MYSTICAL WOMEN: The Pilgrim—Margery Kempe by Joan M. Nuth

The Pilgrim—Margery Kempe by Joan M. Nuth

From God’s Lovers In An Age Of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics

Then they went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  The friars lifted up a cross and led the pilgrims about from one place to another where our Lord had suffered his pains and his passion, every man and woman carrying a wax candle in one hand.  And the friars always, as they went about, told them what our Lord suffered in every place.  And this creature wept and sobbed as plenteously as though she had seen our Lord with her bodily eyes suffering his Passion at that time.  And when they came up on to the Mount of Calvary, she fell down because she could not stand or kneel, but writhed and wrestled with her body, spreading her arms out wide, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart would have burst apart for in the city of her soul she saw truly and freshly how our Lord was crucified.  Before her face she heard and saw in her spiritual sight the mourning of our Lady, of Saint John, and Mary Magdalene, and of many others that loved our Lord. (The Book of Margery Kempe, book 1, chapter 28)

The pious laywoman Margery Kempe is in many ways unlike the other English mystics, for she lived out her call to holiness neither in monastery nor anchorhold but in the world.  Literally a pilgrim, she traveled the length and breadth of England and beyond to pray at the most famous Christian shrines.  But she was also a pioneer forging the uncharted path of combining her status as laywoman, wife, and mother with the call to contemplation.  Margery was forced by circumstance, more often than not, to practice her devotions publicly.  Thus her intense compassion for the suffering of Christ was witnessed by everyone around her, whether or not they were willing participants.  Her outburst of crying at any mention of the passion of Christ were annoying, to say the least, to those around her.  As a result, she was the victim of misunderstanding and abuse.

Margery’s story gives us a sense of how difficult it was to step outside the accepted patterns of holiness sanctioned in her day.  The highest level of Christian perfection demanded virginity, a condition not achievable for the mother of fourteen children.  Margery struggled for much of her life with feelings of inadequacy, doubting the legitimacy of her visionary experiences, constantly seeking religious experts to verify their authenticity.  Gradually, as she grew in spiritual maturity, she learned to trust her experience, and received the consolation of knowing she was precious to God in spite of her loss of virginity.  Margery puts us in touch with the extent to which the kind of hierarchical ordering of the religious life, as described by Rolle and The Cloud author, could be problematic for someone living in the world.  Even Hilton, who endorsed the possibility of a life of perfection for all the baptized, probably never envisioned the extremes to which Margery’s unique vocation led her.  Julian, however, reassured Margery that her experiences were from God, counseling her, “Set all your trust in God and do not fear the talk of the world.”

Margery’s call to holiness simply did not fit the patterns of religious living considered appropriate in her milieu, a fact made apparent by the reactions of various people to her.  When she first approaches Richard Caister, the vicar of Saint Stephen’s in Norwich, asking to speak with him for an hour or two about the love of God, his reply is condescending: “Bless us!  How could a woman occupy one or two hours with the love of our Lord?”  She is counseled by those who pity her because of the abuse she suffers: “Woman, give up this life that you lead, and go and spin, and card wool, as other women do.”  In one telling passage, an irritated monk remarks, “I wish you were enclosed in a house of stone, so that no one should speak with you,” implying that the sort of life Margery was attempting to lead belonged in an anchoress’s cell.

The history of Margery’s Book attests to the strangeness of her lifestyle.  Before the discovery of the entire manuscript in 1934, the only sections of the text in circulation were seven pages of extracts from her more conventional visions in which she is identified as an “anchoress of Lynn.”  No one imagined that a woman living in the world would have such experiences and thoughts.

If Margery’s lifestyle defies accepted categories, the same might be said of her Book, which has some things in common with hagiographical accounts of women saints, but is generally too idiosyncratic in its details to fall into that genre.  Nor is it a work of spiritual guidance.  It is actually the first extant autobiography in the English language, but autobiography in a limited sense when judged by modern standards.  Primarily the story of Margery’s relationship with God, it ignores details of her life not associated directly with her spiritual development.  Consistent with medieval ideas of autobiography, Margery as protagonist is not the primary agent, but God assumes that role in the creation of her “self.”  Thus, throughout her Book, Margery refers to herself in the third person as “this creature,” God’s creation.

