Elizabeth Brenneman

Margery Kempe's Mysticism Explored

Elizabeth Brenneman is currently a sophomore, with an expected graduation date of 2006, as she is attending part-time. She is a secondary education English major, and plans to minor in Spanish in order to teach English as a second language or Spanish. This paper was originally written for L301, English Literature to 1600, with Professor Blodgett. "I became interested in the subject of mysticism because it was something that was totally new and to me and I wanted to learn more about the topic. I was surprised to learn that Margery Kempe was not a lone practitioner of mysticism but that there was actually a centuries old history of mystical practice behind her. In addition, my initial unfavorable reaction to Kempe, which later changed to acceptance, was a reminder to me to reserve judgment until all the facts are in".

Communicated By: Dr. James Blodgett, English

  • Abstract

    My goal was to investigate Margery Kempe and other female mystics, or contemplatives, of the Middle Ages and discover what the practices and beliefs of these women were. And further, based on these findings, to determine if Kempe, author of The Book of Margery Kempe, can be considered a genuine mystic, a madwoman, or a fraud. I found that mysticism is not religion in itself, but an aspect of many different religions. During mystical contemplation an individual attempts to become as close to God as possible. Most mystics live a life of seclusion, celibacy, and self denial in order to spend the maximum amount of time contemplating Christ's sacrificial death. I found that although Margery Kempe had many experiences in common with other female mystics of her time, she was unique in at least one aspect, that of her uncontrollable weeping episodes upon thinking of Christ's death. It was found that all of Kempe's visions, actions, and experiences fall into the category of mystical experiences. I determined that Kempe was an authentic mystic based on her devotion to a mystical lifestyle even in the face of ridicule and hardship, and because of her determination to live her life devoted to Christ.

  • Article

    Margery Kempe's Book of Margery Kempe gives one view of what life was like for a woman in England during the Middle Ages. Contrary to my previous ideas about this time in England, I found that Margery Kempe did not fit into any of my preconceived categories of noble lady of leisure, downtrodden servant, or nun. Kempe was apparently what we today call middle class. She was not a lady of leisure but worked for a living. However, she was not a scullery maid or some such servant; she owned her own business. I was surprised that Kempe had a say in what she did with her life and in what happened to her, although not as much as we women believe we have today. Much like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Kempe wanted to live her life as she felt was best and was willing to do the things necessary to reach her objectives. In contrast to the Wife of Bath, who opposed the church's viewpoint on many subjects, Kempe felt called by God to a mystical, or contemplative, lifestyle and worked within the church to reach her goals.

    As I read Kempe's autobiographical book, I became increasingly interested in the contemplative lifestyle that she adopted at age twenty. Her practice of mysticism as part of her religion was different from any religious practice I had previously heard of. My first reaction to her highly demonstrative style of Christianity was to think that she was a bit "wood", or crazy, as was said during the Middle Ages in England. In fact, in the excerpt from her Book in Longman's Anthology, Margery Kempe admitted to an early bout of madness after the birth of her first child. My thought was; if she was crazy once, maybe all her reported visions after this episode were just more craziness. It all seemed a little farfetched to me. However, during class discussion, and while doing my research, I began to change my opinion. Kempe's eight month period of madness, while probably caused in part by postpartum hormonal changes, was also linked to her faith in Christ and her fear of eternal damnation. Like the vast majority of people in England during the Middle Ages, Kempe was a fervently religious Catholic. In her Book of Margery Kempe, she feared that she would not live after having given birth and called for a confessor "fully wishing to be shriven for her whole life, as near as she could" (502). She wanted to confess her sins, to be freed from guilt before she died, in order to be able to get to heaven. The confessor, in his haste, did not get to all Kempe's sins, in particular an undisclosed sin she was most worried about, "...and soon after, because of the dread she had of eternal damnation on the one hand, and his [the confessor's] sharp reproving of her on the other this creature [Kempe] went out of her mind..." (503). I began to see this early episode as a precursor to her later religious experiences as a mystic. Her devout faith in Christ played a large part in both cases. In fact, her first ecstatic mystical experience was what brought her out of her madness. Jesus Christ appeared to her and spoke to her, "and presently the creature [Kempe] grew as calm in her wits as she ever was before..." (503). What was this mystical experience that Margery had? I wanted to learn about the mystical aspect of religion and how Kempe's experiences then, and later in her life, could be considered mystical experiences.

