“Here begynnyth a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for synful wrecchys, wherin thei may have gret solas and comfort to hem and undyrstondyn the hy and unspecabyl mercy of ower sovereyn Savyowr Cryst Jhesu, whos name be worschepd and magnyfyed...”
(“Here begins a short treatise and a comforting for sinful wretches, in which they may have great solace and comfort and understand the high and unspeakable mercy of our sovereign Saviour Christ Jesus, whose name be worshipped and magnified…”)
So begins the first autobiography in the English language, written by a woman named Margery Kempe (1373 – 1438?), the "Madwoman of God." Lost for centuries, it was rediscovered in 1934 in a private library in England. Margery’s diary is considered to be the most unique offering of its kind in English literature. Valued by an array of scholars in disciplines ranging from theology to Medieval History to Women’s Studies, it reveals a startlingly honest portrayal of a very complex and complicated woman living in an era when women were seen as one-dimensional.
A contemporary of both Chaucer and Dame Julian of Norwich, Margery was a woman of the world, enticed by all of its pleasures. Born into a wealthy and respected family of burghers, Margery grew up spoiled and frivolous. She loved pretty clothes, good food and drink, and the opposite sex. (And sex.) She was lusty, passionate, and had a heart for adventure.
Married at 20, she experienced such violent puerperal fever and/or post-partum depression after the birth of the first of her 14 children that it turned into a type of psychosis. She had to be bound and restrained for over 6 months to keep her from injuring herself or any who came near her. It was during this period that she had the first of many mystic visions. In it, Christ came and sat down on the bed beside her, saying,“My daughter, why have you abandoned me, when I never thought to abandon you?” Immediately following this supernatural encounter, she experienced an immediate and miraculous healing.
In spite of such overt divine intervention, Margery’s faith journey was not transformed overnight into one of constancy and sinless bliss. She continued to flirt with the world while attempting to inhabit the Kingdom. Like many of us, she wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. She frequently fell into temptation and despaired of her soul. When contemplating God’s mercy toward her, she would begin to cry… loudly. Because of this proclivity, she often found herself being forcibly escorted out of church.
Margery was a woman of strong voice and opinions. At a time when women were valued as little more than property, she wasn’t afraid to express her views loudly and publicly, a tendency which found her facing charges on numerous occasions. Her life was frequently threatened, and she spent more than a few nights in jail. Brought before the archbishop during one of these times, he pronounced, “I don’t believe there’s ever been a woman in England who’s got herself into so much trouble!”
Margery was undeterred. She continued to “live large.” The woman didn’t know how to shut her mouth. She meddled in the Church’s business as she meddled in her children’s business. She was a frequent source of embarrassment to her family and friends at home. But Margery was not one to sit still. She traveled extensively on pilgrimages all over Europe and even to Jerusalem…often with no companions. (They would abandon her on the way, over-dosed on chatter and drama.) Her personality led to wild adventures and many seeming-disasters. She survived several serious illnesses, and "prepared to meet her Maker" more than once. She was ready and willing.
Margery’s story is a remarkable ‘tell-all’ of magnificent missteps, beautiful blunders, and fabulous faux pas. An unlikely saint, she has a hard time keeping her foot on the pilgrim’s path instead of in her cavernous mouth. She’s sometimes hysterically funny without meaning to be. But, naïve as she is, she still retains the ability to laugh at herself. Or at least to laugh with others as they laugh at her.
Whatever may be said of Margery, madwoman or saint, she knew where to turn whenever she found herself up a 50-foot tree with no ladder. She trusted God to rescue her. Completely and totally. She talked to him as if he were her best friend, standing right beside her. She praised him, argued with him, questioned him, laughed with him, cried to him.
And he talked back.
Margery was a character. A mess.
But, oh, she loved her Lord.
And was not afraid to say so.
I am a modern-day Margery.
“If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” (II Corinthians 5:13)
*For more on Margery: