friars, and committed to memory much of what she heard. Her familiarity as a young adult with liturgical and biblical texts, with the rhythms and seasons of the church, and with the growing devotional literature in English, including English renderings of the revelations of St Bridget of Sweden, would hardly have been possible without extensive religious guidance and familiarity with devotional and mystical texts from an early age. Mystical texts and narratives of lives of holy women were spread throughout Europe by the friars, particularly by the Franciscans.50 

When Margery Kempe’s visionary life began, the pattern of her experiences fell into the penitential tradition associated with the holy women of the Low Countries, Germany and Sweden, a tradition rooted in visualisation and meditative re-enactment of the life and death of Christ, the sorrows and joys of the Blessed Virgin, dialogue with God and the saints, and declarations of love and forgiveness.51  That her visionary life developed in a manner frequently found in the lives of continental women in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century can be explained, in part at least, by the strong links between Lynn and the continent, and by the learning and interests of visionary and scholarly friars in Lynn, such as the Dominican anchorite confessor and the Carmelite Master Alan. However, a closely related tradition of penitential contemplation and “devout imagination” can also be traced in England, from the Ancrene Wisse through to popular late-medieval texts such as the Chastising of God’s Children, Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, which was a translation of the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes Vitae Christi licensed by Archbishop Thomas Arundel around 1410, and the mystery plays.52  Although there is no mention of the play cycles in Margery Kempe’s book, early familiarity with plays and processions may well have contributed to the importance attached to events that happened on or close to the feast of Corpus Christi, and may well have encouraged her habitual visualisation of biblical and apocryphal scenes. In terms of the native English penitential tradition, what remains exceptional in the case of Margery Kempe is that a lay woman of her class and background should have become so forceful an exponent of it.

Given Margery Kempe’s predilection for words – for repartee, for edifying conversation, for sermons, for the written word, and above all for verbal revelations of the divine – it seems surprising that the tutelage of learned men in Lynn over many years did not lead to her becoming literate. As in other cases where there was a risk of charges of heresy, she, or her confessors or amanuenses, may have found it expedient to emphasise her orthodox dependence on the priesthood for transmission of the written word, and to minimise whatever reading ability she may have had. It has been said that Margery Kempe “virtually had to prove herself a non-reader when her knowledge of gospel made the authorities in York suspect her as a Lollard”.53 

In preparing to redraft the early version of her book, the second amanuensis read aloud to her what the first had written and she was sometimes able to help when it came to a difficulty, but it is not clear whether she helped by reading the manuscript, or by remembering what she had said as she listened to him reading (5/10–12). Two passages in the book have been adduced as evidence that she could not read. Firstly, it is mentioned that a priest read edifying texts to her over a period of seven or eight years (pp. 142–144). However, this does not rule out the possibility that she was able to read herself. The priest may have been providing commentary as well as reading, rather than simply reading. He may also have been rendering Latin versions of the texts into the vernacular. His reading included “?e Bybyl with doctowrys ?er-up-on” (143/26–27). Since reading the Bible in the vernacular was forbidden to the laity by the Constitutions of Archbishop Arundel, 1407–1409, there was good reason to emphasise that it was the priest, and not Margery Kempe, who was the reader. Secondly, in a dream an angel child was required to show her that her name was written in the Book of Life at the foot of the Trinity (206/33–207/3). However, a dream sequence with a Book of Life in which innumerable names may have been inscribed cannot be regarded as strong evidence for or against the dreamer’s ability to read. It is certain that she could not have understood Latin texts, since she knew no language other than English (82/17–18). 

Two passages in the book have been adduced as evidence that she could in fact read. Firstly, it is recorded that she was kneeling at her prayers and holding her book in her hand when a stone fell on her back in St Margaret’s Church (21/22–25). The mention of the book suggests that she could read, at least a little. Even though it may have been an illustrated book of the type favoured by the laity at the time that could convey its message chiefly through pictures, it is likely that a pious and frequent church-goer’s familiarity with such books encouraged some basic skills in reading.54  More significantly, in one of Margery Kempe’s revelations she hears the Lord say that he is not displeased with her, whether she is praying with her mouth or thinking with her heart, reading or being read to (218/4–8). The contrast made between reading and being read to suggests that she was able to read as well as listen.

With regard to her lack of writing skills, the evidence of the book is unambiguous. Most importantly, she was entirely dependent on amanuenses for the actual writing of both versions of her book. Earlier evidence of her reliance on others is found in accounts of letter-writing. When it was revealed to her that a letter was to be sent to a doubting widow, the instruction was that she was to have the letter written, and she goes on to recount how a master of divinity wrote it:

Than owyr Lord bad ?is creatur don wryten a lettyr & send it hir. A maystyr of dyuynite wrot a lettyr at ?e request of ?is creatur & sent to ?e wedow wyth ?ese clawsys ?at folwyn .... (45/16–19)
When, on reaching Leicester on the return journey from her pilgrimage to Compostella, she wished to send a message to her husband in Lynn, requesting that he fetch her home, she asked a companion to write the letter for her (111/20–22). When she sent letters to her son, wrot in “?an wrot sche letterys to hym” is intended presumably in a causative sense (224/29–31).

However uneducated she may have been with regard to reading and writing, there is no doubt that the Margery Kempe presented in the book was not only skilful in speaking and listening, but also highly textualised. Evidence of this ranges from her quick-witted skill in calling on textual authority in dialogue and debate to the memorising and recounting of biblical and other stories, and ultimately to the genesis of her own book, with its reliance on the authority of the scriptures, scriptural commentary, liturgical texts, devotional treatises, accounts of revelations, homilies and lives of saints. Some aspects of intertextuality may be attributed to the second amanuensis, such as references to the lives of Marie d’Oignies and St Elizabeth of Hungary which helped him to believe in the authenticity of Margery Kempe’s visions (153/1, 154/13).55  But biblical material in particular is an integral part of her own daily life and her visions.