The Book of Margery Kempe – The Memoirs of an Early English Christian Believer

 

‘The Book of Margery Kempe’    (1436) – 215 pages            Translated from the Middle English by Barry Windeatt

 

No, “1436” is not a misprint. This book actually was written in 1436, and it is considered the first autobiography or memoir to be written in English. Lost for several centuries, the book was rediscovered in 1934.

I wanted to try my hand in translating from Middle English myself. Luckily I found one line on a site which was by Margery Kempe and still in Middle English:

hir mende & hir thowt was so ioynyd to God
pat
sche neuyr forgate hym but contynualy had mende of hym &
behelde hym in alle creaturys

I was able to translate this line as thus:

Her mind and her thought were so joined to God as she never forgot him but continually had mind of him & beheld him in all creatures.”

That was fun, but it would be extremely difficult and slow to read the entire book in Middle English, thus the need for a translator into modern English. Margery actually used two monks from the Church as scribes to write down her words.

Somehow Margery was able to give birth to fourteen children, but that was before her religious transformation. By her own account, she was bent on every wickedness until she found her Lord Jesus. She then takes a vow of chastity, and her husband goes along with that.

After her transformation, first she journeys around southeastern England to the various churches. There is no explanation of who takes care of all the children.

Once I was with the monks at the church in Canterbury, and they bitterly despised and condemned me because I was weeping so much. I wept for nearly the whole day, morning and afternoon alike, both for the monks and priests and for those in the secular life.”

Whenever Margery hears some distressing detail of the tribulations and injuries that her Lord Jesus suffered before and during his crucifixion, Margery starts crying and roaring, and most of the people around her become upset with her extreme behavior. She dresses in all white because her Lord Jesus told her to do so. This also offended the people around her. They defame and slander her. Margery is a religious fanatic. Some want her to be put away or imprisoned. Many think she is mad or insane. However her Lord Jesus, in direct communication, constantly praises her, and there are a few high individuals from the Church who defend her and tell her,

“Don’t be afraid of wagging tongues, for the more contempt, disgrace, and criticism you met in the world the more worthy you are in the sight of God.”

Later Margery Kempe goes on much longer pilgrimages, to Jerusalem of course, then to Rome and to Santiago Spain. Most of her traveling is done by ships I presume, but we are told very few practical details of these trips. Her traveling companions are usually disgusted with her because she is always weeping, sobbing, and crying out.

Not Margery Kempe, but Christine de Pizan

This personal account by Margery Kempe is very repetitious.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a read for pleasure. As I mentioned before, it is much too repetitive in her holy talk and crying for that, and it contains very little detail about anything else including the places she visits or the people she meets. It instead obsesses about the sufferings of her Lord Jesus and her own defamation. I read it because it was written nearly 600 years ago, and it is a first-person account written in Middle English. I am not going to grade it, because the amazing thing is that it got written at all.

 

 

 

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. It’s also amazing that it survived somehow!
    But seriously… what I want to know now is mundane, but it goes to painting a picture of life in that time. So yes, who took care of the 14 children; did she or they miss each other, and who paid for all that travelling about (and washed the white dresses).

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa,
      I wish that there were details about Margery’s home and family life, but the only part of her life that is discussed in this book is her religious life and the life of her Lord Jesus. I suppose that is why the monk scribes were willing to write it down for her.
      Because of her religious fanaticism, I doubt she thought about her children very much, so someone else must have cared for them. One does get the impression that her husband did support her travels, but he didn’t accompany her.

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      Reply

      • LOL I must admit that if I’d had 14 children, one each year presumably, I’d look for some form of chastity that couldn’t be transgressed. Life must have been hell for very fertile women in those days.

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