Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Margery Kempe (Part 2) - Move over Geoffrey Chaucer and reality TV!

Some consider Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343 - 1400) as the father of English literature, as his writings in Middle English were the first to make it big. His unfinished Canterbury Tales is his most famous work, told as a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe (1373 - 1438) did more than journey to the shrines within England. She went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome, Spain, Poland and other parts of Europe. And usually she went it alone - leaving husband and fourteen children behind.

If the Middle Ages did a reality show, Margery would be the star.  Her real life adventures rivaled Canterbury Tales with an eclectic cast of characters:

* The star *

Margery Kempe - ne Margery Brunham

This mayor's daughter of King's Lynn married John Kempe, at one time a well off businessman. Earlier in life, Margery had committed a "secret sin" which she was too embarrassed to confess even to a priest when she thought that she was dying. In a crisis after a difficult pregnancy, Margery had a heavenly vision of Christ, which drove away her hallucinations of devils, followed by a dramatic recovery of her health and sanity.  Therefore, after successive business failures, among them being as a brewer of beer, Margery's new career choice became clear - a religious hysteric.

With pigheaded stubbornness, Margery set herself on a lifetime pursuit of sainthood, discovering her great spiritual gift - weeping. Oh, how she could weep - very loudly and incessantly.  Subjected to holy visions and trances, Margery said she directly communicated with God and had a special relationship with Him. She claimed to know who was saved and who was not. And she shared her spirituality by lecturing others on their self-improvement.

Some thought Margery was indeed a holy woman, filled with the Holy Spirit. Her detractors thought she was possessed by the Devil. Most thought she was just annoying.

* Margery's family *

John Kempe - the medieval henpecked husband

He seemed to have supported - or at least acquiesced to - Margery's career choice. More of a homebody, he skipped going on long pilgrimages with her. And he made himself quite scarce when Margery got into scrapes with the Church as the prelates often misunderstood her enthusiasm. Though his wife got ideas of celibacy while they were married, John had managed to father fourteen children by her. This old boy must have had some charm and affection for Margery, as well as the patience of Job.

The erring son - the only one of Margery's fourteen children she mentions in her autobiography

This boy had strayed from her, joining one of the merchants of Lynn, who did business with the Hanseatic League along the Baltic ports. While in town, his mother would waylay this son for his immoral life and curse him. To escape her nagging, he shipped off to Poland, where he loved the ladies too much. Later, he was sacked due to disfigured looks when he had become afflicted with a terrible skin disease, probably from syphilis. After that, he came back to Margery to beg her forgiveness and lift the curse, which he had blamed for his "leprosy." Undoubtedly, this prodigal son's repentance delighted her immensely.

* The citizens of Lynn *

In her hometown, Margery garnered both her supporters and detractors, which fluctuated with the rise and fall of her fortunes. As her novelty wore off, most grew very tired of her and saw her as a joke. They amused themselves by abusing her, such as throwing dirty water out their windows on her when they saw her walking down their way.  But to hedge their bets with the Almighty, her countrymen did call on her to pray for them when trouble came.

* Her fellow pilgrims *

During pilgrimage, Margery's countrymen found her a real kill-joy, especially around meal time when she scolded them for telling stories and jokes. Her incessant weeping, piercing screams, and lecturing on their self-improvement wore them down. Her fellowship ditched her on the way to Jerusalem. And they ditched her, again, in Venice after returning from the Holy Land, leaving Margery without an escort to Rome. Likewise, she frightened them, as someone else always came along to rescue her so she would eventually catch up with them, again, much to their chagrin.

* The "heretics" and "infidels" *

The Lollards - followers of John Wycliffe

Margery's detractors often accused her of being one of these. Margery passionately sought direct communication with God, much like what was preached by those heretical Lollards. But Margery convinced every counsel that brought her up on charges of heresy that her beliefs were most orthodox and she indeed was one of the faithful in the Church.

The Saracens - the Arab Muslims in the Holy Land

The Saracens in the 15th century ran the pilgrimages in the Holy Land like any business and they had the monopoly. Though pilgrims got many warnings of the terrible things these infidels may do to Christians, Margery seemed to have gotten along very well with them and mentions how they made much of her. These "infidels" seemed like a breath of fresh air as compared to the abuses she had endured by her own countrymen.

* The Holy Men *

The Franciscans - in Jerusalem

The Franciscans, assisting the tourists in the Holy Land, considered Margery an exemplary pilgrim. They wished all the faithful were more like her, whose thoughts were fixed on holy things and not worldly pursuits. Margery could weep at the shrines even to the astonishment of those who were used to such emotional outbursts. They seemed sad to see her eating by herself, shunned by her own countrymen for her piety. They expressed sorrow to see her leave Jerusalem when her tour was up and feared that her countrymen would subject her to more indignities and dangers.  Margery undoubtedly told these sympathetic listeners all she had suffered at the hands of her countrymen for the love of God.

