Margery Kempe

During the medieval period, England was characterized by a deeply religious atmosphere. Communities’ social experiences were centered around following rules as written in the Bible and attending church as well as other religious ceremonies. Margery Kempe was born in 1373 to John Burnham, a successful man who had reached the highest levels of the English political system — a delegate to Parliament. Margery’s childhood was relatively uneventful, though she benefited from the high placement of her father’s social position and married John Kempe when she was relatively young (around twenty). She quickly became pregnant and gave birth to her first child; it was this moment in her life that sparked her religious fame.

After the birth of her first child, Margery developed postpartum depression. At the time, medicine was not advanced enough to understand this condition that can occur from the hormone fluctuations following pregnancy, so her condition went untreated. She reported having religious visions of Jesus Christ during this time in her life, and this connection to Christianity followed her throughout the birth of thirteen more children and her dip into the brewing industry. After her brewing business failed, Margery honed in on her religious connection and began to dedicate her life to Christ. She set out on a pilgrimage in the early 1400s across Europe and into the Middle East, speaking her testimony to those who would listen.

While on her pilgrimage, she faced skepticism and critiques that often led to violence. Her eccentric displays of religious mysticism reportedly included hysterical crying when she entered into spiritual states or received visions. She became an icon for her journey, and penned a biography of her experiences late in her life. Perhaps the most interesting element of Margery’s life was not that she wrote this biography but that it was lost until 1934, when it was rediscovered in a library by Hope Emily Allen in England. Her renown as a Christian mystic is not Margery’s only contribution to history: her biography is considered the oldest biography written by a woman ever to uncovered.

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