Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
23.03.16 Bale, Margery Kempe

23.03.16 Bale, Margery Kempe

In Margery Kempe: A Mixed Life, Anthony Bale elucidates the intricacies of Margery Kempe’s palimpsestic life. In lucid prose, Bale details Kempe’s spiritual refashioning as she attempts to gain control over her own life. By doing so, Bale fully achieves his purpose, to create an “analytical biography” of a profoundly unique medieval woman as it is revealed in The Book of Margery Kempe (10). Anthony Bale accomplishes this in eight chapters and three “interloges” with particular focus on the stages of Margery Kempe’s physical and spiritual transformations transpiring through a late medieval world unprepared for such a woman.

His brief “Foreword: A Note on this Book,” explores autobiography and The Book of Margery Kempe, which he asserts “is a book about the writing of a book and about the making of a testament” (11).

In Chapter One, “Creature,” Bale examines the mental and physical struggles of the young married Kempe, tormented not only by a difficult pregnancy and birth, but by her conscience for an unconfessed sin. Bale argues that her household’s attempts to stifle her postpartum verbal and physical abuse of self and others reflects “the standard treatment for someone who has gone out of her mind” (16) and notes the medieval terms for possible diagnoses of Kempe’s condition. After more than eight months of trauma, Margery Kempe is restored to both mental and, ultimately, physical health through a vision of the beatific and beautiful Jesus Christ. Bale deems this her first transformation. His analysis in this chapter establishes the who, what, where, and why of Margery Kempe’s pursuit of a “mixed life” (22).

Chapter Two, “The Town of Bishop’s Lynn,” is “where Kempe’s story begins, returns to and ends” (25). Bale demonstrates the ways in which this place nurtured Margery Kempe in the mercantile life of her family, the Burnhams, and the town of Lynn. This mercantile womb that nurtured Kempe manifests itself in many of Margery’s secular and spiritual ventures. Bale notes that marriage into another merchant family solidifies her sense of her “elite” status in this town even in the face of her husband’s less-than-stellar career, demonstrating how Kempe, striving to balance the secular and the sacred in her life, echoes a not dissimilar tension existing in the town of Bishop’s Lynn itself. Kempe’s pride of place (the town and her position in it) will burden her throughout her life. As Bale asserts, it is “her spirituality and outspokenness sitting awkwardly with her elite, mercantile and materialistic background” that often confounds her (31) as she attempts “to negotiate sacred and worldly categories of judgement and esteem in order to establish a lasting reputation, on earth and in heaven” (36).

In Chapter Three, “Places,” Bale explores the foundation of Kempe’s religious development in Norwich, a place of “‘religious energy and creativity’” (47). Among the inhabitants of this city are anchorites and Lollards, extremes of religious devotion and reform, affecting Kempe in various ways. Bale’s analysis of Kempe’s relationship with Richard Caister and his church in Norwich reveals how the man and the place become significant factors in Kempe’s spiritual journey. From Norwich, Bale takes us to Lambeth, where two incidents “bookend Kempe’s story” (52). In the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel’s Lambeth palace, Kempe remonstrates with the people waiting in the hall and is threatened with burning by a woman there. Bale sees in this the source of the persistent threat of Kempe’s being burned that continues throughout her Book. Bale deconstructs each stop of Kempe’s subsequent pilgrimage from Constance to Rome, concluding that Rome is “an interlude in Kempe’s travels” and “a distinct and transformative moment” (82).

In the “Interloge: ‘my weddyd wife’, Rome, 1414,” Kempe solemnizes her mystical marriage to the Godhead at the church of Santi Apostoli, “becoming a holy spouse akin to Bridget” (82). Bale argues for the significance of the church where Kempe’s idiosyncratic take on the standard marriage vows occurs. The Godhead vows and pledges fidelity without Kempe offering a corresponding response. Bale asserts that this “ceremony boldly authorizes Kempe as the heir and imitator of other mystical brides” (84) and finds this mystical union key to Kempe’s claim to be special in God’s eyes.