Margery’s Life and Book

Margery was born around 1373, the daughter of a prominent citizen of King’s Lynn in Norfolk.  Her father, John Brunham, served five times as mayor and represented the city as one of its two Members of parliament at least six times over a twenty-year period (1364-1384).  Margery’s family belonged to the newly emergent wealthy middle class, with members in the merchant guild of the Holy Trinity, which played a leading role in both the economic and political affairs of Lynn.  Margery took pride in her family’s status, as evidenced by her response to her husband’s efforts to restrain her “proud ways:” “She answered sharply and shortly, and said that she was come of worthy kindred.  And therefore she would keep up the honor of her kindred, whatever anyone said.”  Because of her family’s position, it is somewhat odd that Margery was illiterate, since by the fifteenth century, women of her class usually did learn to read.

Her family’s influence helps to explain Margery’s forceful personality, and may also have afforded her protection from prominent officials when she got into trouble.  Throughout her Book, Margery is invited to dine with bishops and abbots, who treat her with respect.  For example, when Margery passes through Worcester on her journey to Spain, she is invited to meet with the bishop there who greets her with the words, “Margery, I know well enough you are John of Brunham’s daughter from Lynn.”  He then provides lodging for her in his house until her ship is ready to sail.

When she was twenty, Margery married John Kempe, whose family is mentioned in the Lynn city records, but was not of same stature as the Brunham family.  The two seem to have had a good relationship.  Throughout her Book Margery has nothing but good to say of John, “who always had tenderness and compassion for her,” and “was always a good and easygoing man with her; [who] spoke up for her as much as he dared.”  Although they lived apart after their mutual vow of celibacy, Margery cared for John during the last years of his life, after he was paralyzed by a fall.

Shortly after her marriage, “as nature would have it,” Margery became pregnant with the couple’s first child.  It was a difficult pregnancy, and Margery was so ill that she feared death.  She sent for her confessor, hoping to unburden herself of a sin she had kept hidden, but the priest was so unsympathetic and impatient with her hesitant efforts to confess, that she was unable to do so.  Margery cites this experience as the primary reason for the madness that afflicted her for eight months after the birth of her child.  She experienced horrible visions of devils attempting to devour her, and was so violent towards herself and others that she had to be forcibly restrained.  She was cured by a vision of Jesus who appeared to her “in the likeness of a man, the most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable that ever might be seen, clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bedside, looking upon her with so blessed a countenance that she was strengthened in all her spirits.”  He said simply, “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?”  Margery immediately regained her wits and asked for the keys to the buttery, resuming her household duties.

Although this vision of Christ afforded Margery consolation and healing, it did not effect a complete conversion from her arrogant ways.  She confesses to conceit regarding her appearance, pride in her family connections, contempt for her husband’s lower social status, envy of her neighbors, desire for their admiration, and covetousness for worldly goods.  In order to amass more wealth, she attempted several business ventures – brewing and milling – both of which failed miserably.  This period lasted at least four years, probably longer, after her recovery.  But eventually Margery experienced a genuine conversion from her worldliness, after which she engaged in a life of penance, prayer, and good works for others.  After about twenty years of marriage, during which she bore fourteen children, Margery persuaded her husband to agree to her long-cherished desire for celibacy, which gave her the freedom to pursue her religious life in earnest.  She experienced many “high contemplations” of Christ, his mother, and other saints, and traveled far and wide, to hear gifted preachers and to visit famous shrines in England.  She traveled abroad, first to the Holy Land, Assisi, and Rome, then to Saint James of Compostela in Spain, and finally to Germany.

