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Margery Kempe

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About Margery Kempe:

Known for: religious autobiography - the first autobiography written in English, though it was not found until the 20th century
Occupation: mystic, autobiographer
Dates: about 1373 - about 1440
Also known as: Margery Kempe of Lynn

Background, Family:

  • Mother: unknown
  • Father: John Kempe, merchant, 5-time mayor of Lynn
  • Siblings: unknown

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: John Kempe (married 1393; burgess)
  • children: 14

More About Margery Kempe:

Born about 1373 in Norfolk, England, Margery married John Kempe in 1393, and had fourteen children with him. She was involved in several commercial ventures: operating a grain mill and a brewery. The Kempes were part of the commercial and mercantile middle class.

Shortly after the birth of their first child, Margery Kempe had a series of religious visions. Years later, in 1413 when she was about 40 years old, Margery Kempe took a vow of chastity, and convinced her husband to take one as well. In 1414 she began a series of pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe. She visited Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compstela in Spain, Norway, and the Holy Roman Empire (Germany).

In 1436-1438, Margery Kempe dictated her religious autobiography to two scribes (she apparently could not write). The book included her visions and religious experience, and was known as The Book of Margery Kempe. There is only one surviving manuscript, a fifteenth century copy; the original is lost. Wynkyn de Word published some extracts in the sixteenth century and attributed them to an "anchoress."

Margery Kempe's book includes conversations with Christ and Mary. Many of the visions include references to domestic life: for example, swaddling infants. The book tells of her religious life, and includes quite a bit about her pilgrimages. The book also contains some prayers.

Margery Kempe not only had religious visions -- she also sometimes interrupted religious services to argue with the clergy. Church authorities had her arrested and imprisoned for heresy, but they later found her innocent and released her.

In her later years, Margery Kempe visited Julian of Norwich, apparently to see if Julian agreed that her visions were authentic; that is, that they were in accord with church doctrine.

The fifteenth century copy of The Book of Margery Kempe was found in a private library in 1934, and is now in the British Library. It was first published in modern language in 1936 and in Middle English four years later.

Books About Margery Kempe:

Margery Kempe. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Lynn Staley. Norton Critical Editions. 2000.
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Marea Mitchell. The Book Of Margery Kempe: Scholarship, Community, & Criticism. 2005.
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Liz Herbert McAvoy. Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Studies in Medieval Mysticism. 2004.
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A. E. Goodman. Margery Kempe and Her World. 2002.
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Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Edited by Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead. 2000.

Karma Lochrie. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. New Cultural Studies. 1994.
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Lynn Staley. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. 1994.
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Louise Collis. Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe. 1983
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Many journal articles address Margery Kempe and her religious practice.

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