    In his book, The Catholic Heritage, author Lawrence Cunningham states that contemplation, or mysticism, as it is referred to today, is "a phenomenon which is part of all major religions" (85). Mysticism is not a distinct or independent form of religion but rather an element in established religious communities and traditions throughout the world. Christian mystics, like Margery Kempe, focus on contemplating, on thinking of, Christ's life, death, and resurrection as a means of experiencing God as fully as humanly possible. In addition, they perform many acts of self-denial including fasting and living a life of poverty and solitude as further means to unite with Christ. For these practitioners, mysticism represents a way back to the source of being, a way of experiencing Christ and heaven before death. For me, learning of the existence of other Middle Ages mystics made Kempe's reported experiences more believable. I began to think that perhaps Kempe was not crazy but in fact had experienced an aspect of religion that many people, of many religions, experienced before her, and that many after her have experienced. Marion Glasscoe, author of English Medieval Mystics, asserts that Kempe's visions and other actions become more acceptable and believable when looked at through "the context of piety in England and Europe [during the Middle Ages] which no doubt Margery took for granted and against which she seems less unusual..." (281). Upon first consideration, many modern readers may assume that Margery Kempe was either crazy or deceptive in reporting her experiences. However, if her experiences are filtered through the Middle Ages point of view of devout faith, Kempe becomes more acceptable. In my research, I explored Kempe's different mystical experiences in the context of her time and place in history, and in the context of mysticism. My desire was to better understand both her life and what a mystical life entails, and to determine if she was a fool, a fraud, or a genuine mystic. Were her visions of God, her episodes of hearing heavenly music, her bouts of uncontrolled weeping as she contemplated Christ's sacrificial death, and her later marriage to the Godhead madness or genuine? Was her wish for celibacy within her marriage frigidity or religiosity? Was her desire to receive the Eucharist weekly an example of an extremely pushy person or an extremely devout one? Perhaps Kempe was not mad, frigid, or pushy; perhaps she was a genuine mystic and all her actions and experiences were authentic religious experiences. In researching mysticism I found ample basis for the validity of Kempe's experiences.

    I will not attempt to explain all of the beliefs and practices of mystics as they strive to experience God more fully, I hope to illustrate how Margery Kempe's experiences should be considered mystical experiences, based on how they fit into the framework of the female mystics of the Middle Ages. I discovered that most of the visions Kempe had and the things she did were not unique to her, or to her time in history. Indeed, when compared to other female mystics of her time, Kempe's experiences seem almost tame. For instance, Glasscoe relates that Mary of Orgnies, a Medieval mystic, "practiced severe self-mortification", "lived three years on bread and water", and, "sometimes went barefoot to church in winter", and that Elizabeth Spalbeck, another Middle Ages mystic, "imitated the passion of Christ at the canonical hours; at Matins, beating herself as she remembered Christ being taken with swords and stave; at Prime, walking with arms twisted behind her like a bound thief to commemorate Christ being led...; at Sext, None and Evensong, stretching herself in a cruciform posture" (Games of Faith, 40). Glasscoe tells of another woman, Christina from St. Truden, and how, among other things, "she cast herself into heated ovens or boiling cauldrons''. She states that these accounts of Christina's actions "convey a feeling of a disturbed personality" (40), much like my initial reaction to Margery Kempe.