In the Holy Land, Margery began wailing loudly at any mention of the passion, and began wearing white clothing at Christ’s command.  When she returned to England her unusual behavior attracted much attention, and she was arrested and questioned for heresy on several occasions.  Each time she was exonerated, her accusers acknowledging “she knows her faith well enough.”  In her trial before the Archbishop of York, when she was accused of preaching, she answered somewhat defiantly, “I do not preach, sir; I do not go into any pulpit.  I use only conversation and good words, and that I will do while I live.”  She eventually secured a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury attesting to her orthodoxy, which saved her from further prosecution.

About twenty-five years after her conversion, Margery attempted to record the story of her life and visions.  Her first amanuensis wrote badly in a combination of German and English that was almost indecipherable, and died before the work was completed.  Margery thereafter engaged a priest to complete the task.  After many delays and several bouts of reluctance on his part, he succeeded in rewriting the entire first book under Margery’s direction.  In 1438 he began a second book, much shorter than the first, again under Margery’s guidance.  Although one cannot be certain of the extent to which these scribes added their own interpretative comments, the Book is generally understood by scholars to be Margery’s own.  Her forceful, exuberant personality dominates its pages.

We know nothing about the early circulation of Margery’s Book.  It exists in a single manuscript copy discovered in 1934 in the home of William Butler-Bowdoin.  Believed to be an early copy of the original, it once belonged to the library of the Carthusian monastery of Mount Grace in Yorkshire.

Margery’s Spiritual Journey

Margery’s Book is not meant to be a work of spiritual guidance.  However, a discerning eye can detect in the story of her life a movement analogous to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways described by earlier writers.  Margery’s life is a progression from turbulence to peace, marked by transformative experiences that she cites as turning-points in her spiritual maturation.

The first of these was her conversion itself, an experience reminiscent of Rolle’s opening of the heavenly door, in which she became aware of the joy that exists in Heaven:

One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise.  And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, ‘Alas that ever I sinned!  It is full merry in Heaven.’  This melody was so sweet that it caused this creature to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings, and sighings for the bliss of Heaven.

After this Margery began a life of penance, as classical an example of the purgative way to be found anywhere.  She fasted, kept long vigils, confessed her sins two or three times a day, wore a hair-shirt, and wept copiously out of sorrow for her sins.  She lost all desire for sexual intercourse with her husband and began longing for a life of celibacy.  For about two years she lived this way in “great quiet of spirit,” followed by “three years of great temptations,” the most severe and humiliating of which was a sexual attraction to a man other than her husband.

The next turning-point in Margery’s spiritual development happened when she received from Christ the consolation that he had forgiven her sins “to the uttermost point” along with the promise that she would “never come into hell nor into purgatory, but have the bliss of Heaven.”  She is counseled to replace her hair-shirt with “a hair-shirt in [her] heart,” which Christ would give her, to abstain from meat, to receive communion every Sunday, and to take as her confessor a Dominican anchorite, a doctor of divinity in Lynn, to whom she was to confide all her religious experiences.  She is also encouraged to give up vocal prayer in favor of quiet meditation: “You shall lie still and speak to me in thought, and I shall give you high meditation and true contemplation.”  This marks a new phase of Margery’s spiritual journey, resembling the illuminative way.

When Margery asks Christ what she should “think about,” he responds, “think of my mother,” and Margery does so, beginning with Mary’s birth.  Consistent with her vocation of motherhood perfected through long practice, Margery “busied herself to take the child to herself and look after her until she was twelve years of age, with good food and drink, with fair white clothing and white kerchiefs.”  In her imagination she hears Mary tell of the annunciation, and goes with her to visit Elizabeth.  Then she accompanies Mary to Bethlehem, where she “procured lodgings for her every night, and begged for our Lady pieces of fair white cloth and kerchiefs to swaddle her son in.”  When Jesus was born:

She arranged bedding for our Lady to lie on with her blessed son.  And later she begged food for our Lady and her blessed child.  Afterwards she swaddled him, weeping bitter tears of compassion, mindful of the painful death that he would suffer for the love of sinful [people], saying to him, ‘Lord, I shall treat you gently; I will not bind you tightly.  I pray you not to be displeased with me.’

