Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (ca. 1373–after 1439) was Capgrave's older contemporary and a fellow resident of King's Lynn. Almost everything we know about her comes from her Book, which purports to be the account of her life and visions that she dictated to two scribes during the 1430s. The Book of Margery Kempe recounts the religious awakening of "this creature" (as she is referred to throughout), the wife of a respectable burgher, the daughter of one of Lynn's leading citizens, and the mother of fourteen children. It tells of her troubled marriage; her dealings with clergy, civic leaders, and ordinary townspeople; her travels within England; and her trips to continental Europe and the Holy Land. Visions abound, as "this creature" converses with Jesus and the saints, experiences a mystical marriage with the Godhead, assists at the Nativity, and witnesses the Passion. Though the Book reports that her religious eccentricities—especially the fits of "roaring" that overcame her when she contemplated Christ's life and passion—alienated her from those around her, the Account Rolls of Lynn's Trinity Guild indicate that a "Margery Kempe" was a member of that prestigious association in 1438.

An amalgam of genres—autobiography, revelation, saint's life, social satire, pilgrimage narrative, and moral exemplum—The Book of Margery Kempe has intrigued and perplexed critics since its discovery in a private library during the 1930s (Wynkyn de Worde had printed extracts in 1501). Was Margery Kempe a neurotic suffering from post-partum depression? An exemplar of at least certain facets of bourgeois piety? A proto-feminist? A brilliant female author on a par with Chaucer and Langland? The "pseudonym" for a brilliant male author whose fictional Margery rivals Chaucer's Alison of Bath?

Kempe presents herself as being well acquainted with the local clergy, and she mentions attending a sermon at the Austin friary in Lynn. It seems likely that Capgrave knew her—or that he at least knew of her. She appears to have been just the type of reader Capgrave had in mind when he directed his Katherine to men, maidens, and wives: an inquisitive layperson who desires both an intellectually-grounded faith and a deeply personal relationship with Jesus and the saints. In his Life of Saint Augustine and his Solace of Pilgrims, Capgrave takes a particular interest in the devotional lives of wives and mothers, challenging, as Kempe does, the conventional association of holiness with virginity.

Online Resource

Mapping Margery Kempe offers a wealth of information not only about Kempe herself but about East Anglian religious, social, and economic life that is eminently relevant to the study of Capgrave. See this site's Capgrave page for a more detailed discussion of the correspondences between The Book of Margery Kempe and Capgrave's Katherine.



Selected Scholarship

Scholarship on The Book of Margery Kempe is vast, and what follows is an admittedly idiosyncratic sampling of it. Books and essay anthologies devoted to Kempe are listed, followed by a selection of recent essays on Kempe, older essays that were influential in the development of Kempe scholarship, personal favorites, and essays that raise issues that are pertinent to students of Capgrave.

Monographs and Essay Collections

Articles and Book Chapters