Margery Kempe: The Self-Made Mystic


In the 15th century, as now, independent female travelers faced harassment and suspicion.

I’ve always been fascinated with the women mystics, such as 12th century powerfrau and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, the heroine of my 2012 novel, ILLUMINATIONS. Likewise my new novel, REVELATIONS, which will be published in April 2021, is centered on two 15th century English mystics, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. Like Hildegard, they were women of faith facing the roadblock of institutional, male-dominated religion that sidelined them. But instead of letting this beat them down, they found within their own hearts a vision of the divine that mirrored their female experience. I believe it’s no mere coincidence that both Hildegard and Julian dared to create a theology of the Feminine Divine, of God the Mother. All three women seized their power and their voice to write about their encounters with the sacred, preserving their revelations to inspire us today.

While Hildegard and Julian are iconic, Margery Kempe is a more marginal figure–well-known among medievalists but much less known to a general audience. I first encountered Margery in a post-grad course entitled Late Medieval Belief and Superstition. I was blown away by the story of this enterprising woman who survived postnatal depression and a soul-destroying marriage to become an intrepid world traveler and literary pioneer. The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436–38) is the first autobiography in the English language.

Margery’s story explodes our every stereotype about medieval women.

She was not just a desperate housewife and mother of fourteen. She rebelled against the straightjacket of an abusive marriage by becoming an entrepreneurial businesswoman. First she ran a brewery, then a grain mill. When both businesses failed and she’d had enough, she left her husband behind and took to the road as a pilgrim, traveling to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. This in an age when very few women traveled even in the company of their husbands, Margery blazed her own trail across Europe and the Near East.

Alas, like strong women throughout history, her independence and eccentricities drew suspicion. Before long she found herself on trial for heresy. A guilty verdict would have seen her burned at the stake, yet she kept her spirits high by regaling the Archbishop of York with a parable of a defecating bear and a priest.

Before leaving on her monumental pilgrimage, Margery sought the counsel of her sister mystic, Julian of Norwich. This was an exceedingly vulnerable time in Margery’s life. In leaving her husband and children behind, she had broken all the rules, and she was filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Julian’s advice to trust her inner calling and not worry too much about what other people thought seemed to have a profound and empowering impact on Margery. While Julian had chosen to wall herself into a cell and live as an anchoress, she gave Margery her blessing to wander the wide world.

Sadly, some historians and theologians try to pit Julian and Margery against each other. Julian is held up as the real saint, the real deal, while Margery is dismissed as a hysterical wanna-be. Because she had the habit of copious weeping when in the throes of mystical experience, many people, both in her time and ours, have refused to take her seriously.

Yet a number of fascinating synchronicities connect Margery and Julian. In so many ways, their stories intertwine and complement each other.

Margery was born in 1373, the same year that thirty-year-old Julian received her “showings”—the divine visions that would inspire her landmark book Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman. Both women lived in Norfolk, in cities less than 45 miles away from each other. Both women were literary pioneers whose lifework was lost to obscurity, only to resurface in the twentieth century.

Immersing myself in Julian’s radical theology of the primacy of divine love was a profound experience. Like Margery, I often found myself moved to tears by the beauty of Julian’s visions, by her absolute assurance that no matter how dire things may seem, all will be well.

But what took me by surprise was how revelatory Margery’s dance with self-doubt was for me. In writing this book and delving into medieval mystical texts, I discovered that our doubts, as painful and wrenching as they are, aren’t a flaw or hindrance. In fact, they lead us deeper into the divine mystery, the vast “Cloud of Unknowing” where God dwells. Only when we set aside our preconceived notions of what we think we believe the divine to be, can we enter this numinous place.

As a mystic, Margery’s especially fascinating to me, because she found her spiritual bliss not in the cloister, but as a laywoman, in the full stream of worldly life with all its wonders and perils. May we all have the power to reinvent ourselves as courageously as Margery did.

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.



Categories: General, Herstory, Women Mystics

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23 replies

  1. Hope you will write more about Margery. I am glad to hear Juilian supported Margery. Did Margery continue to support herself or did she support herself by alms begging after her visions? Also did she have an otherworldly or thisworldly theology? Thanks for this brief intro.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. According to Beal, “Margery found other ways to express the intensity of her devotion to God. She prayed for a chaste marriage, went to confession two or three times a day, prayed early and often each day in church, wore a hair shirt, and willingly suffered whatever negative responses her community expressed in response to her extreme forms of devotion”.[2] Kempe was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness.

    Wikepedia also mentions her strong feelings of sinfulness.