In these meditations, Margery draws upon domestic duties familiar to her as a mother, and offers them in service first to the baby Mary and then to the infant Christ.  They are the sort of meditations only a mother would likely conceive.  Margery never mentions her own children, apart from recounting the story of one grown son.  But these meditations provide a glimpse into the sort of mother she must have been, revealing a tender but practical and efficient side to her personality.  These meditations must have made Margery feel confident to approach Mary and Christ, tapping into her skills, reassuring her that she has something to give, even though she is not a virgin.  In one meditation, Mary thanks her: “I am well pleased with your service,” as does Christ: “I think you for as many times as you have bathed me, in your soul, at home in your chamber.”  One wonders about Margery’s silence regarding her own children, and is tempted to think they represented for her something unconnected with what she considered her authentic spiritual life focused explicitly upon her relationship with God.  Did she ever see her service to them as service to Christ?  She never says so.  Later in her book, she reveals that whenever she sees a mother with a male child, she is reminded of the infant Jesus.  One wonders if she ever thought of her own children in the same light.

In a second series of meditations, Margery accompanies Mary through the events of Christ’s passion.  She watches Christ bid his mother farewell: “Then our Lord took up his mother in his arms and kissed her very sweetly, and said to her, ‘Ah, blessed mother, be cheered and comforted.  Bless me and let me go to do my father’s will.’”  Margery then imagines that she and Mary follow Jesus, witnessing all the sufferings he experienced.  Here her meditations are reflective of the graphic description present in the passion mediations of Rolle and others, and visible in the artwork Margery would have seen in the churches she visited.  For example, in Norwich cathedral there is a late-fourteenth-century retable which represents the flagellation scene with Christ’s arms tied above his head to a pillar as he is whipped by torturers.  Margery’s meditation reads: “She saw in her contemplation our Lord Jesus Christ bound to a pillar, and his hands were bound above his head.  And then she saw sixteen men with sixteen scourges, and each scourge had eight tips of lead on the end, and each tip was full of sharp prickles.  And those men made a covenant that each of them should give our Lord forty strokes.”

At the crucifixion, when the cross was raised, “our Lord’s body shook and shuddered, and all the joints of that blissful body burst and broke apart, and his precious blood ran down with rivers of blood on every side.  When Jesus died,

She thought she saw our Lady swoon and fall down and lie still, as if she had been dead.  Then this creature thought that she ran all round the place like a mad woman, crying and roaring.  She came to our Lady saying to her, ‘Lady, cease from your sorrowing.  I will sorrow for you, for your sorrow is my sorrow.’

After Jesus was laid in the tomb, Margery accompanied Mary to her home, where “she made for our Lady a good hot drink of gruel and spiced wine.”  Margery remained with Mary and was there on the third day when Jesus came and “took up his blessed mother and kissed her very sweetly,” saying, “Dear mother, my pain is all gone, and now I shall live for ever more.”

Through Mary, Margery witnesses Christ’s passion from a viewpoint that may have been natural to her, the viewpoint of a mother enduring the death of a child.  One wonders how many of Margery’s offspring died as children, a happening quite common in the fifteenth century.  Once again, Margery may be drawing upon something familiar to her, and using that experience as her entry into prayer.  Unlike Julian, Margery never thinks of Christ as her mother; rather she, together with Mary, mothers Christ.

Margery thrived on these emotion-filled meditations on Christ’s humanity, which became even more vivid and real to her as a result of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  She undertook this journey immediately after beginning to live as a celibate, and it marks another turning-point in her religious life.  It enabled her to enter a sort of “liminal space,” in which the ordinary familial and societal restrictions governing her life were lifted, permitting her the freedom to explore new options.  Margery’s motivation was simply to see and touch the memorials of Christ’s life, to walk where he walked, see what he saw, as a way of deepening her devotion to his humanity.  It enabled her to participate more fully in the events of Christ’s life and death, and as such was a form of mystical experience for her.  As Atkinson makes clear, “the mystic and the pilgrim are not separate or separable in Margery Kempe.”  Pilgrimage was, for her, a form of “exteriorized mysticism,” fully consistent with the public nature of her vocation.

