Thursday, October 17, 2013

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)

Margery Kempe  is known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language.. This volume chronicles, to some extent, her extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and Asia, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honored in the Anglican communion..

 She was born Margery Brunham in Kings-lynn, Norfolk, England. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn,a five-time mayor, and member of parliament. At the age of 20, Margery Brunham married a Norwich man named John Kempe. She had 14 children with him.

 The narrative of Kempe's book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. While delivering this child, she became gravely ill and feared for her life. She called for a priest to hear her confession, as she had a "secret sin" that had been weighing on her conscience for some time. The priest began to censure her before she could divulge this sin in its entirety, and then left. Fearing eternal damnation, she fell into a delusional state, where she describes seeing devils around her, and was considered a danger to herself and others. She was chained in a storeroom for six months, until, as she describes, Jesussat down at her bedside, and asked her, "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" She relates, at first, intending to become God's servant, but admits she could not "leave her pride nor her pompous array." Kempe undertook two domestic businesses—a brewery and a grain-mill—both common home-based businesses for medieval women, both of which endured for a little while, then failed.

Though she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, Kempe dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, Kempe negotiated a celibate marriage with her husband, and began to make pilgrimages around Europe and Asia to holy sites, including Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostella. Her book consisted of her accounts related to these travels, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her book is on the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years.

 Two different scribes wrote for Kempe, under her strict supervision.

 Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book: it is the best insight available of a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe is unusual among the more traditional holy exemplars of her time, such as Julian of Norwich, a member of a religious order. In describing her visit to Julian in Norwich, Kempe tells of their discussion of Kempe's visions and assessment as to their orthodoxy. They decided that because the visions led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit.

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