Margery Kempe’s Horses and Cries

”His death to me is as if he had died this same day …”

Margery Kempe’s Business Failures In Lynn

After the failure of one business, you really do want the second one to work. Margery was a respectable woman and she came from a very respectable family. She needed the horses to be more obedient.

Her father, John Brunham, was five-times mayor of Lynn, twice one of the MPs for the town, as well as being a coroner and Justice of the Peace. By the time his daughter was starting her businesses, he had already squared up to Henry Despenser, the fighting Bishop of Norwich.

Margery was born in Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn, now King’s Lynn) in 1373 and at the age of twenty married John Kempe, a Lynn burgess. They lived in a house in Fincham Street (now New Conduit Street) in the centre of Lynn. Margery soon falls pregnant and gives birth to her first child. (She has another thirteen children over the next twenty years). After the birth she experiences what might today be described as a “breakdown”, or more technically as “postpartum depression” and/or “postpartum psychosis”. She experiences a time of crisis (devils called to her day and night and she is convinced that she will not live and is damned), but she is rescued by a vision of Christ who sits on her bedside and comforts and reassures her.

After this she attempts to establish two businesses. The first one was brewing and initially she describes herself as one of the greatest brewers in the town. However, after four years she had lost a lot of money. She puts it down to not having enough experience in the industry and her ale going flat.

The next venture is tragically comic. She tries to run a horse-mill for grinding corn and buys two horses to walk in a circle pulling the heavy millstone. The horses were in good condition and had previously drawn millstones, but when put to work, the first one flatly refused to move in spite of everything that the workman tried. The same thing happened when the second horse was tried.

Margery interprets these failures as God chastising her for her sin (her pride, covetousness, and desire for worldly respect and dignity).

What Did Margery Kempe Do?

After the failure of her businesses Margery starts on her new way of life feeling called to one of prayer and contemplation. She seeks out conversation with the spiritually minded and she starts to travel and go on pilgrimage.

St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2020

Margery is based in Lynn, but she travels in England and also manages to visit Venice, Rome, the Holy Land, Santiago de Compostela, and Danzig (Gdansk). She sometimes travels with her husband, and at other times manages to find a travelling companion. Sometimes she is with groups of other pilgrims (who often don’t want her in their group because of her unremitting holy conversation).

In addition to travelling to holy sites, she often wants to find people who will listen to her revelations and give her advice. She talks to Julian of Norwich, to many priests and friars, and to several more senior clergy.

In England she sometimes finds herself amongst hostile crowds facing serious accusations of being a Lollard.

What Did Margery Kempe Claim?

In The Book Margery records her visions and conversations with the Divine. However, Margery often claims some credibility for this private, internal, spiritual communion because of things that she is able to demonstrate in the public external world. The “miracles” give her authority.

Before we come to the extraordinary weeping, let’s just briefly note some of the other things:

  • When she was praying in St Margaret’s Church in Lynn on the Wednesday of Easter Week, a three pound piece of stone and a six pound end of a beam fell from the roof onto her head and back (a total of over four kilograms in weight). Despite this, she was unharmed, and claims it was a miracle.
  • Towards the end of The Book she comforts a husband whose wife is experiencing symptoms strikingly similar to what Margery experienced. Margery prays for her and the woman gets better.
  • Until her son reforms his ways she puts a curse on him and he develops a skin disease.
  • While she is in Rome her German confessor doesn’t speak English and is initially unable to understand her. However, he is suddenly able to miraculously do so.
  • On several occasions she claims to have miraculous foreknowledge about what is going to happen – the comings and goings of people who will help or hinder her, whether people will get better or die, whether individuals will be damned or saved.
  • She claims that her prayers and her tears are helping deliver some from purgatory.

Margery Kempe’s Tears And Cries

After the birth of her first child, Margery experienced times of uncontrolled weeping during her devotions. This was not only in private, but also in public. And it was the public weeping that made her unpopular with many people (preachers and congregation) who found it disruptive. While some were prepared to defend her, the weeping eventually got her banned from St James’ Chapel in Lynn, and at times her access to St Margaret’s was also limited.

When in the Holy Land, and contemplating the suffering of Christ, she experiences a new aspect to the weeping, something described as crying (screaming?) and roaring. Windeatt points out that her Book makes a careful distinction in the terminology over this and Margery does not use the word “cry” when describing her weeping before her visit to Jerusalem. This crying lasts for about ten years.