Through her meditations of Christ’s life and experiences of the holy places, Margery grew in familiarity with Christ, becoming comfortable with that same “homeliness” of God which Julian spoke of.  But in one meditation she witnesses the scene where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection: “Our Lord said to her, ‘Touch me not.’  Then this creature thought that Mary Magdalene said to our Lord, ‘Ah, Lord, I see you don’t want me to be as homely with you as I have been before,’ and looked very miserable.”  Margery tells us her reaction:

If our Lord had spoken to her as he did to Mary, she thought she could never have been happy.  That was when he said, ‘Touch me not.’  This creature had such grief and sorrow at those words that, whenever she heard them in any sermon she wept, sorrowed and cried, for the love and desire that she had to be with our Lord.

We know that Margery was familiar with “Hilton’s book,” and she may well have been remembering Hilton’s use of this same Gospel story at the end of The Scale as encouragement to move from meditation on Christ’s humanity to a contemplation of his divinity.  The next turning-point in Margery’s spiritual journey is an invitation to do just that.

Subsequent to her visit to the Holy Land, Margery travels to Rome, where she experiences a mystical marriage to “the Godhead.”  After telling her he is “well pleased” with her because of her faithfulness to the sacraments and her compassion for Christ’s suffering, God the Father proposes to Margery: “I will have you wedded to my Godhead, because I shall show you my secrets and my counsels, for you shall live with me without end.”  Margery’s response is silence “because she was very much afraid of the Godhead, for all her love and affection were fixed on the manhood of Christ, and she would not be parted from that for anything.”  It had been Christ in his humanity who came to her and offered her healing in the midst of her madness and fear of damnation.  He was her way into a nonthreatening relationship with God, and it is not surprising that she is loath to leave behind the comfort she feels from this relationship.  “The Godhead” seems remote, mysterious, and threatening, perhaps reviving her earlier fear of God at the realization of her sinfulness.  Nonetheless, the marriage takes place:

And then the Father took her by the hand [spiritually] in her soul, before the Son and the Holy Ghost, and the Mother of Jesus, and all the twelve apostles, and Saint Katherine and Saint Margaret and many other saints and holy virgins, with a great multitude of angels, saying to her soul, ‘I take you, Margery, for my wedded wife, for fairer, for fouler, for richer, for poorer, provided that you are humble and meek in doing what I command you to do.  For, daughter, there was never a child so kind to its mother as I shall be to you.  And that I pledge to you.’  And then the Mother of God and all the saints that were present there in her soul prayed that they might have much joy together.

God the Father eliminates Margery’s fear, interestingly, by promising to be as kind to her as a child is to its mother.  Once again, the image of the mother/child relationship aids Margery’s spiritual growth.

In her mystical marriage Margery revisits the merriment in Heaven which she had noted in her conversion experience.  Now she finds herself included in it, with all the saints and angels celebrating her marriage to the Godhead.  While Margery was still living with her husband, grieving the loss of her virginity, she had prayed,

Ah, Lord, maidens are now dancing merrily in Heaven.  Shall I not do so?  Because I am no virgin, lack of virginity is now great sorrow to me.  I think I wish I had been killed as soon as I was taken from the font, so that I should never have displeased you, and then, blessed Lord, you would have had my virginity without end.

Christ’s response then had been reassuring: “Because you are a maiden in your soul, I shall take you by the one hand in Heaven, and my mother by the other, and so you shall dance in Heaven with other holy maidens and virgins, for I may call you my own beloved darling.”  Margery’s mystical marriage reflects and seals Christ’s earlier promise to her.

