In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Margery Kempe

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Margery Kempe’s Life
  • Reputation and Afterlife
  • Fictionalization

British and Irish Literature Margery Kempe
Diane Watt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0034


Margery Kempe was a late medieval English visionary and is, arguably, the author of the first autobiography known to have been written in the English language. Kempe was born in Norfolk in c. 1373, the daughter of a relatively prosperous and distinguished East Anglian merchant who had served as mayor and member of Parliament for the borough of Bishop’s Lynn, now King’s Lynn. The Book of Margery Kempe, which was dictated at least in part by Kempe, who may have been illiterate or had only limited literacy, gives a detailed account of Kempe’s life experiences from the time of her first pregnancy when she was around twenty years old, until she was in her mid-sixties. It describes in lively detail Kempe’s spiritual revelations, affective meditations, and conversations with the divine; her pilgrimages in England, Europe, and the Holy Lands; her controversial expressions of piety; and her tribulations and trials, including her examinations for heresy. The Book is not a sophisticated theological text but a work of lay piety that reflects some of the popular religious enthusiasms of the later Middle Ages. At the same time, it offers a relatively rare insight into the domestic experiences of a late medieval secular woman, albeit an atypical one. Since the discovery of the one surviving manuscript of The Book in 1934, and the subsequent publication of numerous editions and translations, the writing and life of Margery Kempe have become foci of interest for scholars of medieval English history, religion, and literature. The impact of modern feminism on literary studies and the growth of interest in women’s writing since the late 20th century have resulted in Kempe gaining canonical status as she is widely considered to be one of the earliest women writers in the English language. Extracts from her Book are found in a wide range of anthologies, and The Book is the subject of an ever-growing range of critical studies. A number of writers (novelists, dramatists, and poets) have also engaged creatively with The Book. Recurring themes that have been addressed by scholars include the questions of authorship and authority in The Book; the relationship of Kempe’s revelatory experiences to those of the Continental religious women; the relationship of her piety to contemporary Lollardy in England; the broader political context of The Book; and the representation of Kempe’s sexual, domestic, and social relationships within The Book. Tension exists between those critics who choose to emphasize the fictional and rhetorical aspects of The Book of Margery Kempe and those scholars who see The Book as a historical document. The digitization of the manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe has thrown new light on the production and transmission of the text.

Reference Works

Entries on Margery Kempe can be found in many online and printed literary encyclopedias and surveys, such as Luminarium. A variety of websites are devoted to medieval women, which also include material on Kempe. Of the websites devoted to Kempe specifically, the most useful is Mapping Margery Kempe.

  • Margery Kempe (c. 1378–1438). Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.

    Luminarium Encyclopedia is an online project devoted to medieval and early modern English. Its entry on Kempe includes a biography, extracts of The Book, links to other online editions, books and resources, and a bibliography of essays and articles. There are links to entries on related writers (e.g., Julian of Norwich and the Paston family) and topics (e.g., lyrics and drama).

  • Raguin, Virginia, and Sarah Stanbury. Mapping Margery Kempe: A Guide to Late Medieval Material and Spiritual Life.

    This website provides a wide range of resources related to Kempe’s life and to the society and culture in which she lived. In addition to reproducing extracts of The Book of Margery Kempe, it provides a glossary and bibliography and a range of documents, related texts, maps, and images. There are pages devoted to parish and town life and to pilgrimage.

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