OFF THE SHELF / Roaring, heavenly visions: Kenneth Baxter on Margery Kempe's autobiography

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The Independent Culture
INTERNATIONAL LATIN and Norman French seriously retarded the development of English prose. Hence, when Margery Kempe, wife of 'a worshipful burgher' of King's Lynn, wanted to record her remarkable spiritual and physical experiences she, having neither language, had to wait for someone to take down at her dictation what she remembered after 20 years. It was 1436, so her book can claim to be our earliest autobiography. Wynken de Worde printed a few leaves in 1501 but the complete manuscript was not recovered until 1934.

After the birth of her first child Margery became mentally deranged. She regained her wits, more or less, but had what she took to be heavenly visions and developed a sort of religious hysteria during which she frequently 'cried and roared and wept full boisterously' sometimes falling and writhing on the ground.

After she had borne 13 more children she persuaded her husband, not without difficulty, 'enough is enough'. Together they took a vow of continence before the Bishop of Lincoln and, having been ordered by God to wear white clothing and go on pilgrimage, she set off for Compostella, Rome and the Holy Land. Mediaeval pilgrimages were no jaunt. 'This Creature', as she calls herself, suffered much - partly at the hands of her fellow-travellers. They abused her for not eating meat, cut short her white clothes, hid her bedding and made her sit, silent, at the end of the table.

At Constance the Papal legate protected her from her irate companions; and from Venice she sailed to Jerusalem where she followed the tourist trail with 'wonderful weeping, sobbing and howling', rejected by English pilgrims but pitied by strangers. Back home she was examined as to her faith by the Archbishop of York who acquitted her of heresy but ordered her out of his diocese. Now old and ailing she believed herself obliged to visit the Baltic where she was tormented by seasickness, vermin and uncouth natives who thought the English had tails, but got home safely to Lynn in time to die.

Margery Kempe was not one of the great mystics. She was a neurotic woman who perhaps would have done better to retire to a recluse's cell, like her distinguished contemporary, Dame Juliana of Norwich, instead of gadding about the world upsetting herself and others. But then we should not have had an historically valuable description of medieval life nor of a remarkable person whom, probably fortunately, we did not meet in the flesh.