Was Margery’s mystical marriage her initiation into the unitive way?  This question is virtually impossible to answer.  It is one thing to include a description of the unitive way in a book of spiritual guidance; it is quite another to sit in judgment upon an individual’s spiritual life.  “Experts” in mysticism have generally thought that Margery never reached the heights of mystical contemplation, i.e., the unitive way.  Of course, such judgment depends upon what one means by “the heights.”  If, as has been frequent, one equates the unitive way with apophatic mysticism, then one might well conclude this was foreign to Margery.  There is no evidence that she was familiar with The Cloud, and apophaticism is certainly not her characteristic way to God.  On the other hand, if one considers Rolle’s heat, sweetness and song as indicative of the unitive way, one’s assessment of Margery would be different.  After her mystical marriage she reports similar experiences, particularly “a flame of fire of love” which lasted for sixteen years.

Without prescribing a particular type of religious experience as indicative of the unitive way, it can be said with certainty that over the years Margery grew in union with God.  While she never seems to have left behind completely the image-filled meditations on Christ’s humanity that gave her such consolation, her prayer does become more quiet and peaceful toward the end of her life, something like the prayer of quiet recommended by Hilton at the end of The Scale.  As Margery herself says,

Our Lord, of his mercy, drew her affection into his Godhead, and that was more fervent in love and desire and more subtle in understanding, than was the manhood.  And nevertheless, the fire of love increased in her, and her understanding was more enlightened and her devotion more fervent than it was before.  It was more subtle and more soft, and easier for her spirit to bear.

More significant is Margery’s constant awareness of the presence of God: “Her mind and her thoughts were so joined to God that she never forgot him, but had him in mind continually and beheld him in all creatures.”

In the early pages of her Book Margery is self-centered.  Even after her conversion, she seems obsessed with her own spiritual development and need for salvation.  But the tone of the end of her Book is quite different, where she is constantly concerned with the welfare of others.  When she is in Rome her confessor advises her to serve a poor old woman, which Margery does for six weeks:

She served her as she would have done our Lady.  And she had no bed to lie in, nor any bedclothes to be covered with except her own mantle.  Then she was full of vermin and suffered a lot of pain as a result.  She also fetched home water and sticks on her neck for the poor woman, and begged for both meat and wine for her; and when the poor woman’s wine was sour, this creature herself drank that sour wine, and gave the poor woman good wine that she had bought for her own self.

Similarly, Margery served her husband at the end of his life:

She took her husband home with her and looked after him for years afterwards, as long as he lived.  She had very much trouble with him, for in his last days he turned childish and lacked reason, so that he could not go to a stool to relieve himself, or else he would not, but like a child discharged his excrement into his linen clothes.  And therefore her labor was all the greater, in washing and wringing, and so were her expenses for keeping a fire going.  She served him and helped him, she thought, as she would have done Christ himself.

The details of these accounts give them authenticity, revealing a patient and generous spirit in Margery.  The menial tasks which she had imaginatively performed for Mary and Christ in her meditations become actualized in her care for the needy.  She must have acquired a certain reputation for compassion, for she is frequently called upon to attend the suffering.  Particularly poignant are incidents where Margery is able to bring solace to women in situations similar to her own: she comforts a woman tormented by sexual temptations and has a calming influence on a woman suffering from a post-partum psychosis.  Besides visiting and attending to them, she prays for them until God gives them relief.

Whatever her prayer methods or experiences may have been, Margery’s union with God becomes revealed in her acts of charity for others.  While she serves them as if she is serving Christ or Mary, it would be equally accurate to interpret her actions as Christ acting in her and through her.  Hilton’s insight that one’s prayer to Jesus eventually results in one’s reformation to the likeness of Christ, seems to have been realized “whole and constant” within Margery.  Consistent with the example of Christ and the entire Christian mystical tradition, Margery’s contemplative life issues out into service of others.

