Margery Kempe was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England and began her pilgrimage from there. Although this is not one of the places she encountered on her pilgrimage, as it is her home, her experiences there reveal much about the pilgrimage process and how she experienced it as a woman. Before leaving town, Kempe asks the parish priest to ask the people if they have any debts against her or her husband so that she can settle them before leaving. This shows the expectation that pilgrimages would last a long time, and that the pilgrim might not return, so they shouldn’t leave anything undone at home before departing. The anchorite tells Kempe of the hardship she will face on her journey. Kempe frames this as a foretelling of the future, but it could also be read as a form of dissuasion. It is possible the anchorite would not want a woman to leave her husband and family on a long and difficult journey, and he might have sought to convince her otherwise for the sake of family cohesion. If this was his aim, he failed, because Kempe feels compelled by God to take her pilgrimage and won’t be convinced to abandon it.
After leaving King’s Lynn, Kempe sailed to Zierikzee, a city in the Netherlands. She describes much crying there, but says little of the city itself other than that she took communion and wept. According to her, the people there were amazed at her religious devotion, although it is quite possible they were staring at her because she was making a scene. Apparently in Zierikzee, Kempe’s confessor (it is unclear if this is someone who came with her from England or who she met in the Netherlands) tries to end her four-year-long fast in which she avoided meat and wine. Kempe temporarily desists, but then asks permission to resume. It is interesting that the confessor, as well as the English anchorite, do not seem overly invested in encouraging Kempe’s devotion to God. They appear to encourage her to behave more normally, as do her companions, perhaps showing something about the clergy’s societal role. They certainly enforced compliance with religious doctrine, but did they continue to do so when such compliance would hinder social cohesion? Was their role primarily religious or civic and governmental?
Because Kempe’s companions were so fed up with her, they abandoned her. Even her maidservant left her, and one of her companions took the majority of her money, which he had been charged with keeping. This reveals a few things. One, Kempe was traveling with companions, which appears to be the norm for safety’s sake. Two, her abandonment shows that remaining safe relied on an ability to form bonds with one’s traveling companions, something that might have been hindered not only by Kempe’s annoying qualities but also by nature of being the only woman on the voyage, which could have made her a target for sexual violence or led her to be alienated from the general social atmosphere. Three, this shows that Kempe was not trusted to be in charge of her own funds, and therefore, as a woman, had to rely even more heavily on the men around her. This could and does put her under the power of someone not to be trusted, giving Kempe the choice of compromising her values or keeping her money (unless, of course, the man was going to swindle her anyway).
Kempe’s journey from King’s Lynn to Zierikzee shows how her sex complicated her pilgrimage, and also how her personality went in direct opposition to all of the precautions she could have been expected to take to mitigate the effects of being a woman.