    How do you feel about all of that? For me I am torn. I want to find spiritual women role models too, but so many of them seem to have rejected the body, which I view as an inherently anti-female point of view (I have written about this on FAR summed up as “birth into this world through the body of the mother just isn’t good enough.”) Also I believe the idea that God is primarily a judge who punishes rather than a Mother who loves us no matter what is a patriarchal/hierarchical view. So what do we do? Love the spiritual commitment. But reject the theology? Can this be done?

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think if you read “The Book of Margery Kempe,” not just the commentaries on Wikipedia, a much more rounded image emerges of a strong woman who traveled alone through Europe and the Far East, held her own during multiple heresy trials, ran independent businesses, and befriended people of other religions.

      The strong feelings of sinfulness are most apparent when she was suffering from postnatal depression, after the birth of her first child. She survived an abusive marriage and years of what she frankly described as marital rape. Under these conditions she bore 14 children. The ideal of embracing celibacy was the one socially sanctioned path for her to leave her abusive husband and regain control of her own body.

      She wept out of devotion (this kind of “affective piety” is still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church today–I once saw a young man break down in loud, demonstrative weeping in a church in Bulgaria) but there are also scenes of her drinking beer and having a good time. When on trial for heresy, we see her lecturing her male superiors in a way that seems very courageous and empowered. She was a complex and intriguing figure.

      One of the things I found most intriguing is that the men who wanted to lock her up accused her of being a subversive force for preaching to other women and encouraging them to be subversive and ask critical questions. One of her accusers said something like, “I believe you’ve come
      here to take our wives from us and lead them off with you.”

      Meanwhile, Julian’s theology was of an unconditionally loving God and in her visions she saw no evidence of hell or divine wrath.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Mary, thank you so much for showing us this other side of Margery who I was not familiar at all with, but tempting to take the Wikipedia entry and just see the unflattering, ‘hair-shirt’, self-flagellating, weeping image, but yes, you must put it in the context of the day. What she did is extraordinary, that she went through that experience and still managed to embrace life and travel through it. Wow. And that she even wrote an autobiography in the 15th century amidst those circumstances deserves tremendous respect. Looking forward to your new book!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brava! I bet you know more about female mystics of the Middle Ages than anyone else. And you no doubt write more thoughtfully about them than anyone else. I’ve recently reread your novel about Hildegard. I’m eager to read your new novel about Margery and Julian. All three of these women have much to teach us modern women, especially about courage and finding and following our own paths..

    Bright blessings, my friend, to you and your writing. How’s things in Portugal? Are the horses happy there?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I want to say I can’t wait to read your novel, but I guess I have to wait–till April. I know you will bring Margery’s story to vivid life. I am glad Julian of Norwich is part of the story. I wonder if you have ever read Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, about John of Gaunt’s long time lover and eventual wife. My first encounter with Julian was in that novel, which I read when I was in my teens. I have loved Julian ever since. I am eager to know more of Margery. Thank you for your novels, Mary!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I’ve heard of Anya Seton’s novel and it sounds like I just have to read it now! :)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you might love Katherine. So rich in detail about a time you must know so well.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Hi Elizabeth,

          Like you, I can’t wait to read REVELATIONS, but your comment about the novel Katherine by Anya Seton takes me back to 1981 or so when I picked up a paperback version of Katherine and was lost in time for a number of days. Just found a very good hardcover edition for $8.99 and will be lost in time again I think.

          Duncan

          Liked by 1 person

          • Lost in time.A good way to put it. I first read Katherine when I was very young. Have read the book many times. I’ve read others of hers, but Katherine is my favorite. Revelations sounds like a treat, too.

            Like

  6. I love your work Mary, Illuminations introduced me to Hildegarde and I have been infatuated ever since. I love how you dig into history and come up with gems. I can’t wait to read Revelations. Let us know when it is available for pre-order.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank yo so much for reading my novels, Janet. Every reader is a gift to me! My website has pre-order links for Revelations, which is available via Amazon, Indiebound and other online and brick and mortar retailers: https://marysharratt.com/main/books/revelations-a-novel-by-mary-sharratt/

    Like

  8. Mystics have always fascinated me and your books sound wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoyed your article today and loved how you talk about the women’s role. Have you seen the movie ” Mary Magdalena” ? If not I highly recommend it. It portrays Mary Magdalena is her own female view as a follower of Jesus, the only female of the other male apostles, well quite different as Mary was portrait as a prostitute for centuries from George the Pope in 563… finally in 2016 she was acknowledged as a holy female . Well just a thought for you. “Minds together” from Cornelia

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What an interesting conversation you’ve already stirred, and your book hasn’t even arrived. REVELATIONS promises to be a fascinating read. Congratulations on the completion your second novel! I look forward to getting to know Margery’s journey. I’m polishing my second novel and hope to see it arrive in 2021. Love this literary fecundity. May 2021 bless us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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