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The Book of Margery Kempe is a book written Margery Kempe.

Plot

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.

Characters

  • Margery Kempe - The narrator of the Book, which is Kempe's autobiography. Margery begins her story when she is a young wife suffering a post-partum breakdown. She then tells of her first mystical visions of Jesus and the ways her life changed afterward. Margery has an eventful life, full of travel, controversy, and confrontation. She travels across England, as well as to Jerusalem, Rome, Spain, and Germany—extraordinary for a middle-class woman of her time. Everywhere she goes, her ostentatious, highly emotional religiosity attracts attention, and her claims of receiving direct visions of Jesus arouse suspicions of heresy. Her most important experiences, however, are all spiritual, and her narrative reflects Margery's intense inward focus and her mystical raptures.
  • John Kempe - Margery's husband. John is confused by Margery's turn away from married life and toward religious devotion, and he shows both frustration and a great deal of patience with his rather demanding wife. It takes Margery several years (and many children) before she can convince John that the two of them should live together chastely, devoting themselves to God. Eventually, Margery succeeds, and they take a vow of chastity. For many years afterward, Margery and her husband live apart, and her great travels are solo journeys. Margery returns to her husband in his old age, however, after he is injured in a fall. She speaks of John in his decrepit state sadly and tenderly, and she nurses him until his death.
  • Margery's Son - The only one of Margery's children to emerge as a full-fledged character. Margery's son is described as “a tall young man” who works as a merchant in Germany. He is at first rather loose-living, and his mother warns him often of the dangers of lust and “lechery.” Margery's worry causes friction between them, but when the son becomes covered in sores and pustules, apparently due to a venereal complaint, he decides to mend his ways. Margery's son eventually reforms, makes a trip to Rome, and settles down with a German woman. After the birth of their first child, the couple comes to England to visit Margery, but the son becomes sick and dies soon after.
  • Margery's Daughter-in-Law - The German woman whom Margery's son marries. Margery's daughter-in-law stays with Margery for several months after the death of her husband. As the daughter-in-law is preparing to return home, Margery suddenly decides to accompany her back to Germany. Margery's daughter-in-law seems reluctant and is rather inhospitable to Margery when they are in Germany.
  • Alan of Lynn (“Master Aleyn”) - One of Margery's spiritual advisors and friends. Master Aleyn is a Carmelite Friar and an expert in mystical writings and theology. He befriends Margery soon after her mystical experiences begin and defends her when her unusual behavior begins to draw hostile notice. Margery learns much of the writings of such English mystics as Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle, as well as female precursors such as St. Bridget, thanks to Master Aleyn. Much later, Master Aleyn's association with Margery gets him in trouble with his superiors in the church, and the two are forbidden to meet for a time. Before Master Aleyn's death, however, the pair have a joyful reunion.
  • Archbishop of Canterbury (“Arundel”) - The most important and powerful bishop in England. Margery seeks an audience with the Archbishop on the advice of the Bishop of Lincoln. The Archbishop is curious about Margery and asks her many questions regarding her spiritual experiences and her beliefs. Margery speaks with him well into the night, and in the end, he decides to sanction her unusual choice of spiritual vocation. The Archbishop gives Margery permission to wear white clothes, and, later, he writes her a letter certifying that she is not a heretic.
  • The “Preaching Friar” - A friar, renowned for his preaching, who comes to live in Lynn. Margery looks forward to hearing the friar preach, but he is not used to being interrupted by loud wailing during his sermons. The other religious figures in Lynn try to get him to accept Margery's eccentricities, but he cannot. He bans Margery from his church and sparks a backlash against Margery in Lynn, inspiring many who dislike her behavior to speak out against her.
  • Julian of Norwich (“Dame Julian”) - One of the greatest English mystics and best-known female writers of the Middle Ages. Julian was an anchoress (female hermit) in a convent in the city of Norwich. The author of a book of her “revelations,” Julian was often sought out for guidance by political and religious authorities, as well as by common folk. Margery goes to pay her respects to Julian soon after her own mystical visions commence. The pair have a long conversation in which Julian tries to instruct Margery how to tell a true vision from a false one. Julian also tells Margery that her tears are a blessing and a sign of God's favor.
  • The German Priest - A priest who befriends Margery in Rome. After Margery is kicked out of the English community in Rome, she is taken in by several others, including a German priest who becomes her confessor. The priest advises Margery to give up her all-white wardrobe and care for a destitute Roman woman, and Margery obeys. Since the priest does not speak English and Margery does not speak German, the propriety of his acting as Margery's spiritual advisor is suspect. At dinner one evening, however, Margery speaks to the German priest in English, and he translates her words into Latin for some English priests, who become convinced that God approves of the relationship.
