6/23/2008

Woman of the week - Margery Kempe

Name: Margery Kempe
Born: circa 1373, King's Lynn, England
Dead: after 1438, place unkown
Married to: John Kempe of Lynn
Children: 14
Occupation: Writer and mystic

Margery Kempe was born as the daughter of John de Brunham, a merchant and merchant in King's Lynn. At the age of about twenty she married John Kempe, the son of a skinner or possibly a fur merchant.

At the birth of the first child Margery suffered from severe fever, during which she had visions of God leading her to recovery. During the next ten years she lived on in a quite normal way, giving birth to children and running both a mill and a brewery (with little economical success). Around 1405-1410 she started to have visions that made her think that she led her life the wrong way, that she was too full of the pleasures of life, too fond of sexual pleasures and too prone to be interested in social status. In the end she wanted to take a vow of chastity and her husband reluctantly agreed to this.

After this her life turned away from that of a normal woman of the middle classes and towards that of a woman wholly devoted to her religion. She made several pilgrimages to important places like Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago di Compostela. She was very outspoken in her religiousness which caught the attention of people around her, sometimes in a less welcome way and she was accused of being a lollard, though there is no reason to suspect that she really was one.

In the 1420's she remained in King's Lynn, though living in a different household than that of her husband. He had an accident in which he was severely injured and Margery took him in and cared for him for the rest of his life. He died somewhere around 1431. At that time her son, who by now lived in Danzig, had come to visit with his wife - but he died unexpectedly. Margery escorted her daughter-in-law all the way home, and then returned home by land - and by now she had no money left and had to travel in poverty and all alone.

She had made a first draft of her spiritual journey around 1430, dictated to someone else who could write it down. After her return from the continent she did a second version, which was written down by a priest in 1436-1438 - and it is this writing that has survived to our time as The book of Margery Kempe. This is the last time her name appears in the records and we do not know how she lived the rest of her life or when and where she died.

The book was lost during the Reformation and resurfaced again only in 1934 in the private library of the Butler-Bowden family in Lancashire. It was published in a modern version in 1936 and in original middle English in 1940.

There is no known portraits of Margery Kempe. The picture is of St. Margaret's church in King's Lynn. The picture (and others of the same church) can be found here.

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