Janina Ramirez’s new book ‘Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It’ seeks to bring the stories of medieval women to life, and to the fore. Often their names are struck through in manuscripts with the annotation Femina – woman – entered as an explanation for the erasure. Teasing the stories of ordinary lives from the documentary record we have been bequeathed is made difficult by this dismissiveness. The result is that many of the women we can perceive through the fog of time and efforts to obscure them are extraordinary.
A surprise discovery
Marjery Kempe is a perfect example of this kind of surviving story, but also of the accidental ways in which these records often reach us. Before 1934, her existence was as forgotten as that of her contemporaries, and of women for centuries before and after. In 1934, Colonel William Butler-Bowdon was searching through a cupboard at his country home of Southgate House near Chesterfield. He was playing ping pong and needed a new ball. Certain there was one in the cupboard, he rooted through the mess, vowing to burn it all in his frustration.
Someone in his party asked for the chance to sort through the old-looking books before they were thrown out. Amongst the tomes was one that had never been seen in its complete, original form. Edited versions existed, telling part of a story that could now be revealed in full. It was the voice of a 15th century woman. Although she had been ordinary for a time, the reason we know of her is the extraordinary turn her life had taken, and the fact that Marjery had told her own story. This is the oldest known autobiography in vernacular English.
A traumatic experience
Marjery Kempe was born in the early 1370 in Norfolk, the daughter of the mayor of Lynn (now King’s Lynn). When she was around 20 years old, Marjery married John Kempe, a reasonably wealthy man whose status matched that of Marjery’s father. The couple’s first child was born shortly afterwards and it was a traumatic experience for Marjery, both physically and emotionally. She struggled with what might have been postnatal depression for eight months until a vision of Christ released her from her torment.
Immediately, Marjery was determined to dedicate her life to God, but the world stood firmly in her way. Her husband had no desire to agree to a celibate life. Marjery would fall pregnant a further thirteen times over the years that followed. The couple started a brewing business that failed. Marjery simply couldn’t shake the belief that God was calling her to act for Him. She began to discuss her visions and quickly developed a reputation for eccentricity that teetered dangerously on the brink of heresy.
Marjery left England, travelling via Rome to Jerusalem where she experienced increasingly strong and vivid visions. She spoke to Jesus and to the Virgin Mary and felt that she was present at biblical events. While attending church services in Jerusalem, Marjery began to cry uncontrollably, and loudly, a trait that would remain with her for the rest of her life.
On the way home, Marjery became stuck in Rome when she felt compelled to give all of her money to the poor there. Her behaviour eventually became such a source of embarrassment to the English community in Rome that they had a whip round to raise the money to get her back to England. When she arrived home, Marjery’s visions continued and while some were fascinated, others shunned her odd behaviour.
The autobiography of an extraordinary woman
Leaving her husband, Marjery travelled the country. While in the north she was arrested for heresy, but the Church supported her and no case could be proven against her. She visited important religious sites and came into contact with noble women keen to hear her story. When her husband fell ill, Marjery returned to Lynn, only to have the parish priest refuse to have her in his congregation because of her disruptive behaviour. After John’s death, Marjery travelled to Germany with her daughter-in-law before returning home once more to begin dictating her story to scribes.
The Book of Marjery Kempe is an incredible resource that was almost lost forever to the fires of a frustrated ping pong player. It demonstrates how precarious the journeys of some of these stories to the present day are, and begs the question of how much has been lost that we will never even know existed.
Marjery’s story also reveals a frustrating truth. We don’t know about her life because she was an ordinary medieval woman. We hear her story despite the fact that she was a woman because it is so remarkable. This is the essential, unresolvable problem at the heart of studying a distant past. The ordinary is something fascinating we seek to understand, but it almost always remains stubbornly obscured from view.
Our July Book of the Month
Janina Ramirez’s ‘Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It‘ is History Hit’s Book of the Month in July 2022. Published by Ebury publishing (Penguin), the book sees the medieval world with fresh eyes and discovers why these remarkable women were removed from our collective memories.
Dr Janina Ramirez is a presenter, lecturer and researcher, specialising in interpreting symbols and examining art works within their historical context.