The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe and Anthony Bale (editor)

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The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe and Anthony Bale (editor)

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: In a book considered to be the first biography in the English language, Margery Kempe tells of her life, as she goes from a young wife and failing businesswoman, to a devout woman who regularly experiences vivid hallucinations. This new translation by Anthony Bale makes her tales readable and relatable, and this in an extremely interesting account of life and faith in the middle ages.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: February 2015
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199686643

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Born around 1373, Margery Kempe grew up in a family of good standing - her Father serving as a mayor, and as a member of parliament. Whilst no records remain of her childhood, it is unlikely that Margery would have received any kind of formal education. She was, however, taught religious texts, which may well have set the way for the visions she would encounter later in life.

Aged twenty, Margery married a town official named John Kempe, and the marriage seemed relatively happy - producing a staggering fourteen children, although it is unclear how many of these survived childhood, or even birth - making the high number of children born almost a necessity, back in the days when the infancy death rate was incredibly high.

From around the time of the birth of her first child, Margery started experiencing vivid, terrifying hallucinations, and for a time was chained up until the madness passed. She only recovered after a vision of Jesus Christ talked to her - and whilst Margery was initially compelled to dedicate herself to a life of religious piety, she could not let go of the trappings of her old, comfortable life. She instead became a businesswoman - only truly giving herself to a life of devotion when these ventures failed.

Negotiating a chaste marriage with her husband, Margery then set out on a religious pilgrimage of sorts, visiting religious people and sites across the country, and receiving affirmation from some of her holy visions.

Many years later, following the death of her husband, Margery's travels took her far further afield, before she returned to England and began her book. Illiterate, she dictated the book to two scribes. Little is known of Margery's life after this point - now widowed and possibly childless, we know nothing of her death.

The manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was lost for many years - the only remaining reference being mentioned and partially featured in a publication by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. A sole surviving copy eventually found in Chesterfield in the 1930's, and was promptly published. Several editions have been published over the years, but this is a new translation by Anthony Bale, Professor of Mediaeval Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Book of Margery Kempe is a very hard book to review - as a piece of both medieval and theological history it is fascinating, and yet is certainly not the easiest of reads, despite Bale's excellent translation.

In truth, it is very hard to ignore the fact that Margery Kempe may have been ill - but my thoughts on this were thankfully discussed, elaborated upon and answered in the wonderful introduction - and it must be remembered that religious fervour in Medieval Times was particularly rare. In fact, Kempe seems to go to great lengths to point out that she is not the only person experiencing such visions - and she always makes sure to point out that it is her God that is great, not her. To aid with this, she refers to herself throughout as 'This Creature' - a sign of humility that made me rather uncomfortable.

To read The Book of Margery Kempe without great prejudice or judgement is genuinely quite difficult, and I had to keep reminding myself that this book was written nearly six hundred years ago, in a world that was different to our current one in almost every way, and one in which religious devotions was not just welcomed, but mandatory.

One thing that really does shine through is that Margery Kempe was truly a remarkable woman - one who had the initiative to start up businesses in her home (not particularly uncommon at the time, but nonetheless impressive), to negotiate a chaste marriage with her husband (although given that they had already produced 14 children, he may well have been glad of a rest...), and to openly discuss and publicly display her visions and fits, despite at one point being imprisoned and threatened with rape, due to the perceived threat some thought her hysteria to be.

The Book of Margery Kempe is genuinely hard to put down - due to the incredible picture of medieval England it paints, and the fascinating mind of the woman who produced it. Anthony Bale's notes add a huge amount of value too, providing much needed context, and raising interesting questions about the material.

Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price.

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