And she had such great compassion and such great pain to see our Lord’s pain, that she could not keep herself from crying and roaring though she should have died for it. And this was the first crying that she ever cried in any contemplation. And this kind of crying lasted for many years after this time, despite anything that anyone might do, and she suffered much contempt and much reproof for it.

& sche had so gret compassyon & so gret peyn to se owyr Lordys peyn that sche myt not kepe hir-self fro krying & roryng thw shce xuld a be ded perfor. And this was the fyrst cry that euyrsche cryed in any contemplacuyon. And this maner of crying enduryd many yerys aftyr this tyme for owt that any man myt do & perfor sufferyd che mych despyte & mech reprefe.

St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2007

Her tears and cries were often so loud that they could be heard outside the building, and sometimes she would prostrate herself on the building floor and roll around.

Apart from the disruption (and the embarrassment for some), the two most common accusations about the tears and cries made against her were:

  1. She can control it and only does it in public to gain attention to herself. She wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t an audience.
  2. It’s an illness, and if she were prepared to accept it as an illness, people might have more sympathy for her.

The first point was partially put to the test. Two priests from Lynn who had supported her also began to have doubts about her, so they took her to a church outside of Lynn (the Church of St Michael and the Archangel at Mintlyn) with a few children. When the priests had said their prayers Margery burst into violent weeping and sobbing as loud, or louder than she did when amongst people at home. It satisfied the priests, but you could argue that there were still people present.

Margery refuses to accept that her visions and conversations with the Divine are a result of illness, despite encountering a woman with very similar physical and mental symptoms to her own after the birth of a child.

Today psychiatrists might use the terms “psychosis” or “epilepsy” as an initial way of trying to understand her experience. However, for Margery, her tears and her cries were not controllable and came from her mourning over her own sin and from her identification with the sufferings of Christ. (”His death to me is as if he had died this same day …”) For most in her medieval world, she was either experiencing something divine or something satanic.

Margery Kempe’s Voice Of Experience

Whether you have a religious faith or not, I would encourage you to read Margery Kempe’s Book. She herself could not read or write, and so her words have been dictated. You don’t get a neat, chronological order, mediated through several editors, but what you do get is the authentic voice of a medieval woman describing her spiritual conversations, the trials she faced, and the answers she gives to her detractors.

While reading Margery Kempe I could hear another woman speaking at the back of my head. The other woman was the fictional voice created by Geoffrey Chaucer (at roughly the same time as Margery) and given to the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath explodes onto the literary stage and justifies her controversial and unusual behaviour and attitude to marriage.

Experience, though no written authority Were in this world, is good enough for me To speak of the woe that is in marriage …

Experience, though noon auctoritee Were in this world, is right ynogh for me To speke of wo that is in mariage …

The Wife of Bath is miles away from Margery in terms of her piety and morality, but they both share a common denominator. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath can speak powerfully about marriage because of her long experience (she doesn’t need written authority to justify her views). In a male dominated world Margery Kempe can face the hardship and danger of travel, the almost constant mockery from others, the prospect of being burned as a Lollard, and the initial suspicion and hostility of many men in authority (Mayors, Bishops, an Archbishop) with a quiet confidence based on the strength of the reality of her experience.

In her world, Margery Kempe experienced something which she interpreted as divine, and like Joan of Arc (also contemporary), this gave her the confidence to do amazing things and to endure. Thankfully, unlike Joan, she was not operating within a war zone and was not captured by enemy troops. Margery lived until old age and was not burned at the stake (which could so easily have happened).

© James Rye 2022

Sources

  • Castor, C. (2014) Joan of Arc: A History, Faber & Faber
  • Meech, S. B. & Allen, H.E. (1993) The Book of Margery Kempe, Oxford University Press (Middle English Version)
  • Fitch-Mayo, R. (2011) An Introduction to Margery Kempe, St Margaret’s Church
  • Padden, L. (2011) Locating Margery Kempe, The AnaChronisT 16, Winter
  • Windeatt, B. (Translator) (1965) The Book of Margery Kempe, Penguin (Modern English version)
  • A digital copy of The Book of  Margery Kempe with transcription has been produced by the Department of  English at the Southeastern Louisiana University. You can view here.
  • The Archive Org has a modern English version of the Book. You can view here.

Other Web Links

4 comments

Leave a Reply