The Book of Margery Kempe
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [c.1420]
This autobiography, the earliest in English, was dictated to scribes (for Margery could neither read nor write) in the first decades of the fifteenth century. In it, Margery describes her spiritual life and her travels, and gives portraits of English life at the time.
Her writing has about it that same refreshing candidness and lack of pretension that I found in the writing of Julian of Norwich (whom Margery met on at least one occasion). She refers to herself as “that creature” much of the time, and is as matter-of-fact about the storms of her soul and the voices she hears as she is about weather and the hazards of travel.
Much of the book is devoted to Margery’s descriptions of her remarkably vivid spiritual experience. She reports having spoken with numerous saints — sometimes St Peter, sometimes St Paul, sometimes St Katherine or some other — with Our Lady, with Our Lord himself, and even with the Holy Trinity. She had an especially strong devotion to Christ’s Passion, and is regularly reduced to tears at the very thought of his suffering. Indeed, these plentiful tears, which she took as a special gift from God (“tears with love are the greatest gift that God may give on earth”), were also a recurring source of tension in Margery’s social circles, and I came to feel a certain affection for them. Again and again she describes how she was overcome with grief and cried out in great sorrow, with copious tears, abundant tears, astonishing tears, unquenchable tears, while those around her gazed with incomprehension or derided with scorn. “Some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbour; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought.” Margery was aware of the disdain, but, it seems, she remained grateful, for her tears “never came without surpassingly great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation”.
For me, among the most interesting parts of the book were those that described her travels. She made several pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago, Jerusalem, and Rome. Late in life she volunteered to accompany a young widow from England to Germany. Her accounts are of great interest, partly for their details about the uncertainties of travel at that time, and partly for the descriptions of the places she went and the people she met.
The Book of Margery Kempe is not an immortal classic. It owes at least part of its fame to the mere fact of its survival (in a single manuscript, I note, which can be viewed online courtesy the British Library). I said above that Margery described her spiritual life in the down-to-earth manner in which one discusses the weather, and, as with descriptions of weather, a little goes a long way. But it was genuinely fascinating to read of her travels, to imagine her visiting places that I myself have visited, and to learn, through her, something of the attitudes and character of her contemporaries.
One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise. And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, “Alas that ever I sinned! It is full merry in heaven.” This melody was so sweet that it surpassed all the melody that might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and it caused this creature when she afterwards heard any mirth or melody to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings for the bliss of heaven, not fearing the shames and contempt of this wretched world. And ever after her being drawn towards God in this way, she kept in mind the joy and melody that there was in heaven, so much so that she could not very well restrain herself from speaking of it. For when she was in company with any people she would often say, “It is full merry in heaven!”
[God speaks to his daughter Margery]
“Daughter, you are as sure of the love of God, as God is God. Your soul is more sure of the love of God than of your own body, for your soul will part from your body, but God shall never part from your soul, for they are united together without end. Therefore, daughter, you have as great a reason to be merry as any lady in this world; and if you know, daughter, how much you please me when you willingly allow me to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life and the time is very well spent. For, daughter, this life pleases me more than wearing the coat of mail for penance, or the hair-shirt, or fasting on bread and water; for if you said a thousand paternosters every day you would not please me as much as you do when you are in silence and allow me to speak to your soul.”