Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe
- Publish Date: 1985-07-24
- Binding: Paperback
- Author: Clarissa W. Atkinson
Margery Kempe, a middle-class English housewife at the turn of the fifteenth century, was called to weep and to pray for her fellow Christians and to adopt an unconventional way of life. Separating herself from her husband and many children, she became a pilgrim travelling around England and as far away as Jerusalem. In old age, she dictated to scribes an autobiography that recounts her extraordinary intimacy with Christ as well as her intense, commotion-filled life. At first glance, she does not seem very saintly in character or disposition, and her spiritual experiences can easily appear to be extreme or egotistical. To appreciate and interpret Margery Kempe's life and spirituality properly, one must go beyond conventional categories of social and religious history.
In Mystic and Pilgrim, Clarissa Atkinson does this from six perspectives: the character of Margery's autobiography, her mysticism and pilgrim way of life, her social and family environment, her relations with her church and its clergy, the tradition that shaped her piety, and the context of late medieval female sanctity. Margery's Book was shaped by the writings of famous holy women and by pressures on memory and motivation that come with age.
The vocation that called Margery to mysticism and pilgrimage made her unusual, therefore open to suspicion. It required her to leave her husband and children, to dress in white (a color usually reserved for virgins), to go on pilgrimage as a way to participate in Christ's earthly life and death. It graced her with a conspicuous gift: tears she could not control or resist. Her domestic and social background (she came from a powerful merchant family) gave her the courage to persist in her strange vocation and unpopular way of life. She met scorn from most of her relatives, but found encouragement in Christ, the saints, and the representatives of the Church. During Margery's lifetime the Church displayed intense anxiety over the related issues of religious enthusiasm, discernment of spirits, and female visionaries. Yet many church officials, including Dame Julian of Norwich, advised Margery to accept what God sent her and judged her feelings to be the work of the Holy Ghost.
Having examined these aspects of Margery's life and piety, Atkinson goes on to make an original and significant contribution by explaining their specific spiritual context. It is in the tradition of affective piety and of late medieval female sanctity, she argues, that Margery's religious emotions and expressions can best be understood. From Anselm of Canterbury, through Francis of Assisi, to Nicolas Love, affective writers and preachers aimed to promote intense feelings. Principal among these were compassion and contrition. Margery incorporated these feelings in her own devotional life: identification with the human Christ, conspicuous humility inspired by Saint Francis, and boistrous emotion in sympathy with Mary grieving at the Cross.
Against this background, the religious life of Margery Kempe seems neither aberrant nor even very unusual. Rather, it is her unique response to a tradition established by great saints. Among the saintly persons of late medieval Europe were many women: Catherine of Siena, Birgitta of Sweden, Joan of Arc, Julian of Norwich. They characteristically saw visions, communicated directly with God, found scribes or biographers who publicized their experiences. An increasing number of them were wives and mothers who struggled, like Margery, with the married state and eventually transcended it, becoming in effect honorary virgins through their holiness and by God's special favor. Traveling widely, speaking publicly, departing from traditional women's roles, these women were a new creation of the late Middle Ages.