Margery Kempe was a medieval mystic and traveler whose memoir, The Book of Margery Kempe, first published in 1501, is the earliest known autobiography written in the English language. The Book, written in the third person and dictated some twenty years after her initial vision of Christ, is virtually the only source of information about her. She was born about 1373 in the mercantile town of King’s Lynn (then called Bishop’s Lynn), Norfolk, England. Her father, John Brunham (or Burnham), was a prosperous merchant and five-time mayor of the town. Nothing is remarkable about her youth except for two things: although she was born into a middle-class family, she was not taught to read and write; and she also committed a hidden sin, probably of a sexual nature, which would later torment her soul immensely.
In about 1393, she married John Kempe, a young merchant and burgess of Lynn, and in due course became pregnant. Her childbirth, the first of fourteen, was a very difficult one. For the next eight months or so, she was gravely ill; during that period she “went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits” (Book, p. 1). Fearing death, she sent for her confessor, intending to be absolved of the hidden sin of her youth. The priest’s sharp condemnation of her, however, made her lose her mind. She was rescued from insanity, according to her account, by a mystical encounter with Christ in the flesh, which was the first of her many mystical experiences. One day Kempe looked up from her bed, and Jesus was sitting there; he said, “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?” and then he ascended into heaven (Book, p. 42).
After the miraculous recovery, however, Kempe resumed her worldly life full of covetousness and pride. She wore fancy clothes and, to increase family income, opened several business enterprises in succession, including a brewery, a horse-milling, and a bakery. Her businesses failed miserably one after another, which she regarded as a sign of divine punishment. At this time she was