The medieval version of the celebrity autobiography
March 11, 2014 5:55 AM   Subscribe

"Margery Kempe was a self-proclaimed holy woman, visionary, mystic and medieval pilgrim. She is also unique because although she was not proficient at reading and writing, she was determined to record her visions, journeys and spiritual experiences. She dictated her book to a scribe of which only one copy survives, now housed in the British Library. Nearly everything we know about her comes from her book." -- Susan Abernethy writes about a woman we only know about because she wrote a tell-all autobiography.
posted by MartinWisse (18 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This book is amazing (and darkly funny in parts) and I heartily recommend it.
posted by trunk muffins at 6:02 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Now that is a life!

(Martin, is this Medieval and Early Modern Women Week? Because you have my endorsement!)
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:03 AM on March 11, 2014

The ladies of Stuff You Missed in History Class did a podcast episode on Ms. Kempe (a year ago today, incidentally).
posted by sparklemotion at 6:21 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Margery Kempe is AMAZING. I went into her book expecting maybe a slightly less poised Julian of Norwich (who makes a cameo in Kempe's book), but instead it was totally BANANAS in a wonderful way.

My favourite bit might be when she's accused of being a Lollard and she tells the Bishop a story about a gross bear in the woods who eats some beautiful flowers, turns around, and shits them out. This is an allegory, she says, for how people receive Christ's teachings.

Or maybe it's when the book becomes Bible fanfiction and Margery gets to be present at the various big events of Jesus's life.

Oh, it's all so amazing!
posted by erlking at 6:46 AM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

MetaFilter: maybe a slightly less poised Julian of Norwich
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:01 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

IIRC from my undergrad studies, this woman was famous for her ability to cry on cue. Apparently she would cry almost constantly as a sign of piety. It made her very unpopular with other pilgrims. But what a woman! She's the only non-noble woman of her era about whom we know anything of detail, and the details are incredible. She had 14 kids, started a failed brewing business, negotiated a celibate marriage, and travelled all over Europe and the Near East. And managed to convince someone to write it all down for her.
posted by NapAdvocacy at 7:07 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Martin, is this Medieval and Early Modern Women Week?

It can be if you want it to, I got a couple more links I could post.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:30 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

It can be if you want it to, I got a couple more links I could post.

I would celibately spouse you if you did that.

Assuming that would be an inducement.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:33 AM on March 11, 2014

(Technically, Margery [of] Kempe did not write the book herself. It was a sympathetic priest/confessor.)

I've taught both Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich in early Brit lit surveys. In my experience, students find Julian's obsession with physical suffering strange and disturbing, but they tend to respect her intellectualism. On the other hand, many of them find Margery insufferable; female students in particular object to her crying, which they perceive as a weakness.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:53 AM on March 11, 2014

The rediscovery of Margery Kempe's manuscript is a great story too. It disappeared for four centuries and then turned up in a cupboard in a country house in Derbyshire in 1934. It might never have been rediscovered at all if one of the owner's children hadn't trodden on a ping-pong ball:
It was a largish Georgian House with a big front hall which we children liked because it could and did easily provide room and surrounding space to have a full-sized Ping Pong table permanently rigged. The bats and balls lived in a wall cupboard on one side of the fireplace. One evening when some grown up friend of my parents was staying, one of us trod on the Ping Pong ball and my father went to the cupboard to get out a replacement and it was soon apparent that he was having difficulty in finding either a ball or even the tube of balls.

When our visitor (X) went over to assist, the reason for the difficulty was obvious (we children knew it from experience). There was in there an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather bound books. My father's retort to the visitor was 'Look, I am going to put this whole lot on the bonfire tomorrow and then we may be able to find Ping Pong balls and bats when we want them'.

To this X replied "Willie, before you do anything so suddenly, may I ask a friend/acquaintance of mine who knows about these things to come and look through this cupboard. After all there may be something of real interest there which you may not at the moment realise". To which my Pa replied "Yes, if you insist, but they are all old household account books but I cannot for the life of me see why they were bound in leather -- but if your friend thinks his trip would be worth it I will certainly give him a bed".
The manuscript was brought to London, where it was identified by Hope Emily Allen, a pioneering feminist scholar. She was the first person to take Margery Kempe seriously as a mystic, as opposed to most of her male colleagues who dismissed Margery as a 'hysteric'.
posted by verstegan at 7:54 AM on March 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Margery was a little after the period I was most interested in in grad school, so I never really got into her work in great detail, but my response to her has always been "what a woman!" combined with "I probably would have hated to be her neighbor".

Also I didn't know about that "Stuff you missed in history class" podcast, so thanks for that pointer, sparklemotion.
posted by immlass at 8:04 AM on March 11, 2014

After 14 children I would also negotiate a celibate marriage.
posted by Gwynarra at 8:57 AM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Team Margery! I wrote my BA thesis on Margery and Julian, and then named my cat Margery. Love her detailed, weird description of her wedding to Jesus.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Margery Kempe, not Margery the Cat.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Incidently, the entire Freelance History Writer site is a bundle of treasures (e.g Julian of Norwich) and worth sticking in your RSS reader (do people still do that?)
posted by MartinWisse at 11:17 AM on March 11, 2014

Yes, I have to confess she sounds really interesting and I want to read her biography, but if I were on a pilgrimage with her I probably would have ditched her too. I hope I would have been one of the people who at least gave her some money before ditching her.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:46 PM on March 11, 2014

"The Book of Margery Kempe" is fascinating. Thanks for posting this and reminding me, MartinWisse.
posted by homunculus at 5:20 PM on March 11, 2014

Aaaand .. with perfect timing, the British Library has just digitised the original manuscript of the Book of Margery Kempe. More here.
posted by verstegan at 6:46 AM on March 20, 2014

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