Chapter Four, “Friends and Enemies,” probes the nature of Margery Kempe’s supporters and detractors. Bale argues that unlike Richard Rolle’s equitable model of friendship, Kempe’s friendships are “transient, hierarchical and contingent on money, patronage or circumstance” (86), indicating the serendipitous ways Kempe’s supporters appear amidst a sea of detractors. Bale reinforces his assertions by closely examining the vital relationships and interactions that Kempe has with notable supporters, such as the anchoress, Julian of Norwich, whom he finds “unique as a woman in the Book in taking on a quasi-clerical role, of spiritual teaching and opining on the discernment of spirits” (91). He locates Kempe’s mystical roots in her similarities with St. Bridget of Sweden, Kempe’s obvious model of sanctity. Detractors are many and varied but include the powerful and dangerous heresy hunter, the Duke of Bedford, as well as the one to whom women were purportedly most susceptible, “her main enemy…the Devil” (113).

The second Interloge, “‘fals strumpet’, Leicester, 1417,” lays bare Kempe’s disastrous trip to Leicester after her remarkable pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. As Bale points out that “Kempe had survived [these journeys] and proved herself as a pilgrim.” Unfortunately, Kempe’s public display of the “fire of love” in Leicester is a “transfer from internal spiritual excitement to external social controversy,” which is “one of Kempe’s most established moves” (121). Bale claims that the Leicester innkeeper’s violent actions in taking Kempe’s purse from her after he “bursts” in on her in her private room, makes a criminal of Kempe (122). It also proves how dependent Kempe’s religious motivations and consequent movements are upon worldly wealth and male authority. In her room, she is a woman alone, with no man present to step up in her defense. Consequently, as we’ve come to expect, she defends herself. Her courage in the face of powerful men’s blatantly sexist acts, accusations, and threats in Leicester joins with her fearless acceptance of “the prison cell as the exemplary place for the reception of self-growth and God’s grace” (125), reinforcing her spiritual superiority. Bale argues that this episode genders her ordeal in Leicester where she stands “at the poles of misogyny” (127), proving this incident and her survival of it an affirmation of Kempe’s insistence on her holiness.

In Chapter Five, “Things,” Bale probes the conflicts that arise for Kempe when worldly and mystical vision coalesce in material objects. A priest’s spectacles, a doll venerated by a group of women, images of the pietà, Kempe’s “maryd ring,” her clothing, the stockfish, and dust motes supply the materials for Margery Kempe to demonstrate her sanctity among the various people she encounters. The last material object, the “motys in the sunne” that Kempe sees, Bale declares to be an “eloquent motif for the circularity and endurance of the physical world, and the spiritual comfort Kempe derives from her material yet mystical encounters with this world” (153).

“Interloge: ‘a gret fyer’, Lynn, 1421” Bale’s final interlude, returns us to Kempe’s hometown, and, perhaps, more importantly, to the metaphorical and real concept of fire that runs throughout The Book of Margery Kempe. Although fire was essential for warming houses, lighting, cooking food, brewing ale, etc., the spread of an uncontrolled fire was much feared in a time when construction was primarily in combustible materials--wood, pitch, thatch--with water supplies often inadequate or far from town or village. According to Bale, the fire in Lynn made Margery Kempe “central to what happens next, as she assumes the role of a divine” (154). He asserts that the transformation of Margery Kempe is incomplete unless she can bolster her reputation in her hometown by becoming its salvation in the face of a potentially devastating fire. Since this historical fire began in the Trinity Guildhall, a signifier of Kempe’s mercantile roots, it is the perfect setting for the secular and the sacred Kempe to merge. Kempe’s prayers for God to “qwenchyn this fyer” seem to be answered when snow starts to fall, saving the town and, significantly, Kempe’s own church, St. Margaret’s (155). As Bale contends, Margery Kempe becomes “a seer of Lynn” and “both exemplar and protectress of the community…centred on her beloved church” (157).

