Margery Kempe

Diane Watt

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Margery Kempe

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Margery Kempe was a late medieval English visionary and is, arguably, the author of the first autobiography known to have been written in the English language. Kempe was born in Norfolk in c. 1373, the daughter of a relatively prosperous and distinguished East Anglian merchant who had served as mayor and member of Parliament for the borough of Bishop’s Lynn, now King’s Lynn. The Book of Margery Kempe, which was dictated at least in part by Kempe, who was illiterate, gives a detailed account of Kempe’s lived experiences from the time of her first pregnancy when she was around twenty years old, until she was in her mid-sixties. It describes in lively detail Kempe’s spiritual revelations, affective meditations, and conversations with the divine; her pilgrimages in England, Europe, and the Holy Lands; her controversial expressions of piety; and her tribulations and trials, including her examinations for heresy. The Book is not a sophisticated theological text but a work of lay piety that reflects some of the popular religious enthusiasms of the later Middle Ages. At the same time, it offers a relatively rare insight into the domestic experiences of a late medieval secular woman, albeit an atypical one. Since the discovery of the one surviving manuscript of The Book in 1934, and the subsequent publication of numerous editions and translations, the writing and life of Margery Kempe have become foci of interest for scholars of medieval English history, religion, and literature. The impact of modern feminism on literary studies and the growth of interest in women’s writing since the late 20th century have resulted in Kempe gaining canonical status as she is widely, if debatably, considered to be one of the earliest women writers in the English language. Extracts from her Book are found in a wide range of anthologies, and The Book is the subject of an ever-growing range of critical studies. Recurring themes that have been addressed by scholars include the questions of authorship and authority in The Book; the relationship of Kempe’s revelatory experiences to those of the Continental religious women; the relationship of her piety to contemporary Lollardy in England and the broader political context of The Book; and the representation of Kempe’s sexual, domestic, and social relationships within The Book. Tension exists between those critics who choose to emphasize the fictional and rhetorical aspects of The Book of Margery Kempe and those scholars who see The Book as a historical document.

Article.  7726 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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