    Margery Kempe was not the most highly demonstrative female mystic of the Middle Ages, nor was she the first female mystic. In his book, The Growth of Mysticism, Bernard McGinn relates that mysticism has been a part of Christianity for many centuries and "solidif[ied] in the fourth century" (26). The early mystics, of the fourth through ninth century, were men and primarily monastic. However, by the 12th century, female mystics had been established; "in these days God make manifest His power through the frail sex, in these handmaidens whom He filled with the prophetic spirit" (Zum Brunn, English Medieval Mystics, xiiv). For example, over two hundred years before Margery Kempe was born, Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun, was a well known and popular mystic. She corresponded with many prominent people, among them popes, emperors, bishops, and abbots. Among other activities, she received visions and performed exorcisms. Her fame as a mystic spread throughout the Christian world. Most female mystic were nuns or anchoresses, often shutting themselves off from human contact in order to contemplate Christ, never entering into marriage or mothering children, as Kempe did. However, Kempe was not unique in being a wife, mother, and mystic. Mary of Orgnies (13th century) was married but, with her husband's cooperation, dedicated her life to God. Bridget of Sweden (15th century), in spite of an early marriage and eight children, lived an increasingly ascetic and religious life which she devoted herself to completely after her husband's death. So, Kempe's ecstatic visions and her celibacy within her marriage were not unusual experiences for a female mystic of the Middle Ages. What of her marriage to the Godhead in an ecstatic vision; was that an experience unique to Kempe?

    In my initial reading of the excerpt from Kempe's Book in The Longman Anthology, the experience that I found the least believable was her account of being wedded to the Godhead, which consists of the three great powers of heaven; God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In the Middle Ages, as is still the case today, nuns were considered to be brides of Christ. However, nuns are not already married to a man at the time of their marriage to Christ, as Kempe was. They did not marry the Godhead in an ecstatic vision, while hearing God's voice and other sounds and melodies, and smelling sweet smells, as Kempe did. Perhaps nuns do not wed the Godhead in such a fashion today, but in my research I found that Kempe was not original in her actions here either. Elizabeth Petroff writes in her book, Body and Soul, of Catherine of Siena's (1347-1380) "vision of a mystical marriage with Christ" (18) and of Angela of Foligno's (1248-1309) being "woo[ed] by the Holy Spirit as she was on a pilgrimage to Assisi" (27). Kempe may seem crazy or deluded to the modern reader; however, when she is put into context of the female mystic of the Middle Ages she does not seem that crazy or even unusual after all.

    I next looked at Kempe's fervent desire to receive the Eucharist, the part of the Christian sacrament of communion in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed as the body and blood of Christ, every Sunday. In the Catholic churches of the Middle Ages communion was only given a few times a year. Was Kempe's desire to commune more often the desire of a lunatic or the heartfelt wish of a true mystic? Shortly before Christmas one year as she was kneeling in a chapel, weeping and asking mercy and forgiveness for her sins, Kempe heard Christ speaking to her. He told her, "Instead of meat you shall eat my flesh and blood that is the true body of Christ. This is my will, daughter, that you receive my body every Sunday..." (Longman 508). In my research I found that Kempe was not alone in her desire to commune so frequently. In fact, I discovered that the devotion of many of these mystical women centered on the Eucharist. Some of these female mystics are reported as reaching the point where they could eat only the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Another is reported as having been able to detect an unconsecrated host (the bread) because she could not digest it. Amy Hollywood, author of The Soul As Virgin Bride, relates that it has been found in many of these women's writings that "the Eucharist often serv[ed] as the opening for more extraordinary experiences of God's presence" in the lives of these female mystics of the Middle Ages (51). This could be argued to be the case for Margery Kempe as well. She began receiving communion weekly on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was later that she experienced her first bout of uncontrollable weeping as she contemplated Christ's passion, and later still that she wedded the Godhead.