The English priest - at the English hostel in Rome

After pilgrimage in the Holy Land, the English pilgrims could not endure the prospects of any more of Margery's company. After all, they had ditched her, again, after returning to Venice. And she just kept showing up and finding them, again. This frightened them.

The English priest, who had been in the original English party of pilgrims, had long observed Margery, her weepings, her shrieking, her descriptions of her visions, her lectures. He was convinced she was possessed by the Devil. The Church was about the settle this matter of heresy in the Council of Constance (where John Huss would be burned at the stake.) He rationalized that the English fellowship dared not risk putting up with the outspoken Margery. This priest used his influence to expel her from the English hostel - much to her countrymen's relief.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Outspoken Margery, in pursuit of sainthood, got herself into many scrapes with the prelates in the Church, as they were quite testy in the 15th century about the rise of heresy and their authority being challenged. A seasoned pilgrim from the Holy Land, Rome, and the Shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain, Margery really knew her stuff. She passed every inquisition of bishops and archbishops as an orthodox believer of the true faith. In London, after an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, she earned his certificate of approval. This was her ticket to not only protect her, but make her autobiography safe to read, unlike that other literature going about by the likes of John Wycliffe and later, Martin Luther.

* Protectors *

Richard - the Irish Hunchbacked Beggar

Returning to Venice from the Holy Land, the English pilgrims had ditched Margery - again - and refused to escort her to Rome. But Margery would not fail. As an answer to her prayers, she spotted a humpbacked Irish beggar man by the road, figuring he was probably about 50 years old. Margery introduced herself to Richard, who providentially spoke English. Then she convinced him to escort her to Rome. Though Richard had doubts of his abilities to fight off armed bandits, Margery convinced him of their divine appointment and God's blessing. This odd couple indeed made it safely to Rome but eventually had a falling out. There, Margery gave all her money to the poor, some of which she had borrowed from Richard, who had worked so hard begging for it.

John - an escort out of Poland

While Margery was pushing into her 60th year, her prodigal son had returned for a visit and died about a month later. Shortly, John Kempe passed away, leaving Margery a widow.  But always the tourist, she traveled back to Danzig with another recent widow, her daughter-in-law. After a six week stay, Margery looked for an escort home. But the King of Poland was at war with many countries which would deny her passage.

Yet, divine providence sent her a pilgrim named John, who Margery convinced - if she paid his way - to escort her part way home. While on foot, her new guide charged ahead at a breakneck speed, causing Margery to pant to keep up with him . (Keep in mind she was 60, which was old for the Middle Ages.)  She begged him to slow down, but he said he was afraid of robbers. Really? Either John had wanted to ditch her - something that Margery did not think as unusual as it had happened to her so many times before. Or perhaps John was keeping Margery so winded that she did not have the breath to lecture him on his self-improvement.

* Women *

St. Bridget of Sweden - Margery's role model

In the 15th century of northern Europe, St. Bridget of Sweden was one of the most revered saints. She had a great desire to reform the Church of its excesses and formed the Bridgettine order as an answer to this. Margery, who was determined to be a saint, saw many parallels in her own life with the life of St. Bridget. Margery's landlord in Rome - where she resided after she had been expelled by the English priest from the English hostel - actually had known St. Bridget when she was alive and visited Rome. Those in the household described St. Bridget as unpretentious, polite to everyone, cheerful disposition - a total opposite of Margery.

Dame Marguerite Florentine - a rich lady from Rome

While on route from Venice to Rome, Margery and Richard, the Irish beggar, stopped at Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans. As divine fortune would provide, Lady Marguerite from Rome was making a pilgrimage to Assisi. And on her return journey, the lady graciously received Richard, the Irish beggar, and Margery, an English candidate for sainthood. The language barrier between them was a blessing and may be the reason they all got along so well.

The Worshipful Widow of London - not quite another Dame Marguerite

On her homeward journey to England from Danzig, Margery parted with her escort John (who seemed to want to shake her off) at Aachen, which was a favored spot for pilgrims passing through to Rome. There she looked for another escort to Calais, having the good fortune to find a rich widow from London.

The worshipful widow seemed very agreeable, much like Dame Marguerite Florentine, and said that Margery could join her group. That is until the more the worshipful widow saw of Margery, the less she cared for her. Before dawn the next day, the worshipful widow sped out of Aachan leaving Margery behind. This did not surprise Margery, as this type of thing had happened way too often.


So is a sampling of some of the characters that came into Margery Kempe's life.

