This is an autobiography from the early 1400s of a woman who was apparently considered quite saintly. Basically, she had fits and religious delusions, gave herself over to crying and weeping so hard she astonished people continually (even those who knew her), and believed that God was speaking to her directly so that she was able to prophecy things. Yeah.
So, it was interesting to read this as a non-religious person from a culture very, very different from the one Ms. Kempe lived in 600 years ago. At first, she seems very clinically mentally ill, some sort of epilepsy and schizophrenia combination, I’d guess. The woman literally believes that God took her back in time to be there at the birth of Jesus, and other such “visions.” But after awhile, most of her delusions seem to take the form of God speaking to her directly. This could still be construed as schizophrenic, but the culture was so different at the time, that it’s possible she was just very fixated on religion, and all of this came basically out of her imagination, rather than an actual voice that she heard. Notably, Jesus and God speak in the same speech patterns as Ms. Kempe herself, hmmm…
In some ways, the book was fascinating. In others, it was extremely repetitive and dull. I swear, the woman cried and sobbed at least three times per page. She spent a lot of time writing about all the different prophecies she made (with God’s help of course). She doesn’t seem saintly at all, but arrogant and self-centered. She was constantly telling other people how to live – in direct opposition to the order not to judge others as given in scripture – and everyone hated this woman. Even the people who for a short time liked her eventually turned on her. She also seems quite like a con-artist, but this, too, like the schizophrenia, could simply be a product of the world she lived in. Every time one of her predictions came true, it was because God told her what would happen in advance. Every time one didn’t come true, it was because God wanted to show her that she was just a mortal. Convenient. Just as convenient as the bizarre psychological mindframe wherein a person can believe that they should only be happy if they suffer, because Jesus suffered for us, and so we should want to suffer as much as possible, and should be happy in our suffering, and miserable when we aren’t suffering. Yeah…
Margery did seem to suffer from delusions her whole life, right up to when God decided to let her spend 12 days with the devil in order to better love God when he returned, and so Margery spent 12 days unable to stop thinking about male genitals, even though she didn’t want to. She believed that everything that happened, happened because God wanted it to be so. Everything she went through was part of God’s design, including her own sins. Honestly, I cannot even imagine living like that, the whole contradiction of having no free will and yet taking responsibility for things, the conflict of fate and personal action.
Another note: It was strange to read a book from a time when women were so controlled that they could not leave town without getting permission from their confessors, and yet to have no indignation attached to that control. It was just normal for them. No one even thought to question it, not even a strong-willed and very vocal woman like Margery Kempe. That was fascinating.
One last thing in this scattered review and then I’ll close. I honestly had no intention or desire to read this book until a few months ago, when Jason picked it up and read a random passage that turned out to be hilarious. This scene, and the one about the male genitalia mentioned above, were probably the only two funny parts in the book. Most of the rest was dull, and I doubt I’ll remember much from it later. However, the following passage gives a good idea of how the book was written, and it still cracks me up. It was enough to make me read the book, anyway!
It happened one Friday, Midsummer Eve, in very hot weather – as this creature was coming from York carrying a bottle of beer in her hand, and her husband a cake tucked inside his clothes against his chest – that her husband asked his wife this question: ‘Margery, if there came a man with a sword who would strike off my head unless I made love with you as I used to do before, tell me on your conscience – for you say you will not lie – whether you would allow my head to be cut off, or else allow me to make love with you again, as I did at one time?’
‘Alas sir,’ she said, ‘why are you raising this matter, when we have been chaste for these past eight weeks?’
‘Because I want to know the truth of your heart.’
And then she said with great sorrow, ‘Truly, I would rather see you being killed, than that we should turn back to our uncleanness.’
And he replied, ‘You are no good wife.’
Note: Translated from Middle English by Barry Windeatt.