Saturday, October 25, 2014

Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis -- Book Review

Book Description: "This unique biography tells the story of an extraordinary fifteenth-century woman who journeyed all over Europe from England to the Holy Land. A vigorous and passionate woman, Margery Kempe was married and had fourteen children when she deserted her family to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to expiate a "secret sin" in her early life. Along the way she meets many famous prelates and dignitaries, gets into all sort of scrapes, and survives a feverish voyage in the stinking galleys of a Venetian boat. Drawing on the chronicles of her contemporaries and on her own clear-eyed autobiography---dictated to a priest near the end of her life and said to be the first written in English---these memoirs reveal a woman who has strange ideas about such things as sin and sainthood, dress, diet, and sex, and provides a colorful and detailed picture of everyday medieval life in England and around the rim of the Mediterranean. Part-time historian Louise Collis brings a novelist's flair to this fascinating, well-researched story." 

My Thoughts: I don't have a strong opinion of this book, one way or another. While there's not a lot to get out of Margery's story in particular, the research that went in to setting her story in context gives the reader an excellent education on religious practices and pilgrimages of medieval times. It made me want to read The Canterbury Tales, and I did, in fact, read through a Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer biography just after this, being inspired by this book.

At first, I was wishing that the author would have left the translation alone and let us just read it in Middle English like The Canterbury Tales. However, once she did include Middle English snippets, I realized that I was THRILLED that she didn't summarized most of it. Ha! Here's an example from chapter 14: "a fedyr bedde, a matres, too pylwys, too peyre schetis and a qwylt". While it's obvious what that says, and sort of fun to read it, the entire book written that way would drive me nuts! Or should that be, "nuttyes"?

It was very interesting to read this story on the heels of one I just finished about the cross country trek of Helga Estby in the 1890s. Like Estby, but for very different reasons, Kempe left a husband and large family to go off on her own sort of adventure. The parallels were very interesting---journeys made 600 years apart. I found it interesting that, like Estby, Kempe had to get signatures as credentials to travel. There were 500 years between these women and so many similarities. It's been 100 years since Estby and it's all changed.

At the beginning of the story, it's revealed that Kempe had a secret sin that she didn't want to make known. It surprised me that she said she'd rather risk Hell than confess it. I wonder how this harbored sin ate her up throughout her life?

I think the people of Kempe's time definitely needed to heed the Biblical advice of testing the prophets! Oh boy! This woman was messed up! I found it funny that no one could stand her but everyone feared her. Kind of like an old time Molly Brown.

I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit to the Holy amazing...and hilarious! How the Lord must shake His head at us! Other parts moved kind of slowly, but it was probably more me being distracted than any lack on the author's part.

A couple of quotes at the end of the book sum Margery up well, I think:

"Indeed, indiscipline is the keynote of Margery's life. Though respectful of the church and those of its officers she approved, Margery owned no master, not even God."

"She was the victim of religious mania, deceiving herself as to the nature of her dreams and hallucinations."

I'm glad I read this and I hope the next reader enjoys and learns from it as well.

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