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Memoirs of a Medieval Woman

Memoirs of a Medieval Woman [PDF]

Louise Collis' book stands of the interesting tradition of "books that are about books." While Kempe (c. 1373 - 1438) wrote what is quite possibly the first autobiography in the English language - and quite a fascinating book in its own right - Collis' re-telling of the story adds the occasionally much-needed and very helpful narrative voice of a twentieth-century historian. At the same time, her voice is never intrusive, always letting Margery's story shine through any additional insight she might have.

Margery Kempe was born in or around the year 1373 to one John Brunham, the long-time mayor of Lynne (now King's Lynn) in Norfolk. In 1393, she would marry John Kempe and have her first child quickly thereafter. It was around this time when Margery had her first ecstatic religious vision when, according to her, Jesus appeared to her in a purple robe. Thirteen more children would follow over the years.

One day, while lying in bed with her husband, she has another vision, she tells John that she has decided to give up her sex life with him in order to give herself fully to God. This was one of the larger decisions that was made on the way to her becoming a fully repentant saint, whose spiritual ablutions and contrition would irritate many of the people that used to love her the most. In 1414, she took a dangerous trip to the Holy Land (the threats of vagabonds and brigands made long-term travel much more of an adventure than we could ever imagine it today), returning home a year later; in 1417, she took a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Both of these trips are beautifully detailed in the text. During her travels, she was hardly able to control her grippingly emotional visions. While today we would imagine that everyone would admire her for such religious fervor, many of the people that she would encounter on her travels thought that she was either being histrionic and sanctimonious, or possessed by the devil.

There is absolutely no doubt that Margery was a brilliant woman. While unlettered, she knew enough about Church dogmatics to defend herself when she was accused by some of being a Lollard (a follower of John Wycliffe). On other occasions, she was accused of being a heretic of other stripes, but always received commendations from those in a position to say what was orthodox and what wasn't.

While the comparatively secular modern mindset might find Margery's religious devotion neurotic or overly compulsive, Collis' careful and considerate explication enables the reader to approach the text with more cultural and sociological sensitivity. No one would ever accuse Margery of being an uncomplicated woman. She was strong-willed and adamantine. But her sincerity, selflessness, and refusal to compromise those values which she found most important make her oddly likeable, and one of the more interesting religious figures to come out of early fifteenth century English religious history.

This book comes highly recommended for those interested in religious (auto)biography, the history of the Catholic Church, or English history on a larger scale.

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