Primary Source Reading 7: Margery Kempe, Explorer

Primary Source Reading: Margery Kempe, Explorer

King's Lynn East gate drawing

Margery Kempe was born in the town of Lynn (modern King’s Lynn) in England about 1373. Lynn was a port city whose merchants traded with Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia. Her father was John Burnham, who served five terms as the mayor of Lynn and once as its delegate to the English Parliament. Kempe married John Kempe when she was about 20 years old, and gave birth to fourteen children over the next twenty years. For years, she lived an ordinary bourgeois life, and even operated her own brewing business, but she began to have visions of Jesus Christ during a period of post-partum depression after the birth of her first child. She continued to have visions throughout her life, and after her brewing business failed, she began to reexamine her faith in its entirety. At the age of forty, she decided to devote her life to Christ, so she became chaste, wore only white clothing, and set off on a spiritual pilgrimage across Europe to the Holy Land. She also became known for crying violently when she had her visions, which evidently angered many of the people who met her. Although her religious beliefs were fairly orthodox, she was physically threatened and often accused of heresy. In her old age, Margery dictated a spiritual biography to one of her sons. It was recopied and expanded by a traveling priest into the manuscript that formed the basis for the modern version of her story. The resulting work is one of the oldest biographies in the English language, and it remained lost for centuries until the manuscript was rediscovered in 1934 in the library of Colonel Butler-Bowdon of Pleasington Old Hall (Lancashire, England) by Hope Emily Allen (a noted scholar of the mystic Robert Rolle).

[Margery and Her Husband Reach a Settlement]

It befell upon a Friday on Midsummer Even in right hot weather, as this creature was coming from York-ward bearing a bottle with beer in her hand and her husband a cake in his bosom, he asked his wife this question: “Margery, if there came a man with a sword and would smite off my head unless that I should commune kindly with you as I have done before, say me truth of your conscience – for ye say ye will not lie – whether would ye suffer my head to be smit off or else suffer me to meddle with you again as I did sometime?” “Alas, sir,” She said, “why move ye this matter and have we been chaste this eight weeks?” “For I will wit the truth of your heart.” And the she said with great sorrow, “Forsooth, I had liefer see you be slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness.” And he said again, “Ye are no good wife.”

And then she asked her husband what was the cause that he had not meddled with eight weeks before, sithen she lay with him every night in his bed. And he said he was so made afeared when he would ‘a touched her that he durst no more do. “Now, good sir, amend you and ask God mercy, for I told you near three year sithen that ye should be slain suddenly, and now is this the third year, and yet I hope I shall have my desire. Good sir, I pray you grant me that I shall ask, and I shall pray for you that ye shall be saved through the mercy of our Lord Jesu Christ, and ye shall have more meed in Heaven than if ye wore a hair or a habergeon. I pray you; suffer me to make a vow of chastity in what bishop’s hand that God will.” “Nay,” he said, “that will I not grant you, for now I may use you without deadly sin and then might I not so.” The she said again, “If it be the will of the Holy Ghost to fulfill that I have said, I pray God ye might consent thereto; and if it be not the will of the Holy Ghost, I pray God ye never consent thereto.”

Then they went forth to-Bridlington-ward in right hot weather, the foresaid creature having great sorrow and great dread for her chastity. And as they came by a cross, her husband set him down under the cross, cleping his wife unto him and saying these words unto her, “Margery, grant me my desire, and I shall grant you your desire. My first desire is that we shall lie still together in one bed as we have done before; the second that ye shall pay my debts ere ye go to Jerusalem; and the third that ye shall eat and drink with me on the Friday as ye were wont to do.” “Nay sir,” she said, “to break the Friday I will never grant you while I live.” “Well,” he said, “then shall I meddle with you again.”

She prayed him that he would give her leave to make her prayers, and he granted it goodly. Then she knelt down beside a cross in the field and prayed in this manner with great abundance of tears, “Lord God, thou knowest all thing; thou knowest what sorrow I have had to be chaste in my body to thee all this three year, and now might I have my will and I dare not for love of thee. For if I would break that manner of fasting which thou commandest me to keep on the Friday without meat or drink, I should now have my desire. But, blessed Lord, thou knowest I will not contrary to thy will, and mickle now is my sorrow unless that I find comfort in thee. Now, blessed Jesu, make thy will known to me unworthy that I may follow thereafter and fulfil it with all my might.” And then our Lord Jesu Christ with great sweetness spoke to this creature, commanding her to go again to her husband and pray him to grant her that she desired, “And he shall have that he desireth. For, my dearworthy daughter, this was the cause that I bade thee fast for thou shouldest the sooner obtain and get thy desire, and now it is granted thee. I will no longer thou fast, therefore I bid thee in the name of Jesu eat and drink as thy husband doth.”

