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Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe (1964)

de Louise Collis

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For history and biography lovers, the 15th-century life and travels of the extraordinary Margery Kempe, who left her family to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
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This book in turns fascinated me and disgusted me. The fascination was when the author was busy telling what was going on around Margery as she lived out her life. Historical events, people, and descriptions that Margery didn't include in her memoirs.

This is NOT Margery's memoirs, and now for the part that disgusted me. The author picked and chose to give the reader only snippets of the actual memoirs. Picked at her discretion, to highlight her own agenda which apparently was to show Margery up as a selfish, foolish and annoying woman and no saint at all, by God! I'm not sure whether the author was offended that Margery tried to be a saint, whether she was angry with Margery for not living up to the legend that had been built up around her, or whether she simply hates religion or Catholicism. Collis missed no chance to drip vitriol on Margery; interpreting her motives for us, judging her character for us. One wonders if she has a personal vendetta from one of her ancestors to "put that woman in her place."

I grant you that I probably would have avoided Margery in life, but I would have liked to judge for myself through more of Margery's words and less of the author leading me by the nose. ( )
  MrsLee | Apr 17, 2020 |
Margery Kempe was an extraordinary 15th century woman who traveled from England to Jerusalem (and a number of spots in between). She was convinced she had been chosen by God to be his servant, and, though married with 14 (!) children, she undertook to take His message to the faithful. More importantly to her, she had a “secret sin” in her early life, which she felt she could only expunge by this pilgrimage.

Collis used Kempe’s own autobiography – the first ever written in English. (She was illiterate, but dictated her memoirs to a priest near the end of her life.) Thank God for Collis’s “interpretation.” The frequent quotes were enough to give me nightmares of a high-school English teacher who specialized in Middle English. As an example: “oon of hem specyaly” = “one of them, specially.” I also got tired of Margery, herself, pretty quickly. She was certainly committed to her cause, but I sympathized with her fellow travellers who wanted to abandon her (she was really insufferable).

In fairness, I did learn quite a lot about the history of this period. Though Chaucer was alive during this period, she probably didn’t know of him (remember, she was illiterate) ; still, I couldn’t help but recall Canterbury Tales (it seems written with “hyr in mynd”). ( )
  BookConcierge | Feb 2, 2016 |
I don't have a strong opinion of this book, one way or another. While there's not a lot to get out of Margery's story in particular, the research that went in to setting her story in context gives the reader an excellent education on religious practices and pilgrimages of medieval times. It made me want to read The Canterbury Tales and I did, in fact, read through a Chaucer biography just after this, being inspired by this book.

At first, I was wishing that the author would have left the translation alone and let us just read it in Middle English like The Canterbury Tales. However, once she did include Middle English snippets, I realized that I was THRILLED that she did. Ha! Here's an example from chapter 14: "a fedyr bedde, a matres, too pylwys, too peyre schetis and a qwylt". While it's obvious what that says, and sort of fun to read it, the entire book written that way would drive me nuts! Or should that be, "nuttyes"?

It was very interesting to read this story on the heels of the Estby book: http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/12819277/. Like Estby, but for very different reasons, Kempe left a husband and large family to go off on her own sort of adventure. The parallels were very interesting---journeys made 600 years apart. I found it interesting that, like Estby, Kempe had to get signatures as credentials to travel. There were 500 years between these women and so many similarities. 100 years since Estby and it's all changed.

At the beginning of the story, it's made known that Kempe had a secret sin that she didn't want to make known. It surprised me that she said she'd rather risk Hell than confess it. I wonder how this harbored sin ate her up throughout her life?

I think the people of Kempe's time definitely needed to heed the Biblical advice of testing the prophets! Oh boy! This woman was messed up! I found it funny that no one could stand her but everyone feared her. Kind of like an old time Molly Brown.

I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit to the Holy Sepulchre...so amazing...and hilarious! How the Lord must shake His head at us! Other parts moved kind of slowly, but it was probably more me being distracted than any lack on the author's part.

A couple of quotes at the end of the book sum Margery up well, I think:

"Indeed, indiscipline is the keynote of Margery's life. Though respectful of the church and those of its officers she approved, Margery owned no master, not even God."

"She was the victim of religious mania, deceiving herself as to the nature of her dreams and hallucinations."

I'm glad I read this and I hope the next reader enjoys and learns from it as well. ( )
1 vota lostinavalonOR | Oct 25, 2014 |
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. ( )
1 vota kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
Margery Kempe was a well-to-do and overly pious Englishwoman of the early 15th century who probably would not be remembered today except she dictated her memoirs. She had believed herself to be very holy, beloved of God and on the fast track to sainthood. Seemly unaware of how much she must have annoyed all those around her, she describes her visions, pious weeping, unending poverty as she gave away her (and other people's) money again and again, and moralistic lessons with which she lectured her companions. Extraordinarily she made pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land. This book is a biography of Margery with exerpts from her book (in Middle English) and commentary.
  casamoomba | Nov 9, 2005 |
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For history and biography lovers, the 15th-century life and travels of the extraordinary Margery Kempe, who left her family to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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