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The Catholic Historical Review 89.1 (2003) 1-23

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Margery Kempe:
An Exemplar of Late Medieval English Piety

Raymond A. Powell

When the only complete manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe came to light in the 1930's, it brought both joy and disappointment to students of the religion of late medieval England. On the one hand, The Book opens up medieval daily religious practice to modern scholars in a way few other sources do. On the other hand, the mystic experience of the author herself proved to be disappointing. Scholars had anticipated another Julian of Norwich; what they got was Margery Kempe. Kempe's description of her religious experience is not just cast into shadow by her fellow-countrywoman's Shewings; her story has struck modern readers as both bizarre and naive. 1

The reluctance of many modern scholars to take Kempe seriously has been reinforced by her description of the reception her piety received at the hands of her contemporaries. Apparently the English of the fifteenth century were not impressed by Kempe either. According to her own account, she was accused of Lollardy on numerous occasions, constantly rejected by fellow pilgrims, resented and mistrusted by many of the clerics with whom she came into contact, and accused of hypocrisy and hidden vice by her fellow townspeople in Lynne. [End Page 1]

More recent scholars who do not want to dismiss Kempe so easily have attempted to rehabilitate her by claiming her as a feminist heroine. According to one proponent of this theory, The Book is "a valuable and fascinating testimony into the history of women's liberation," and of "a woman's quest for identity and independence." 2 Religion here is recognized as a subterfuge for Kempe's self-actualization: "Fortuitous for the history of feminism, the cloak of holiness allowed her to move in a niche sanctioned by contemporary society." 3 Though other authors are more restrained, many agree that the true merit of Kempe's Book has been hidden because of an insistence on evaluating it, and her, by patriarchal standards. "The fitting of her Book into a Procrustean bed has confused and negated the values she represents." 4 The recognition of Kempe as a proto-feminist underlies a variety of positive evaluations of The Book. One theory portrays Kempe as an unrecognized literary genius, of the caliber of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Faulkner, whose brilliant writing and scathing social analysis have been overlooked because she was female. The alleged oddities of Kempe's text disappear when the reader recognizes Kempe's "need for strategies to conceal and disguise [her] strongly original and, in some cases, destabilizing insights into the systems of theological or communal ordering." 5 According to another interpretation, Kempe is a "revolutionary," a woman ahead of her time, some of whose themes and ideas "are flourishing in the . . . radical . . . expressiveness of modern Protestantism." 6

Modern interpretations, both negative and positive, share the characteristic of ignoring Kempe's context. Those who reject the Book do so because it does not fit the twentieth-century standard of medieval mysticism created by scholars from the works of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. Those who admire Kempe do so by an anachronistic (and often unconvincing) discovery of feminist virtues in her story. In either instance, modern scholars do Margery Kempe a disservice by ignoring the context in which she wrote. An ahistorical twentieth- or twenty-first-century reading may indeed leave the impression of an hysteric, a feminist heroine, or a brilliant social commentator. In fact, Kempe was neither a visionary in the tradition of the Spanish mystics nor a precocious [End Page 2] champion of female equality. Instead she was a late medieval English Christian. Her piety was the piety of the devout in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, especially East Anglia. Her mystic experience was based on the devotional practices enjoined on the English faithful by numerous religious works. Virtually every element of her religious life has its counterpart, and more often than not its precedent, in the experience...