What made Margery's autobiography in the Middle Ages such good reading is that it was one of a real woman (with obvious faults), engaging with real people, having real adventures getting in and of scrapes while on the dangerous business of touring much Europe.

Could Chaucer come up with all this? Life is still stranger than fiction.

Next, there are universal lessons from Marjorie's life story - both positive and negative - which I plan to post in the next parts.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Margery Kempe (Part 1) - A woman living in interesting medieval times

May you live in interesting times.

So were the times of Margery Kempe in the late Middle Ages.

Louise Collis wrote a fascinating and quite witty and entertaining biography about Margery's life in "Memoirs of a Medieval Woman, The Life and Times of Margery Kempe."

Who was this medieval woman?

Margery was a first. Her story is the first autobiography, that we know of, ever recorded in the English language. This fascinating woman lived in England from 1373 - 1438 when she was not on pilgrimages or about being a tourist.

Illiterate, Margery dictated her memoirs with remarkable clarity about 1438, near the end of her life. Her life's story - fraught with adventure and perils - became a hit with the medieval readership. Then the original manuscript of her autobiography disappeared sometime in the 16th century, but resurfaced - with much excitement - in 1934 in a country house in Yorkshire.

Margery Kempe lived during interesting times - politically.

She came into this world in 1373 after Europe had been decimated by the first wave of the Black Death (1349) and grew up during the tumult of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Most of the reigning monarchs in her days were subjects of Shakespeare's plays:

Edward III (1327 - 1377) - Shakespeare did not do him.
Richard II (1377 - 1399)
Henry IV (1399 - 1413)
Henry V (1413 - 1422)
Henry VI (1422- 1461)

Margery lived in interesting times from the religious perspective as well.

As a devout Catholic, Margery pursued with much passion a lifelong career of sainthood during the Great Schism (1378 - 1417), and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome when there were three popes at the same time in the Roman Catholic Church (Benedict XIII, Gregory XII, John XXIII). In her homeland of England, she was a contemporary of the legendary anchoress, Dame Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1417).

The Church, at a low ebb, was undergoing its troubles in Margery's day. Its authority was being challenged by reformers and dissidents, foreshadowing the coming of Martin Luther a hundred years later. Another of Margery's countrymen, the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1330–84), initiated the first translation of the English Bible. During one of Margery's pilgrimages, John Huss, Czech priest and follower of John Wycliffe, was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415 during the Council of Constance (which was convened to resolve this Great Schism thing and the issue of three popes reigning at the same time.)

Yet, Margery failed to mention most of these watershed events. Her legacy is her story of a woman quite self-absorbed with herself, her visions, her prejudices, and her everyday life.

Below is a YouTube video from the Terry Jones' BBC series "Medieval Lives: The Damsel."   I could not find a shorter clip, but, if you just wish to focus on Margery's story, it is briefly told from 20:30 to 24:00.

Though Margery dictated her memoirs with a bias slant - she was always right, her detractors wrong - her flaws surely come through. This is what makes the book a good read. Louis Collis's biography resurrects this real woman - warts and all - and transports the reader back 600 years to an exciting time in history.

Next planned post, if Canterbury Tales were a reality show, Margery would be the star!

Book cover from amazon.comMemoirs of a Medieval Woman

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Remember, Remember the 5th of November ...


Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot ....

(Traditional English Rhyme - 17th Century)

Okay. What is this all about?

For starters -

"Remember Remember" refers to Guy Fawkes from 17th century English history. On the night of November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. If this Gunpowder Plot had succeeded, King James I could have been assassinated as well as many in the House of Lords as Parliament would have been reduced to rubble during its opening session on November 5th.

By an Act of Parliament, November 5th - "Firework Night" - was designated by King James I as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance."

For a summary of the Guy Fawkes Story, check out the video clip below:

For more of this legend and its legacy, check out: The Traditions Of Guy Fawkes Night

This "Guy" also made a big impression on the movies in the 21st century as he was the inspirational figure in the 2006 Sci-Fi film - V for Vendetta.

The movie plot revolved about a disfigured freedom fighter, who dons a Guy Fawkes mask, inflicting terror to fight against the totalitarian regime in futuristic England. And this second "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up Parliament succeeded as shown in this final act of defiance: V for Vendetta (finale).

As for the religious intolerance that had created a "Guy Fawkes," America has learned a few things from the mistakes of mother England - such as adopting the First Amendment to guarantee Freedom of Religion and a Constitution to discourage a totalitarian regime from taking over.

If there are any fireworks this 5th of November - or any other time, may they be in peaceful celebration!

Picture from Wikipedia Commons: Festivities in Windsor Castle during Guy Fawkes night