The Book of Margery Kempe is the earliest autobiography written in English, but for years it was known only through a book of extracts published in the sixteenth century. A copy of the original fifteenth-century manuscript finally appeared in 1934, in the collection of an English Catholic family. The document that emerged was the record, dictated to an unnamed priest, of the spiritual life of a fascinating woman—Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn, the daughter of a former mayor of Lynn, and the wife of John Kempe. Aside from being one of the great literary discoveries of the twentieth century, The Book of Margery Kempe is an important addition to the body of English mystical writings and provides an intimate look at a remarkable medieval life.
Kempe narrates her story in rough chronological order, beginning with her breakdown following the birth of her first child. However, the text retains the rambling, somewhat repetitive quality of a tale told from memory, as the events reappear in the mind of the teller. Though Kempe is illiterate, her Book has clear literary ancestors. The genre of the Christian “spiritual autobiography” goes back to St. Augustine (354–430 a.d.), whose Confessions tell the story of his early life and conversion to Christianity. Following Augustine’s example, spiritual autobiographies tend to be tightly focused on the author’s subjective experience, relating all the events of the author’s life to his or her religious development. This is clearly the case with Kempe’s Book, which tends to deal with the external world only as it directly impinges on Kempe’s inner growth—even her children go unnamed and practically unmentioned unless they somehow figure into the primary subject at hand: Kempe’s devotional life and her mystical contact with Jesus.
The other major literary genre to influence Kempe (primarily through the teaching of her confessor and of her friend Master Aleyn) was the works of the Christian mystics. The medieval period was the golden age of Christian mysticism, which is a spiritual discipline aimed at a direct union with God through intense prayer and contemplation. When mystics achieve the union that they seek with God, the experience is often marked by a trancelike state, visions, and a kind of physical ecstasy or even pain.
The most famous Christian mystics with whom Kempe would have been familiar include St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), founder of the Franciscan order of mendicant friars (monks who travel from place to place preaching and living off the charity of others), and St. Bonaventure (1221–1274), a great theologian and philosopher, whose guide to the contemplative life is read to Kempe by one of her priestly friends. Other mystics whom Kempe cites by name include St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), author of a spiritual autobiography that deeply influenced Kempe; and the Englishmen Walter Hilton (?–1396) and Richard Rolle (?–1349), whose descriptions of the raptures of mystical contact with God have much in common with Kempe’s. And of course Kempe actually meets and speaks to one of the greatest English mystics, Julian of Norwich, an anchoress (a kind of hermit devoted to the religious life) and the author of her Revelations of Divine Love.
Although Kempe does her best to follow the examples of her great precursors and focus exclusively on her spiritual life, more mundane reality often breaks into her narrative. For example, one of the more interesting aspects of the travelogue portions of the Book is the glimpse we get of the practical realities of making a long journey during Kempe’s era. At times the effect is homely and charming, as when Kempe describes her domestic life and her disputes with her husband. The political side of the religious life also intrudes on Kempe when she is arrested on suspicion of heresy, thanks to her idiosyncratic dress and behavior. Specifically, Kempe is accused of “Lollardy,” that is, of being a Lollard, a follower of the reformer John Wycliffe (1320–1384). Wycliffe challenged the church hierarchy of his time, especially by translating the Bible into English, and his followers called for sweeping church reforms, many of which were later instituted during the English Reformation. At the time of Kempe’s Book, however, Lollardy was illegal and punishable by death. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, whom Kempe meets, was particularly committed to stamping out the Lollards, and Kempe’s efforts to emphasize her orthodoxy and loyalty to the church are a shaping force of the story she tells in her Book.