Margery Kempe

(b. 1373 - d. 1438)

Margery Kempe is a controversial woman because of her lack of education and her mystic and spiritual belief of endeavors. She was the daughter of a respected merchant and public official. She was born in Lynn, a town in Norfolk, England and though she grew up in a wealthy family, she was never given a chance to be educated. Her mysticism begins as a child when she refuses to confess a secret sin which most likely affects her all through her adult life. She married merchant John Kempe in the year of 1393, with whom she had fourteen children. When Margery was in her twenties she began to have visions in which she talked to Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. In one vision, Jesus told her to go deeper in her religious practices. Margery Kempe dedicated her life by the call of Jesus in an unusual state by weeping, screaming and praying for Christians during religious services. She became so involved that she detached her daily life from her husband and children and set out on a long journey ending up in Jerusalem. When her pilgrimage comes to an end she dictates her spiritual autobiography to scribes.

Her Autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe has great significance because it  is the earliest known autobiography in English. In her book, Kempe portrays herself as an honest and devote human being. Margery's message is taken from her direct relationship with Jesus that is based on unconditional faith and love. The Book discusses every aspect of Margery's life: from her marriage, religious conversion, and many pilgrimages. She was accused by her contemporaries of fraud and heresy, and often criticized by later scholars as hysterical and crazy. 

Margery Kempe is a woman of mystery because of the unknown truth to her spiritual hysterias. Her lack of education gives scholars today a reason to exclude her from truly being a significant woman of medieval times. Nonetheless, Margery Kempe also had admirers, even among clergy, who defended her visions as genuine signals from God.

Annotated Bibliography

Atkinson, Clarissa W. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.    
Clarissa W. Atkinson, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School, combines insight and sympathy in examining the world of Margery Kempe. Her work examines the character of Margery Kempe though her autobiography, her pilgrim journey, her family life, her relationships with the Church and Clergy, the custom that created her faithfulness nature, and the framework of late medieval female sacredness. Mystic and Pilgrim will appeal to anyone interested in medieval religion and women's history. Both scholarly and general audiences will enjoy the comprehensive text. This book is a popular citation in studies of The Book of Margery Kempe. Mystic and Pilgrim is a resourceful book that places Kempe in both historical and religious context. As one of the most cited authors, Atkinson has documented her work well by using footnotes and index. 

Cholmeley, Katharine. Margery Kempe: Genius and Mystic. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947.   
After many readings and interpretations of The Book of Margery Kempe, Cholmeley realized that it was indeed essential to the study of history and spiritual life. Cholmeley describes Kempe's attitudes towards religious leaders who were not fulfilling their duties and also gives accounts of Kempe's religious pilgrimages. Cholmeley concludes with describing how many of Margery's contemporaries criticized her. Cholmeley also includes information of the way of living during the fifteenth century medieval period. This book is simply written and can be read by anyone interested in the life of Margery Kempe. This book does not include a bibliography, footnotes, or an index that may help he reader.

Collis, Louise. Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.    
Collis has turned the life of Margery Kempe into a literature piece which includes a history of explicit detail of her life in an exciting quest narrative. Usually known as a novel author, Collis also gives a precise historical overview of life in Europe while Margery was alive. With its many historical references, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman would be most appreciated by historians or those with medieval history knowledge. The text is comprehensible and is a easily flowing text, however, the historical references may frustrate general readers. Illustrations are included and the book can be used in conjunction with The Book of Margery Kempe. Collis does cite the sources she using and also uses footnotes and a bibliography.

Fienburg, Nona. "Thematics of Value in The Book of Margery Kempe." Modern Philology 87 (November 1989): 132-141.   
Nona Fienburg, of Millsaps College, attempts to show how The Book of Margery Kempe exploits society during Kempe's lifetime. Fienburg believes that Kempe established her value in society and succeeded in challenging the evaluative system of medieval society. She uses examples from Margery's personal finances and family to show that she did succeed in establishing herself in a predominantly male society. Fienburg feels that Kempe's value is assured with the very existence of her book. Written for scholars, this essay can be used to further investigate Margery Kempe's personal triumphs

Gallyon, Margaret. Margery Kempe of Lynn and Medieval England. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2004.   
Margaret Gallyon is an employee at King's Lynn High School and collected enormous amount of history of the town and Margery Kempe. Her book examines the life of Margery Kempe including her development in the town, her spiritual journey of accepting the wishes and prayers of God, and her family life. Gallyon also examines the many trials of Margery Kempe when she was thought of committing heresies. This book is a good source for anyone interested in the biography of Margery Kempe at a broad level. 

Goodman, Anthony E. Margery Kempe and Her World. Old Tappin, NJ:Longman, 2004. 
Anthony Goodman is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at the University of Edinburgh, gives information about medieval life and times of a wife, mother, world traveler, and mystic in particular of Margery Kempe. He studies the Book of Margery Kempe trying to examine her life by each day dealing with the late medieval Lynn of England more than  her divine spirituality. This source would be useful to a person who is interested in the life of a women during the medieval area of England. This book would not be helpful to a person looking at Margery Kempe's mysticism as much as Margery Kempe: Genius and Mystic by Katharine Cholmeley. 