In Chapter Six, “Feelings,” Bale examines Margery Kempe’s feelings, her joy, crying, pain, and shame. He deconstructs these symbols of Kempe’s affective piety according to medieval and modern conceptualizations. As Barbara Zimbalist has argued, “the most well-known mode of this new spirituality [affective piety]...was the corporeal affectivity that developed within medieval women’s piety” which Margery Kempe effected to good and ill ends. [1] When Kempe nearly falls off her mule at her first view of Jerusalem from Mount Joy, internally, she understands this as her spiritual experience of pious joy. The other pilgrims with her, the external perspective, see her reaction as a symptom of physical illness. Bale understands this moment as “a microcosm of that disjunction, characteristic of her mixed life,” between Kempe’s perception of her relationship with God versus that of other people” (159). Although her affective piety is well reported in her Book, Bale posits that in Jerusalem Kempe’s first “divinely inspired bout of transformative” (163). This holy place bears witness to Kempe’s external and internal expressions of devotion to Christ’s humanity, “to experience God through feeling the scripture.” [2]

With Chapter Seven “Old Age,” Bale conjectures that the lacunae in Kempe’s Book for the late 1420s, when a number of people, undoubtedly known to Margery Kempe, were fined or burned for heresy, may be created to shed light on Margery Kempe’s success in avoiding the flames even as she is repeatedly threatened with burning. Yet, the primary focus is on end-of-life matters including the Book’s early account of “the burden of a wife caring for a person with something like...dementia” (184). After 1431, Kempe’s chaste living in being distant from her husband is compromised by her husband’s suffering a near fatal injury. God himself tells Margery to return to her husband and care for him. Under Margery’s God-given care, John Kempe lives many more years. Before he dies, their son, John, Jr., visits and dies within a month. Bale notes that John Jr.’s being chastised and suffering for his “attachment to worldly goods” parallels his mother’s (186). After the loss of son and husband, Kempe travels again in spite of her age and against the advice of her spiritual guides. But Bale finds that, as in her younger days, Kempe manages to garner supporters along her journey through Gdansk, Stralsund, Wilsnack, Aachen, Calais, London and, finally, home to Lynn. The ending of Kempe’s Book steps out of the narrative of her life and into her cherished position “as an intercessor on behalf of the Christian community,” a holy woman praying for all (191).

In Chapter Eight, “Writing and Rediscovery,” Bale reiterates the difficulties involved in the writing of Kempe’s Book and its uniqueness among medieval books. Bale places Kempe and her Book in context with the anonymous, woman-authored Revelation of Purgatory and Elizabeth Hull’s commentary on the Psalms, similar but distinct works. Bale also reviews the physical description of the unique manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe along with the circumstances of its preservation by the Carthusians of Mount Grace Priory and their own annotations on the text. Primarily, Bale urges us to understand Kempe’s Book “as a collaborative document, in which individual experience merges with the imprimatur of confessors and scribes” (196). The two short printed works of Wynkyn de Worde (c. 1501) and Henry Pepwell (1521) are “much less experimental account[s] of mystical conversation and prayer” and thus “undoubtedly more marketable” (197). The twentieth-century rediscovery of the manuscript of Kempe’s Book is “a story of chance, disorder and layered histories” (200) with a significant afterlife in editions, translations, novels, and the emergence of Margery Kempe into the digital age.

“Envoie” takes us to a little church in the village of Mintlyn outside of Lynn, where the authenticity of Kempe’s “plentyuows terys and boystows sobbyngs” were tested by two priests. As always, Margery Kempe passes the test with ease. Subsequently, Bale reflects on his own journey to the now-neglected ruins of Mintlyn, describing its once vibrant religious culture before the plague and the Reformation accelerated its demise. Bale concludes that The Book of Margery Kempe, like the remnants of the village, “helps us vividly to conjure some parts of a life.” For Margery Kempe that turned out to be “a bold self-definition of one’s own life as holy” (209).

Anthony Bale’s Margery Kempe: A Mixed Life provides an essential resource across a wide range of disciplines and interests and should be read by academics and non-academics alike. With this book, he achieves a trifecta of medieval scholarship that includes his earlier exemplary translation of The Book of Margery Kempe (Oxford UP, 2015) and the more recent collection of primary and secondary works edited with Sebastian Sobecki, Medieval English Travel: A Critical Anthology (Oxford UP, 2021).



1. Barbara Zimbalist, “Medieval Affective Piety and Christological Devotion: Juliana of Mont Cornillon and the Feast of Corpus Christi," in Illuminating Jesus in the Middle Ages, ed. Jane Beal (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 203-218, 203.

2. Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 6-7.