Margery’s Gift of Tears

The most distinctive aspect of Margery’s spiritual life is her “gift of tears.”  On practically every page of her Book, she weeps, cries, howls, shrieks, screams out her grief – over her own sins, her longing for Heaven, her compassion for Christ’s suffering, or, increasingly as she grows older, over the sins of the world and sinners’ need for salvation.  While Margery’s behavior is more boisterous and melodramatic than that of most others, the gift of tears and the doctrine of compunction which they express were staples of medieval piety.

Rooted in scripture, the patristic writers and the early monastic rules, the doctrine of compunction was promulgated by Gregory the Great, whose writings were present in every medieval library, and whose ideas were quoted in innumerable medieval texts.  John Cassian is credited with outlining the four causes of compunction which became conventional in the Middle Ages: “the pricks of sin smiting the heart, the contemplation of eternal goods along with the desire for future glory, the fear of hell and the recollection of terrible judgment, and the hardness of the sins of others.”  The compunction of heart felt inwardly was appropriately expressed externally in the gift of tears.  Compunction was seen as a grace, a gift from God, as were the tears accompanying it.  They were not something one could produce through effort, but something uncontrollable, given or taken away according to God’s pleasure.

The tradition of affective piety begun by Anselm and promulgated by Bernard, Francis, and their followers, added another element to the experience of compunction.  Besides grief over sin and longing for Heaven, compunction began to include heartfelt compassion for the sufferings of Christ.  The paradigm for such compassion was the sorrowful mother weeping at the foot of the cross, represented in expressions of piety like the hymn Stabat Mater and in the pietas and other graphic artwork that decorated countless churches.  Similarly, Mary Magdalen, already a model for compunction, became exemplary for her grief over the suffering of Jesus.  The desire to suffer with these women was encouraged as an appropriate expression of devotion.

The continental women visionaries of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries cultivated this aspect of compunction to a high degree.  The tears accompanying their compassion for Christ’s suffering become in them not quiet weeping but uncontrollable loud crying and sobbing, sometimes accompanied by the thrashing about of their bodies in paroxysms of grief.  Several of these women present interesting parallels to Margery: Marie d’Oignies (1177-1213), Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), Birgitta (Brigit) of Sweden (1303-1373), and Dorothea of Montau (1347-1394).  All of them were married women and, with the exception of Marie, mothers of many children, who struggled for the chance to live a life of holiness.  All of them expressed their deeply felt compassion for Christ’s suffering through extended bouts of crying, weeping, and wailing.

It is quite likely that Margery was influenced by the stories of these women.  Marie d’Oignies’s story actually played a role in the creation of her Book.  When Margery was enduring vilification by her neighbors because of her loud sobbing in public, the priest who was her amanuensis, influenced by the criticism, contemplated leaving her.  Reading Jacques de Vitry’s Life of Marie, who sobbed and cried uncontrollably at any mention of the passion, helped convince him that Margery’s crying might indeed by evidence of holiness, and so he resumed his task.  Margery also mentions that “Bride’s book” was read to her, referring to the Revelations of Saint Birgitta of Sweden, whose cult was extremely popular in England.  Margery prayed at shrines of Birgitta in Rome, where she spoke with a woman who had been Birgitta’s maidservant and visited Syon Abbey, the English house of the order founded by Birgitta.

The changing nature of Margery’s tears may be a better way of charting her spiritual journey than attempting to fit her into traditional categories.  As we have seen, she receives her first gift of tears at her conversion, “great sobbings and sighings” of longing for Heaven.  In the years of penance and temptation that followed, Margery “had contrition and great compunction, with plentiful tears and much loud and violent sobbing, for her sins and for her unkindness towards her maker.”  So far Margery’s tears are completely consistent with the traditional notion of compunction, involving the twin feelings of sorrow for sin and longing for Heaven.

