The Book of Margery Kempe

I was recently asked to read The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436-8) for a course on Northern Renaissance art. The idea was to get an insight into the medieval spiritual life, particularly as experienced through ‘affective piety’ – an emotionally charged practice of prayer, reading and meditation on scenes from the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or other religious material as represented in art. The idea was for the “viewer” to engage with the scene as if she or he were physically present and to stir up feelings of love, fear, grief, and repentance for sin. Margery tells how she visualised herself in scenes from Christ’s and the Virgin’s life, then took part in the actions of the scene –  as a midwife to St Anne, for example, and experiencing Christ’s suffering on the cross, which caused her great emotional distress which resulted in outbursts of weeping.

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While reading Kempe’s book, I was reminded that active visualisation is still practised today. In some strands of the modern pagan movement, for example,  active visualisation is practised either by meditating on and acting out a narrative in the mind or contemplating an image to place oneself within it. In both cases the participant is encouraged to talk to and interact with the people, animals, situations, etc., he or she finds there. This doesn’t strike me as very different from what Margery Kempe was doing. Obviously, it is less ‘affective’, there is no physical suffering involved and ‘God’ is not the Christian God, but the basic method is the same.

It’s too easy to dismiss this as a kind of craziness. People who set themselves aside from the norms of society are often misunderstood and labelled as unstable. Pagans, spiritualists and mystics tend to be viewed in this light today. I’m not sure that this is a helpful way to see Margery Kempe. It’s difficult for us to understand the medieval mindset and the importance of religion and devotion within it. Margery’s ‘extremes’ may be explained by the fact that she was describing events to a scribe and may have been prone to exaggeration. She could simply have felt things more keenly. Whatever the case, her experiences were individual and heartfelt. I see her as a devoted medieval women enthused – very enthused! – by the word of her God.

The description of pain and suffering in her book is fascinating and lends credence to the concept of ‘philopassionism’ – an empathetic identification with Christ during his Passion – and how works of art functioned as channels for it. I think Margery, despite what we see as her excesses, gives us a small glimpse into how that process worked and this can enrich our own experience of Northern Renaissance art – indeed, of our own experience of life.–Lynn Wright