‘This creature, when Our Lord had forgiven her her sin . . . had a desire to see those places where He was born . . . and where He died . . .’ This passage sums up the Book of Margery Kempe. She is forever seeking forgiveness for her sins, but rather annoyingly she never tells us what those sins were. From her earlier life we may take it that they concerned thoughts of a sexual nature. Once the sins were out of the way, her mind turned to thoughts of travel. It could be to Canterbury, or York, or further to Rome and Jerusalem. No modern-day tourist could have a more packed itinerary, given the necessary restrictions of the time -the early fifteenth century. For some reason, among all these journeys she undertook, she frequently fell into fits of weeping, though what so seasoned a traveller could have had to weep about is not entirely clear.
As you might have guessed, it is easy to find Margery Kempe a little tiresome at times, but if you step back from her privileged prayerfulness and concentrate on what she reveals of the history of her period, the Book of Margery Kempe is fascinating. Coaches were unsprung affairs in the Middle Ages, and roads were miry and rutted, so travel by wheeled transport was uncomfortable. If you had a heavy load to carry you had to use an ox-cart, but otherwise the poor walked everywhere while the wealthy went on horseback. The distances involved could be staggering. For the more far-off destinations going by ship was unavoidable, for at least part of the way. This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks; the passengers had no option but to sit back and enjoy the ride (if possible), either in the open air or below decks; on the other hand the waves could make the passage not only rough but perilous, for the small ships then in use. You could easily endure seas sickness, or even end up drowned.
With the choice of going by car or train it is quite a trip for me to go from Norwich to Ipswich, but without such modern means of transport Margery thought nothing of going there to see her daughter-in-law off en route to Germany. Upon bidding her son’s widow farewell and leaving the Suffolk port, Margery had almost reached her home when she was seized by an overwhelming desire to accompany her relative abroad. This volte face she naturally attributed not to herself but to the will of the Holy Ghost. The master of the vessel readily agreed to take her aboard, and only her daughter-in-law, who was looking forward to returning to Danzig, was unimpressed; I wonder why?
Margery Kempe was born around the year 1373 in Bishops Lynn – now called Kings Lynn. Edward III was coming to end of his long reign; his ambitions in France had led to the Hundred Years War, a problem for those wishing to travel in Europe. Margery’s family were rich merchants, and both her father and husband were prominent members of the local Corporation. Wool was providing great riches across East Anglia, and Wool Churches were springing up in villages around Norfolk. Her wealth enabled Margery to travel with an entourage of confessors and hermits, despite having fourteen children; she had plenty of servants to care for the youngsters back home. Her education was fairly basic, and she authored her autobiographical work through dictation.
Wherever she went she was able to call on the local vicar, friar or Prior to discuss religious commonplaces with him, which she recounted in her book. No doubt the prospect of a charitable donation made these pleasant chats mutually rewarding. Charity was expected but not demanded of the public. It is revealing to read what Erasmus has to say on the subject; although dating from a hundred years after Margery Kempe’s time, it could be just as true of today’s charitable giving. He says that people were likely to be more generous if observed in the act, and there were nimble fingered pilgrims who could remove a coin from the altar while apparently depositing one.
In all her travels Margery Kempe did not neglect a pilgrimage to nearby Walsingham. Starting from Lynn she would have joined pilgrims from abroad who had landed at the port there, before journeying on to Fakenham; there other pilgrims from Norwich, the Midlands and London all met up before going on to Walsingham. Once there the devout would visit the chapel built as a replica of the House of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The building was draughty, having no doors or glass in the windows. More congenial were the dramas enacted in the Common Place, the market just outside the chapel. Margery went for spiritual solace, but many of the pilgrims were the sick, in search of a miraculous cure. Walsingham is again a place of pilgrimage, the medieval streets drawing tourists from around the rest of the country. [I am myself due to visit Great Walsingham in the near future, but that is to visit a relative who farms there.]
On her travels in Italy Margery was abandoned by her fellow travellers, who only agreed to let her accompany them if she stopped talking about God and instead devoted herself too eating, drinking and merry-making. It was in such unaccustomed riotous good company that she arrived in Venice. She stayed there for over three months, getting her spiritual refreshment by attending church every Sunday with a group of nuns. Eventually she could not resist reciting a verse from the Bible, whereupon her friends accused her of breaking her word. For the last six weeks of her stay she dined alone in her bedroom. In spite of Margery Kempe’s own religiosity, it is plain that not everyone was similarly inclined, even in the supposedly devout Middle Ages.
From Venice she took ship to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean port of Jaffa she travelled inland on a donkey to Jerusalem. During the three weeks she spent in the Holy Land she visited Bethlehem and the river Jordan, as countless others have done both before and since. She returned to Italy and visited Rome. Once back in Lynn her restless nature soon had her off on her travels once more, this time via Bristol to St James, Compostela, in Spain.