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A Medieval Woman on Pilgrimage by Margery Kempe

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Margery Kempe was born in the town of Lynn (modern King's Lynn) in England about 1373. Lynn was a port city whose merchants traded with Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia. Her father was John Burnham, who served five terms as the mayor of Lynn and once as its delegate to the English Parliament.

Kempe married John Kempe when she was about 20 years old, and gave birth to fourteen children over the next twenty years. For years, she lived an ordinary bourgeois life, and even operated her own brewing business, but she began to have visions of Jesus Christ during a period of post-partim depression after the birth of her first child.

She continued to have visions throughout her life, and after her brewing business failed, she began to reexamine her faith in its entirety. At the age of forty, she decided to devote her life to Christ, so she became chaste, wore only white clothing, and set off on a spiritual pilgrimage across Europe to the Holy Land. She also became known for crying violently when she had her visions, which evidently angered many of the people who met her. Although her religious beliefs were fairly orthodox, she was physically threatened and often accused of heresy.

In her old age, Margery dictated a spiritual biography to one of her sons. It was recopied and expanded by a traveling priest into the manuscript that formed the basis for the modern version of her story. The resulting work is one of the oldest biographies in the English language, and it remained lost for centuries until the manuscript was rediscovered in 1934 in the library of Colonel Butler-Bowdon of Pleasington Old Hall (Lancashire, England) by Hope Emily Allen (a noted scholar of the mystic Robert Rolle).

Definitions

Background

By the 13th century, Roman Christianity was well-entrenched in Europe, but it did not satisfy everyone. The calamities of epidemic disease and frequent war, augmented in the 13th century by the Mongol invasions, made life in the material world seem precarious. Europeans turned to the metaphysical world in large numbers. Monastic sects, heretical priests, self-selected pilgrims, as well as orthodox Catholics all sought ways to ensure their salvation in the afterlife. Margery Kempe was one of those people who sought salvation by extraordinary means -- by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome.

TIMELINE
  • 1373: Margery Kempe was born around this time
  • 1393: first child born, Kempe aged 20
  • 1394: recovered from first breakdown
  • 1408: began life of chastity
  • 1413: paid off husband's debts
  • Fall 1413: began pilgrimage
  • Jan. 1414: arrived in Venice
  • Apr. 1414: left Venice
  • May 1414: arrived in Jaffa
  • Sep. 1414: reached Rome
  • Easter 1415: left Rome for England
  • mid-May 1415: reached the North Sea coast at Zealand
  • two days later: returned home to Lynn, England
Map of Margery Kempe's pilgrimage
Margery Kempe's route from England to Jerusalem

Her route to Jerusalem crossed the North Sea to a port in modern Netherlands, followed the Rhine River to Switzerland, and then followed paths over the Alps to Italy. From Venice, she took a ship to Jaffa (Haifa) and traveled overland from there on a mule to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, she returned to Jaffa and sailed to Italy, where she visited Rome before returning overland to the North Sea and by ship to England. Kempe's pilgrimage lasted eighteen months in its entirety.

Kempe's experience during her pilgrimage shows several things about life in early 15th century Europe and the relationship between religion, economics and political power. One of the things that Kempe's account reveals is how, at each step along the way, there were people who earned a profit by providing services to pilgrims. This was most clear in the examples of the "Saracens" who charged port fees and other bribes before allowing pilgrims to land and continue to Jerusalem. However, the same could be said of the people who operated the ships that crossed the Mediterranean and the North Sea, the caravan leaders who crossed continental Europe, the merchants who sold supplies, and the innkeepers who provided lodging to pilgrims.

Questions

  1. What is the purpose of a pilgrimage?
  2. How did Margery Kempe prepare before leaving on her pilgrimage?
  3. How did Margery Kempe get from England to the continent?
  4. What does the phrase "city of heaven" mean when used to describe Jerusalem?
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