Then this creature thanked our Lord Jesu Christ of his grace and his goodness, sithen rose up and went to her husband saying unto him, “Sir, if it like you, ye shall grant me my desire and ye shall have your desire. Granteth me that ye shall not come in my bed, and I grant you to quit your debts ere I go to Jerusalem. And maketh my body free to God so that ye never make no challenging in me to ask no debt of matrimony after this day while ye live, and I shall eat and drink on the Friday at your bidding.” Then said her husband again to her, “As free may your body be to God as it hath been to me.” This creature thanked God greatly, enjoying that she had her desire, praying her husband that they should say three Pater Noster in the worship of the Trinity for the great grace that he had granted them. And so they did, kneeling under a cross, and sithen they ate and drank together in great gladness of spirit. This was on a Friday on Midsummer Even.

Notes:

  • liefer – rather
  • sithen – since
  • meed – reward
  • hair/habergeon – Hair shirt/mail shirt
  • cleping – calling
  • mickle – much

[Pilgrimage to Jerusalem]

*** And so they went forth into the Holy Land till they might see Jerusalem. And when this creature saw Jerusalem, riding on an ass, she thanked God with all her heart, praying him for his mercy that like as he had brought her to see this earthly city Jerusalem, he would grant her grace to see the blissful city Jerusalem above, the city of Heaven. Our Lord Jesu Christ, answering to her thought, granted her to have her desire. Then for joy that she had and the sweetness that she felt in the dalliance of our Lord, she was in point to ‘a fallen off her ass, for she might not bear the sweetness and grace that God wrought in her soul. The twain pilgrims of Dutchmen went to her and kept her from falling, of which the one was a priest. And he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, weening she had been sick. And so they helped her forth to Jerusalem. And when she came there, she said, “Sirs, I pray you be not displeased though I weep sore in this holy place where our Lord Jesu Christ was quick and dead.”

Then they went to the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were let in that one day at evensong time and they abide there till the next day at evensong time. Then the friars lifted up a cross and led the pilgrims about from one place to another where our Lord had suffered his pains and his passions, every man and woman bearing a wax candle in their hand. And the friars always as they went about told them what our Lord suffered in every place. And the foresaid creature wept and sobbed so plentivously as though she had seen our Lord with her bodily eye suffering his Passion at that time. Before her in her soul she saw him verily by contemplation, and that caused her to have compassion. And when they came up onto the Mount of Calvary she fell down that she might not stand nor kneel but wallowed and wrested with her body, spreading her arms abroad, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart should ‘a burst asunder, for in the city of her soul she saw verily and freshly how our Lord was crucified. Before her face she heard and saw in her ghostly sight the mourning of our Lady, of St. John and of Mary Magdalene, and of many other that loved our Lord. And she had so great compassion and so great pain to see our Lord’s pain that she might not keep herself from crying and roaring though she should ‘a been dead therefore.

And this was the first cry that ever she cried in any contemplation. And this manner of crying endured many years after this time for aught that any man might do, and therefore suffered she much despite and much reproof. The crying was so loud and so wonderful that it made people astoned unless that they had heard it before or else that they knew the cause of the crying. And she had them so oftentimes that they made her right weak in her bodily mights, and namely if she heard of our Lord’s Passion. And sometime when she saw the Crucifix, or if she saw a man had a wound or a beast, whether it were, or if a man beat a child before her or smote a horse or another beast with a whip, if she might see it or hear it, her thought she saw our Lord be beaten or wounded like as she saw in the man or in the beast, as well in the field as in the town, and by herself alone as well as among the people. First when she had her cryings at Jerusalem, she had them oftentimes, and in Rome also. And when she came home into England, first at her coming home it came but seldom as it were once in a month, sithen once in the week, afterward quotidianly, and once she had fourteen on one day, and another day she had seven, and so as God would visit her, sometime in the church, sometime in the street, sometime in the chamber, sometime in the field when God would send them, for she knew never time nor hour when they should come. And they came never without passing great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation. And as soon as she perceived that she should cry, she would keep it in as much as she might that people should not ‘a heard it for noying of them. For some said it was a wicked spirit vexed her; some said it was a sickness; some said she had drunken too much wine; some banned her; some wished she had been in the haven; some would she had been in the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as him thought. Other ghostly men loved her and favored her the more. Some great clerks said our Lady cried never so, nor no saint in Heaven, but they knew full little what she felt, nor they would not believe but that she might ‘a abstained her from crying if she had wished.

Notes:

  • dalliance – conversation
  • quick – living
  • quotidianly – daily
  • noying – annoying
  • banned – cursed
  • ghostly – spiritual