The first significant change in Margery’s gift of tears occurs in Jerusalem.  While the knowledge of her own sinfulness intensifies her grief, she now cries primarily out of compassion for the sufferings of Christ.  Her crying changes from quiet weeping to uncontrollable howling and wailing: “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.”  These fits of crying were unpredictable and uncontrollable; they would occur “sometimes in church, sometimes in her chamber, sometimes in the fields.”  She “suffered much contempt and reproof” for her outbursts, for “the crying was so loud and so amazing that it astounded people.”  Consequently,

As soon as she perceived that she was going to cry, she would hold it in as much as she could, so that people would not hear it and get annoyed.  For some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbor; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat.

Margery would attempt to hold back her wailing as long as she could “until she turned the color of lead,” but the more she held it in, the louder would be the crying when it finally burst out form her.  Many would not believe she had no control over her sobbing, and accused her of being a show-off and charlatan.  However, there were others who understood, and who “loved her and esteemed her.”

About ten years after they began, Christ took away Margery’s loud cries, which caused her to suffer more abuse, for those who had not believed her crying was uncontrollable now called her “a false and pretending hypocrite.”  All of the rebukes Margery suffered because of her erratic behavior became a way for her to participate in the abuse Christ endured in his passion.  Christ comforted her: “Now you have the true way to Heaven.  By this way I came to Heaven and all my disciples, for now you will know all the better what sorrow and shame I suffered for your love, and you will have the more compassion when you think upon my Passion.”

Even though the loud wailing subsided, Margery’s weeping continued to the end of her life.  However, just as Margery’s actions became more directed toward the service of others, so her weeping became more other directed as she grew in spiritual maturity.  This began even during the period of her loud wailing, and continued afterwards to the end of her life.

Sometimes she wept for an hour on Good Friday for the sins of the people.  Sometimes she wept another hour for the souls in purgatory; another hour for those who were in misfortune, in poverty, or in any distress; another hour for Jews, Saracens, and all false heretics, that God out of his great goodness should set aside their blindness, so that they might through his grace be turned to the faith of Holy Church and be children of salvation.

Ironically, many who had formerly abused her for her loud crying “desired her to be with them and to weep and cry [for them] when they were dying, and so she did.”  Margery is promised by Christ “that many thousand souls shall die saved through your prayers.”

The progression of Margery’s gift of tears from weeping over her own sins and longing for Heaven, through a period of compassion for and sharing in Christ’s suffering, to her weeping for the salvation of others, holds within it the essence of her unique vocation.  In company with Christ, her tears and life were meant to be redemptive for the suffering and sins of others.  This idea is voiced by Christ in a statement recognizing the homely relationship between Margery and himself:

When you strive to please me, then you are a true daughter; when you weep and mourn for my pain and my Passion, then you are a true mother, having compassion on her child; when you weep for other people’s sins and adversities, then you are a true sister; and when you sorrow because you are kept so long from the bliss of Heaven, then you are a true spouse and wife.

Christ tells Margery her vocation is to be “a mirror” for others: “I have ordained you to be a mirror amongst them, to have great sorrow, so that they should take example from you to have some little sorrow in their hearts for their sins, so that they might through that be saved.”  Margery’s weeping was meant to be a constant reminder that all had reason to weep and mourn.  This may be understood in several ways.  Elizabeth Petroff suggests that the public weeping of a woman like Margery “is an inarticulate cry of one needing a voice in a world that would deny that voice.”  Clarissa Atkinson suggests that Margery’s struggle was a mirror of new opportunities for “autonomy, power, and freedom through the life of the spirit” for other laywomen like herself traditionally barred from the pursuit of holiness. (Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe)  Ellen Ross sees Margery as both “representative of God to humanity” and “representative of humanity to God,” with the twin vocation “to remind the world of the God of mercy and justice, and, even more, to implore God to be merciful to the public, for whom she is God’s minister.”(The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England)  In light of the theme of this book, we might well see Margery as an apt mirror for the deep anxiety of that calamitous age that was the fourteenth century, allowing her cries to sum up its suffering and yet find some redemption in union with the suffering Christ, who assures Margery, “Your tears and your prayers are very sweet and acceptable to me.”


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