Harvey, Nancy Lenz. "Margery Kempe: Writer as Creature." Philological Quarterly 71 (Spring 1992): 173-184.  
Nancy L. Harvey, from the University of Cincinnati, attempts to show how Margery created The Book of Margery Kempe. Harvey states that Margery felt her book was "inside" her and that it was another person's duty to write it (Coincidentally, Margery was illiterate.) This essay looks at several aspects to the Book, including its medieval vocabulary, as well as sources and influences that shaped Margery's ideas. Harvey feels that Margery's spiritual experience had its physical manifestation in the Book. There are many quotes from the original text and no translation is provided. Harvey's essay would be most appreciated by scholars with some knowledge of medieval text. Overall, an interesting evaluation of Margery's self-reflections and inspiration.

Johnson, Lynn Staley. "The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe." Speculum 66 (October 1991): 820-838.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Lynn Staley Johnson, along with this essay, has written a book about Margery Kempe entitled Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. This essay discusses how medieval works and their authors were at the mercy of scribes who copied, interpreted, and edited written texts. Scribes could have changed or used metaphors when Margery Kempe dictated her life story and she may have no way of knowing because of her illiteracy. Johnson repeatedly inquires if the scribes intentionally use words to reach complete power of the meaning of the work. Johnson feels that Kempe's constant emphasis of her own illiteracy caused many of her contemporaries to question her Book, thus contributing to the reputation of scribes. Johnson contrast the language of the two women by using Chaucer's use of language. This intriguing essay is an easy read for interested scholars and is a great for literary studies. Johnson's contains fascinating research concerning the scribes behind several of medieval history's distinguished authors.

Jokinen, Anniina. "Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1439)." Anthology of Middle English Literature. (3 January, 2004) <> (5 November2005).
Anniina Jokinen has compiled many essays of Middle English Literature and included on his site is a webpage dedicated to Margery Kempe. The page offers the biography of Margery Kempe's life, along with excerpts from her autobiography, essays that have been written by scholars and students, other books that are written about her, and other resources like images. this is a great site to begin a search for sources of Margery Kempe or any other person that is involved with Middle English Literature.  

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. W. Butler-Bowon. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1944.   
This translation, unlike an edition published by the Early English Text Society, was modernized for a general audience. Reading this text should present little problems for anyone with an interest in Margery Kempe. Many names and places are modernized and obsolete words have been replaced. The Book of Margery Kempe, the first known autobiography written in English, is a captivating tale essential to the study of women in medieval history.

McEntire, Sandra J., ed. Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.: 1992.     
Each essay within the book assumes that Kempe did not suffer from hysteria, and her life and work should be taken seriously. The book as a whole attempts to further understand Kempe as an intelligent, mystical, and energetic woman. Although the reading level is moderately difficult, general readers will appreciate that both the early English and modern translations of The Book of Margery Kempe are given. This compilation provides further insight to the life of Margery Kempe by giving a lot of information on a variety of research that are discussed by scholars. This essay includes good footnotes and bibliography. 

Partner, Nancy. "'And Most of All for Inordinate Love': Desire and Denial in The Book of Margery Kempe." Thought 64 (September 1989): 250-267. 
 In this essay, Partner believes that inordinate love is the motif at the center of the Book. Partner feels that Margery's life was governed by two opposing sides: one religious and holy, the other dark and repressive. This essay focuses on the denied desires that occurred in Margery's life story. She examines several examples of love and desire found in Margery's experiences. Partner concludes that Kempe's guilt over sins and the pressure of forbidden desire describes the life of any woman in late medieval society. This article is an interesting perspective on Margery's life. It can easily be read and understood by scholarly and general readers. An alternative to the religious and spiritual interpretations of Kempe's life.

Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.    
Lynn Staley is a former Professor of English at Colgate University and the author of "The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe." In this book Staley attempts to prove her belief that The Book of Margery Kempe is fiction. She feels that Kempe attempts to create a society and relate that society to herself. This book can be most useful to scholars who have some prior knowledge of Margery Kempe and her Book. Staley gives an intriguing speculation of the mystic Kempe and has written witty collective remarks regarding the period of Margery Kempe, the way of life, the faith in religion that people possessed, the everyday society affairs, and the feminist attitude of the medieval fifteenth century. The reader must also be familiar with early English text in order to appreciate Book examples. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions is an unique interpretation of Margery Kempe's Book. Lynn does give the reader a bibliography that can help further research endeavors. 

Stanbury, Sarah and Raguin, Virginia. "Mapping Margery Kempe: A Guide to Late Medieval Material and Spiritual Life." Mapping Margery Kempe. (25 September, 2003)   < > (5 November, 2005).  
Mapping Margery Kempe is a website of resources dedicated to the cultural and social matrix of  The Book of Margery Kempe. This site want to focus on the period of the time in which Margery Kempe existed and the parish in which she was criticized by. The site will offer picture gallery, a long with the route of her pilgrimage, documents of the town Lynn, Middle English Text and writings of Saints, and teaching guides for teachers. This site would be useful to a student who wants to do extensive research on the Medieval Area along with the life of Margery Kempe. This site could also be useful to teachers who want to have more knowledge on the subject. 

Stone, Robert Karl. Middle English Prose Style: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton & Co., 1970.
Robert Stone was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time of this publication. This book attempts to compare and contrast The Book of Margery Kempe and the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Stone discusses such topics as character, style, and technique of both works. he looks closely at the elements that make both characters important, such as they both came from the same geological place and the comparison of the literary capabilities. This book will not be valuable to someone without any knowledge of the English grammar and terminology. A scholar with a background in medieval history and English would best benefit from reading the book. Middle English Prose Style focuses on the structure of these medieval works, rather than historical content. this book offers a good bibliography that can be helpful for more research on the medieval period.


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Original written by Julia Kane in 1998
Revised by Elena DiGrado, October 2005 
Last Revision: 2 November 2006

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