Jamelah Reads the Classics: The Book of Margery Kempe

Everyone loves a nutcase. This is, of course, why the modern media can’t get enough of crazy Tom Cruise and his couch-jumping, placenta-eating antics. This may also be why I finished reading The Book of Margery Kempe. In fact, that’s definitely why I finished reading The Book of Margery Kempe. It was fascinating to watch the crazy unfold like, um, a large, unfolding, crazy thing. Here’s the deal:

The Book of Margery Kempe is the oldest extant autobiography in English, though it differs from autobiography in the sense that Margery Kempe, who was illiterate, dictated her book to a priest. She also never refers to herself in the first person, instead choosing “the said creature” to refer to herself. This may or may not be interesting from a literary standpoint, but it sure is annoying to read after awhile. Because referring to oneself in the third person? Irritating. Anyway, Margery Kempe was born to a respectable family in 1373 and married at the age of 20. After the birth of her first child, she experiences a break with reality that would today be considered as postpartum psychosis (though Tom Cruise would say she just needed some vitamins — I’ll stop referring to Tom Cruise, I swear), and has her first vision of Jesus. This vision causes Margery to calm down and return to normal. Later in life, after she has given birth to 13 other children (bringing her grand total to 14, in case you wanted to keep track), she feels persuaded by God to devote herself fully to him, and live a life of chastity, convincing her husband to have a chaste marriage:

“Margery, if there came a man with a sword who would strike off my head unless I made love with you as I used to do before, tell me on your conscience — for you say you will not lie — whether you would allow my head to be cut off, or else allow me to make love with you again, as I did at one time?”

“Alas, sir,” she said, “why are you raising this matter, when we have been chaste for these past eight weeks?”

“Because I want to know the truth of your heart.”

And then she said with great sorrow, “Truly, I would rather see you being killed, than that we should turn back to our uncleanness.”

And he replied, “You are no good wife.”

That’s harsh, Margery. Harsh. Of course, devotion to Christ aside (and regardless of religious hang-ups about sex being nasty), I have to say that this is really pretty smooth. I mean, after giving birth to 14 children, I might consider a chaste marriage too. I’m just saying.

Anyway, Margery’s devotion to Jesus grows, and she hears the voice of God telling her all sorts of things. She goes on pilgrimmages to several holy places — Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela — and manages to get on the nerves of many, many people because she has a gift. What gift? The gift of tears, that’s what. Of course, it’s not really the gift of tears so much as it’s the gift of making a complete spectacle out of herself, but whatever, you know. Details. Had I come up with this idea before I’d already read more than 200 pages of The Book, I would’ve counted the number of times I read something like this:

“When she beheld this sight in her soul, she fell down in the field among the people. She cried, she roared, she wept as though she would have burst. She could not control herself or master herself, but cried and roared so that many people were astonished at her.”

Since I didn’t count, however, the best estimate I can give you is that I read something like that way too many times. And I don’t know about you, but I had less sympathy for Margery and more sympathy for the people around her, who often tried to be kind, but sometimes had to get away from her because they just couldn’t deal anymore. An example of this would’ve been when, on her pilgrimmage to Jerusalem, her traveling companions told her to leave them alone (and even her personal maid wouldn’t have anything to do with her) because she was annoying. Of course, she saw it as them not understanding her or her love of God, but then, crazy people usually don’t know that they are complete and utter basket cases.

But what of The Book of Margery Kempe itself? Well, Margery seemed to imagine herself as a Christian mystic in the mold of Julian of Norwich or St. Bridget of Sweden. Though I’ve never read anything by the latter, I did read excerpts from the work of the former for an English class once upon a time, and though I’m not well-versed in Christian mysticism as a whole, I think that where Margery Kempe differs from the likes of Julian of Norwich is that Julian’s Revelations are about God, whereas Margery’s mystic experiences seem to be all about her. It’s perhaps telling that Margery says one of her sins prior to turning to a life devoted to Christ was that of vanity, and her spirituality manifests itself in loud weeping, causing everyone to be, as she would say, astonished at her. It’s also telling that Jesus is constantly telling Margery how great he thinks she is, instead of it being the other way around, which I think would perhaps be more fitting to one who is overcome with love for God. But maybe I’ve got that wrong. In any case, Margery Kempe’s Book is interesting not so much for the reasons Margery herself thought it was, but because it offers a glimpse into the life of a Medieval woman who, crazy or not, tried to live a life of faith despite many difficulties. In that respect, it’s valuable, though not exactly a joy to read, except for that whole insane angle. Because, like I said, everyone loves a nutcase. Margery Kempe definitely fits the bill.

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