By Elona K. Lucas
Downside Review, No. 105 (1987)
Introduction: Perhaps no person has aroused more interest and suspicion than Margery Kempe, alive to us in her autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe. Many writers in the area of spiritual studies were excited by the discovery of her book in 1934. Until that time, only brief excerpts of her writing were known: short passages had been printed in manuscripts of devotional literature, and as a result of this, her reputation had come down to us in the twentieth century as a mystic and recluse, much like Julian of Norwich, her contemporary. Because of her ‘worldliness’, however, many were disappointed by what they found within the book, and criticisms were soon levelled against her. She has been accused, both by her contemporaries and by critics today, of being no more than a hysterical hypocrite.
For example, Hope Emily Allen, the earliest of her editors, claims Margery’s work reveals her as ‘petty, neurotic, vain, illiterate, physically and nervously over-strained’. In addition, she believes Margery’s hysteria ‘became a mirror of the [religious] influences to which she had been subject’ but she was unable to make her own these ‘highly spiritualized ideals of piety current in her world’. Furthermore, David Knowles disappointedly claims, ‘the Book of Margery Kempe has little of deep spiritual wisdom, and nothing of true mystical experience…’. Similarly, R. W. Chambers states that the discovery of the Book was actually ‘painful’ because the contents did not reach the level of profundity of works by contemporary authors, such as Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich (p. xviii). Moreover, Anthony Goodman, berating her works for not ‘flowering’ into the ‘arresting allegories of St Bridget’s revelations’, charges Margery with ‘mental banality’. Margery’s personality is also criticized for other apparent weaknesses. Goodman contends that, because of not meeting the expectations of male-authority figures in her life and ‘as a substitute for failed kinship relations, she developed filial ones with confessors’. In a similar complaint, Louise Collis claims that because of Margery’s insecurity and her centring her life on filling her own needs, she failed to develop wider religious and political concerns that give a depth of spirituality to her contemporaries, St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena.