Margery Kempe is a well-off middle-class townswoman in the medieval English town of King’s Lynn. After the birth of her first child, Margery has a nervous breakdown, seeing hideous devils all around her. Margery recovers after having a vision of Jesus Christ, and she decides to devote her life to holiness and contemplation of God. One of the first hurdles Margery has to overcome is convincing her husband to live a life of celibacy with her—she succeeds only after having fourteen children. After the failure of a brewing business she starts, Margery becomes certain that God wants her to turn away from the world. Margery’s devotion to Jesus is highly emotional and dramatic, and she soon acquires a reputation as a religious eccentric, a potentially dangerous reputation in a time when heresy was a capital offense. Margery faces doubt and temptation, especially sexual temptation, but she perseveres and often receives guidance in her visions.
Margery makes several pilgrimages, the longest and most difficult of which is a journey to Jerusalem, with a long stopover in Rome. During the pilgrimage, Margery is shunned by her fellow travelers but is often accepted by the poor, a pattern that repeats itself throughout her life. In Jerusalem, Margery has several intense visions, and she begins to have spells in which she sobs and cries uncontrollably. These crying fits come upon her most often during religious services, but they also occur whenever she simply thinks of Jesus or sees something that reminds her of his suffering. Margery is stranded in Rome for a time after giving away her money to the poor, and she makes her way by begging. Margery’s extreme behavior begins to make her notorious, and she makes enemies among the English contingent in Rome. Eventually, Margery is given enough money to return home.
Upon her return to England, Margery does her best to live a life of devotion to Christ. As a married woman, however, she is somewhat constrained, such as by the fact that she cannot become a nun. Margery travels to various churches and holy sites in England, attracting attention wherever she goes, thanks to her public weeping and her all-white wardrobe. At times, Margery is accepted as a holy woman, and her advice and blessings are solicited. More often, she is treated as an oddity or a nuisance and mocked. On occasion, the hostile attention she draws goes beyond mockery. Traveling through the north of England, Margery is arrested several times and almost burned at the stake as a heretic, though she is saved by the intervention of the church authorities. Each time she is arrested, Margery defends herself vigorously. She is respectful to authority but firm in her beliefs, none of which are heretical, as her examiners soon see.
Margery continues to have mystical visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and several saints. Margery’s devotion to Christ is particularly intense and is expressed in highly physical, even sexual, terms. In her visions, Margery often sees herself as a servant to Mary or Jesus, acting as an eyewitness to the events of the gospels. Jesus speaks to Margery in her visions of such subjects as the Trinity, the salvation and damnation of souls, and the meaning of the constant tears he sends her. Margery tries to spend as much time as she can in prayer or in conversation with her spiritual guides. Even so, her dramatic weeping in church and elsewhere continues to draw attention and, often, censure. Margery comes into particular conflict with a friar who moves to Lynn and refuses to allow Margery to hear him preach because of her disruptive weeping.
As time goes on, Margery’s husband becomes old and infirm, and Margery returns to his household to care for him. One of Margery’s sons turns from his sinful ways after much praying and beseeching by Margery, and he marries a German woman. The couple comes to England for a visit, and the son takes ill and dies, soon followed by his father. In her last extended journey, Margery accompanies her daughter-in-law (who is less than enthusiastic about being joined by her odd mother-in-law) back to Germany, only deciding to leave at the last minute. Margery’s trip overland from Germany to France is her most grueling yet, and she is again scorned by other travelers from England, to whom she turns for help. Eventually, Margery makes it to London and finally back to Lynn. Home once again, Margery, now an old woman, decides to record the story of her life and her devotions, and begins the dictation of her Book.