A Woman to Know: Margery Kempe

Patience is more worthy than miracle-working. — Margery Kempe

Patience is more worthy than miracle-working. — Margery Kempe

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Some say Margery Kempe’s biography may be the first-ever book recorded in the English language. But she didn’t “write” it herself. Instead, some time between 1432 and 1436, she dictated it from her cell, reading to two scribes who waited outside the barred door.

After marrying at age 20 and birthing 14 children, she suffered from severe “spells of weeping.” These sudden crying jags disturbed her family and they sent her to church for a diagnosis. In 1414, she imagined Jesus saying to her, “I would you were enclosed in a house of stone so no man could speak with you.” From then on, she dedicated her life to Christianity, becoming one of the most prominent mystics of the medieval era. She began making long pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Spain and beyond. She spoke to growing crowds of people along the way, telling them of her visions.

The Church, as you can imagine, didn’t like the look of a tearful, emotional lady preacher. Officials tried her for heresy multiple times, first alleging her wearing all white and claiming to receive visions from God was “impersonation” of a nun; next by accusing her of breaking holy law by preaching as a woman; and then by asking her husband to insist she’d concocted the whole thing as a misandrist ploy. No trial ever ended in conviction however, and the notoriety only elevated Margery’s profile.

And so, Margery chose the cell herself. She remained safe there until her death in 1440.

In 1450, someone else handcopied Margery’s book and disseminated it widely, titling it simply as The Book. In 1936, a modernized copy hit bookshelves. Today, it reads as a chronicle of her life — crying mother and wife, itinerant preacher, accused heretic, scholarly anchoress and all.

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