A Brief Biography of Margery Kempe

By Tim Lambert

Margery Kempe was an English mystic of the Middle Ages. She is famous for her autobiography. Margery was born in n in 1373. Her father was a wealthy merchant. At that time Kings Lynn was a large and important town and port.

When she grew up Margery married a merchant named John Kempe. Soon she fell pregnant. In those days pregnancy was hazardous and many women died in childbirth. Margery had a difficult pregnancy and labor. Afraid that she was dying she sent for a priest to confess her sins to. However, the priest spoke to her very harshly and this seems to have triggered a period of mental illness.

Eventually, Margery Kempe had a vision of Jesus. He said ‘Daughter why have you forsaken me, for I have never forsaken you’. Afterward, she returned to normal.

Margery decided to start her own brewing business. (It was by no means unusual in the Middle Ages for women to run businesses). However, the brewing was not a success. Margery then ran a horse mill to grind people’s corn to grain. However, the horse mill was also a failure.

Margery Kempe believed that God was punishing her for her covetousness and pride and she determined to turn over a new leaf. She had a series of visions and she insisted on having a sexless marriage. (Previously in 20 years of marriage Margery had 14 children. Unfortunately, in those days infant mortality was very high so it’s unlikely many of them survived).

Margery Kempe then traveled around England to visit various churchmen like bishops. Her husband accompanied her. She also visited the female mystic Julian of Norwich. In 1413 Margery Kempe went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (In those days people went on long trips to religious shrines). In 1417 Margery went on a pilgrimage to Spain. When she returned Margery went to Leicester.

While in Leicester Margery Kempe was arrested and accused of being a Lollard. (Lollards were a religious movement founded by the famous Christian John Wycliffe. Lollards were persecuted by the Catholic Church). However, Margery was soon released.

In 1431 her husband John Kempe died. Then in 1433 Margery, now an old woman visited Danzig. Margery Kempe could not read and write but she dictated a book about her life. It was called The Book of Margery Kempe. It is not known when Margery Kempe died but it is believed it was in 1438 or sometime afterward.