  • Unnamed Priest, Margery's Secretary - The priest who records Margery's words, providing the text of the Book. This priest befriends Margery late in her life and agrees to help her tell her story. This is actually the second attempt to write down Margery's life story. The first came several years before, when Margery made the attempt with an unnamed helper (very likely her son), and the result was a nearly illegible manuscript. The priest breaks into Margery's story on occasion to verify her account or to back up her claims—for example, when Margery helps heal the young woman stricken, as Margery had been, with post-partum psychosis. The priest has a brief episode of trouble with his vision at the start of writing the Book, but he and Margery pray and his vision clears.
  • Richard (“The Broken-Backed Man”) - A poor Irishman who aids Margery on her return from Jerusalem. Before Margery leaves on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, her confessor prophesies that she will receive help from “a broken-backed man.” In Venice, on her way home from Jerusalem, Margery is abandoned by her fellow pilgrims, but she meets Richard, who has a deformed spine. Margery immediately sees Richard as the “broken-backed” man of her confessor's prophecy and hires him as an escort. Richard frequently seems bemused by his employer and is often afraid that they will attract bandits as they travel. In Rome, Margery gives some of Richard's money (which he has given her for safekeeping) to the poor, which annoys Richard. Margery promises to repay him, and does so when, by chance, she meets Richard again at Bristol, where Margery is setting off on her second pilgrimage abroad.
  • Margery's Confessor (“Master R,” “Master Robert Spryngolde”) - A priest of Lynn, and Margery's primary spiritual advisor. In Margery's visions, Jesus instructs her several times to honor and obey the wisdom of Master Robert. Master Robert believes in Margery's visions and defends her several times against those who would claim that her tears are fake or inspired by the devil rather than by God. Master Robert predicts that Margery will be helped on her pilgrimage by a “broken-backed man,” and the appearance of Richard in Venice seems to fulfill his prophecy. Margery's confessor helps her through many crises, including Margery's difficulty with her enemy (the preaching friar) and the great fire that endangers the church in Lynn. The greatest crisis in their relationship comes when Margery departs for Germany with her daughter-in-law, after Master Robert has advised her to stay home. On her return, Margery apologizes humbly and is forgiven. Margery's sense of profound gratitude toward her confessor is best expressed by her prayer to Jesus that Master Robert have half of any blessing that Margery may receive in heaven.
  • Vicar of St. Stephen's (“Richard of Caister”) - A priest of Norwich, well-known for his personal holiness and his great knowledge. The Vicar befriends Margery and defends her from accusations of heresy. He asks for Margery's prayers, and Margery is greatly moved to learn of his death.
  • Archbishop of York - The spiritual leader of one of the largest towns in England, and one of Margery's inquisitors. When Margery is arrested near York, she is brought before the Archbishop, who questions her sharply about her tears. The Archbishop is soon convinced of Margery's orthodoxy but is still concerned about the rumors he hears about her. In the end, the Archbishop simply tells her to leave town as soon as she can. When Margery is arrested again soon after, she is once more brought before the Archbishop. This time, the Archbishop seems more annoyed at Margery's accusers, and he refuses to imprison her, despite the protestations of the men of the Duke of Bedford. The Archbishop appreciates Margery's homespun wisdom—he is clearly amused by certain earthy stories Margery tells, although the stories are critical of priests. The Archbishop seems to grow to like Margery the more he sees of her, but as a busy administrator, he is glad to see the troublesome woman depart.

Symbolism

Margery's Tears

The uncontrollable tears that flow whenever Margery worships or even thinks of God are a source of both difficulty and pride. She believes that God sends her tears, but she is initially unsure about how to interpret them. In a vision, Jesus explains the meaning of her tears. First, they are an outward sign of Margery's deep love of Christ. As a symbol of Margery's inner being, the tears show others the depth of Margery's faith. They call to mind the suffering of Christ, who, in Christian doctrine, dies to save the souls of all people. In this sense, Margery's tears are a symbolic form of prayer, worship, and teaching. But Jesus tells Margery that the tears are meaningful in another sense as well: by coming and going as unpredictably as a rainstorm, Margery's tears suggest her complete dependence on God. By making her cry at his whim, Jesus is showing Margery that she is his “creature,” as Margery refers to herself. Margery is grateful for this rather difficult blessing, and her understanding of its symbolic value helps her whenever her tears draw hostile attention.

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