    Kempe was beginning to seem more and more acceptable, within the context of mystic practices. Addressing her bouts, or fits, of uncontrolled sobbing, Glasscoe relates that "her crying became so convulsive that she was thought to be possessed, epileptic, or possibly a mere charlatan", and so disturbing that some preachers would not tolerate her in church (272). This is one experience that I believe to be unique to Margery Kempe. I was able to find only one other reference to crying in all of the writings of the female mystics researched. Mechthild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth century mystic, wrote "whenever I saw anything that was beautiful or dear to me, I began to sigh, and after that to cry and after that to think..." (Hollywood 69). This is crying, but is has a more subdued nature to it. It does not seem to be the uncontrolled weeping of Margery Kempe. Kempe's faith and its outward expression were much more physically demonstrated than most, if not all, of her contemporaries.

    Was Margery Kempe a genuine mystic, a lunatic, or a clever deceiver, who imitated the experiences of other women who had come before her? As I previously stated, I was initially reluctant to see Kempe as an authentic mystic because of her early period of madness and because I was looking at her through my point of view rather than through the point of view of the mystical experience. After class discussion, in which we considered Kempe as a devoutly faithful Christian of the Middle Ages, it appeared likely that she was genuine in the visual and auditory ecstasies she reports having experienced and sincere in her desire for celibacy and weekly communion. In addition, her continued determination to live her life as a mystic, despite the many hostile reactions she encountered seemed genuine. However, after further research into Middle Ages mysticism, I could find only one experience that was unique to Kempe, that of her frequent, uncontrolled weeping upon her contemplation of Christ's passion. I began to question her authenticity again and to wonder if she was a charlatan.

    Although she could not read or write, Kempe had some access to the works of the other mystics of her time as she refers to at least one by name in her dictated Book of Margery Kempe. She was no more devout, no more a seer, than other female mystics. In fact, in comparison with her contemporaries she was a watered down version of a mystic. She was celibate, received communion weekly, and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but she never lived on the Eucharist alone or threw herself into a boiling cauldron. However, it could be considered that God did not call her to these more extreme activities. Even in her own time, Kempe was not universally thought to be a genuine mystic. Some saw her as an authentic mystic who received communiqués from Christ. William Southfield, a White Friar, thanked Jesus after hearing "her meditations and what God had wrought in her soul" (Longman 512). Others saw her as a fraud. She was asked by townspeople who knew her, "why do you talk so much of the joy that is in heaven? You don't know it, and you haven't been there any more than we have" (505). Some just thought of her as incredibly annoying to be around whether she was genuine or not. She wept too much and spoke constantly of the love and goodness of Christ. In fact, she was apparently so annoying that her fellow pilgrims abandoned her on the way to Jerusalem. Glasscoe refers to Kempe as "always liable to express physically what was to be understood spiritually" and that "she [Kempe] lays herself open to denigrating interpretation; but there is the possibility that this may reflect more on the interpreter than on herself" (293).

    The fact that Kempe was annoying, overly demonstrative and that many of her experiences were not original does not make them any less valid. I doubt that I have experienced anything unique in my lifetime but that does not make my experiences any less authentic. Ultimately, I have come to consider Kempe's experiences as genuine based on her devout faith and her continued determination to live her life as God instructed her to, no matter the scorn of her husband, the court, and her fellow Christians. Kempe never wavered in her love for and awe of Christ in spite of opposition and scorn at almost every turn. She was not a stereotypical woman of the Middle Ages, but a faithful woman of God more concerned with her coming heavenly life than her earthly life. While she annoyed many of her fellow Christians and townspeople and may seem crazy to the modern reader, Kempe, based on research, was a genuine mystic living her life for Christ.

  • References
    • Cunningham, Lawrence S. The Catholic Heritage. New York: Crossroads, 1995.
    • Glasscoe, Marion. English Medieval Mystics. London and New York: Longman, 1993.
    • Hollywood, Amy. The Soul as Virgin Wife. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
    • Kempe, Margery. "The Book of Margery Kempe" (excerpt). The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1. Ed. David Damrosch, et al. New York: Longman, 1999.
    • McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.
    • Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Body and Soul. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
    • Zum Brunn, Emilie and Georgette Epiney-Burgard. Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. New York: Paragon House, 1989.