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The present study attempts to place the figure of Margery Kempe, as presented in the book that bears her name, in the context of late medieval local history, geography, society and religion, and to consider the early history of her book. Taking as its starting-point the commentary and notes assembled by S.B. Meech and H.E. Allen for the Early English Text Society edition of 1940, the study makes use of scholarship of the last sixty years as well as recent original documentary research to draw together various threads of information about her life, and about the writing and transmission of her book. 

Margery Kempe passed her early life and much of her later life in Lynn in Norfolk, where she grew up and married and bore fourteen children. From young adulthood she experienced revelations. She became profoundly religious, wished to lead a religious life while remaining in the world, and persuaded her husband after some twenty years of marriage to agree to vows of chastity. She travelled as a pilgrim to Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostella. She was given to religious weeping and, for ten years following her visit to Jerusalem, to shrieks and cries, prompted above all by contemplation of Christ’s Passion and the sinful ingratitude of mankind. As an old woman, after the deaths of her husband and one of her sons, she accompanied her widowed daughter-in-law on a voyage to the latter’s home-town of Danzig, and made her way back to England via Stralsund and the holy places of Wilsnack and Aachen. It was before and after these late travels that the story of her life was recorded, with the help of amanuenses. The Book of Margery Kempe treats of the “wonderful werkys” of Jesus Christ and tells how Margery, a sinner, was moved to the love of God (1/10-19).2 

At a time when anxiety about Lollard heresy and treason had led to injunctions against reading of the Bible in the vernacular by lay people, and against preaching and teaching by women, she took it upon herself to expound scripture, to tell moral tales, and to reprimand clerics and others for their ungodly way of life, in particular for swearing oaths. Resolutely denying charges of Lollardy, she was found orthodox with regard to the articles of the faith whenever she was examined by ecclesiastical authorities. Deferential in most respects to the authority of the church, and conscious of the need to negotiate her husband’s consent to her chosen way of life, she was revered and supported by some people, but she nevertheless became widely known as a disorderly woman. Outward expression of religious ecstasy and penitential lamentations often resulted in the case of Margery Kempe in charges of hypocrisy and impropriety, or imputations of sickness, although in other instances such behaviour might be interpreted as a sign of grace and sanctity.

There is in some respects an abundance of material available for an account of her life, in other respects very little. Her own book provides much information, and no compelling reason has been found to doubt its veracity on points of factual detail, notwithstanding serious scholarly claims that it should be regarded as a work of fiction.3  Historical evidence of external events alluded to in the book, such as the Guildhall fire of 1421 in Lynn, supports the view expressed in H.E. Allen’s note on “drede for illusyons”:

I shall say .... that I think that Margery’s  “dread for illusions” was a motive which trained her to an accuracy of expression (as to external events) quite exceptional in the Middle Ages.  (note on 3/8, p. 257)
Yet, however veracious it may be, the book was intended to tell of conversion and religious life rather than to give precise details of dates, places, or people. Some of the events described took place up to forty years earlier than the time of writing; some are not recorded in strict chronological sequence (5/12–16).
Other than in her own book there is no certain contemporary record of events in Margery Kempe’s life, but it is generally assumed that two entries in the Lynn Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants’ account rolls for 1437–38 and 1438–39, of payments made by one John Assheden for the entry of a Margery Kempe into the Trinity Guild, refer to her, and that she was received into membership of the prosperous merchants’ guild at that time (App.III.I.1, pp. 358–359).

Her book recounts that she was examined by bishops, archbishops or their representatives in Norwich, Lincoln, London, Bristol, Leicester, York, Cawood and Beverley. Bishops’ registers reveal no trace of her. Records of examinations and inquisitions were sometimes included among the memoranda in bishops’ registers, but, as the editor of the register of Philip Repingdon of Lincoln points out, the clerks responsible for making such entries made their own selection of items worthy of record.4 

Lynn and Norwich archives contain frequent references during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries to male members of the prominent Brunham family, into which Margery Kempe was born around 1373, and several references to the male members of the Kempe family, into which she married around 1393. References to female Kempes and Brunhams are rare. The calendar of the freemen of Lynn has no mention of a Brunham after the end of the fourteenth century, and no mention of a Kemp(e) between the late fourteenth and mid sixteenth centuries. There are no Brunhams or Kempes on the calendar’s list of 259 burgesses for 20 July 1440, about the time of Margery Kempe’s death.5  There is no record of commemorative brasses or other memorials to a Brunham or Kempe in the town.