Margery Kempe

Described as “a ‘wet blanket in any company which was innocently enjoying itself,’ ” such is Margery Kempe according to a source included in Anthony Bale’s introduction to her Book. Bale offers an objective — if not twinged with tongue-in-cheek — observation of Kempe’s colorful life.

He includes the standard background to the life of his subject: family, marriage, children, education (or purported lack thereof), business ventures, travel, and responses both from Kempe and from her contemporaries regarding her expression of the Spirit’s movement in her life. He also speaks at length of her sexual struggles both in her marriage as well as with other men, comparing her to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath character from Canterbury Tales. Apparently, she responded to a particular potential dalliance, and he rebuffed her without hesitation straightaway, much to her humiliation.

While Kempe’s family was both landed and political, she attempted her hand at several business ventures and failed miserably. These trials, however, did not dampen her spirit. She rebounded with her typical flair and resolve. Being frustrated with her husband in both personality as well as social status, she asked that they remain chaste and that she be able to travel and go on pilgrimage. Apparently, given her flamboyant personality so contrary to his own, he agreed. But not without having fourteen children together first.

What does intrigue me concerning Kempe is her ability to tell her story amidst the cultural and social background of her age. She includes roles of women in society and the “norm” regarding their education and involvement in business. Additionally, Bale offers the reliance of women on men in most aspects of life and economy during this era.

Given this background of social commentary for Kempe’s time and geography, I wonder if she is not the Lucille Ball or Madonna or Lady GaGa of her era. Her responses to Spiritual movement within her soul led her to say and do what was improper and offensive to her peers. Perhaps she was so “out there” that her contemporaries simply did not know what to do with her — she defied definition and therefore she was treated from many with skepticism and disdain.

Finally, it appears that Bale is ultimately intrigued with Kempe but in a hesitant manner. His choice of adjectives within the last two pages include: egoist, madwoman, fraud, and self-pitying megalomaniac (all taken from the reflections of others which Bale cannot help but to include here). Furthermore, she had a “mortifyingly embarrassing episode” concerning her hypocritical behavior. And yet, Bale — in the same breath — speaks of her as “an example of holiness” with “an exceptional religious gift.” It appears that Kempe, according to Bale, is an acquired delicacy — much like kimchi.

This piece is written as a reflection of The Book of Margery Kempe, Oxford World’s Classics edition.

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