The Book of Margery Kempe is a work of great interest from various different viewpoints. As a writing of spiritual illumination from the early fifteenth century, it has its considerable value, but for other reasons it is also important. Completed in 1436 it was the first full length biography, or autobiography to have been written in the English language. To emphasise the importance of that, as far as I am aware, there is nothing comparable to it for more than a hundred years after it. Also, it was not written by or about a significant figure in the political or church or high society life, but about a woman whose only claim to our attention is for what she did and said - she had no standing as an historical figure affecting the lives of millions.
We remember Margery Kempe today in the Church Calendar. Her book is little read today, but is actually accessible, and impresses by what it tells us about one extraordinary woman’s life, as she, in the early 1400s, with little support, and often travelling in a penniless condition, managed to visit as a pilgrim Walsingham, Canterbury and York, St James of Compostella, Rome and Jerusalem, not to mention the Baltic. She was a reader of St Bridget of Sweden and visited Julian of Norwich. Quite some woman!
The classic edition of The Book of Margery Kempe is one published on its 500th anniversary by Jonathan Cape in 1936. It was edited by W. Butler-Bowdon. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy in a second-hand bookshop some years ago and have been re-reading it with amazement.
Margery Kempe herself was a complete eccentric, of course, and as such was treated variously in her own day - and in fact ever since - as either a virtuous and saintly visionary, with the gift of tears and who brought blessings to those she met; or, as a slightly dangerous, if beguiling, fraud and hypocrite who suffered from periods of madness. In writing this blog, as you can imagine, I favour the former reading of her life. She had her faults, and admitted them, and carried her penitential strivings to the limit, but I am in awe of what her life encompassed and find it quite simply inspirational.