When I transferred the points of Margery Kempe’s pilgrimage from a modern to a medieval map, I noticed several differences. Firstly, the modern map was interactive and highly detailed. Because it was online, I could locate very specific locations like Mount Zion or Bethlehem while also zooming out to see the route as a whole. This mapping feature is new within my lifetime, not just a change from the Middle Ages, and it has changed how we interact with maps in the present day. We no longer need to read maps, but can instead type city names into search bars. This made it much more difficult for me to locate places on the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Because it is a map of the entire world, the map lacks detail. What details it does have are very difficult for me to make sense of because even the highest quality images of the map do not preserve the writing very clearly. In addition, I do not read Middle English, and can barely decipher the writing anyway. Because of this, I had to use the basic shapes of places on the map to locate approximate points in Kempe’s pilgrimage.
The process of locating points by geographical shape was also complicated. Unlike the modern maps I am accustomed to, the Mappa Mundi places East at the top of the map, and centers on Jerusalem. This meant I had to reorient my thinking to make sense of the continental shapes. In addition, the continents are greatly compressed, and Africa is an entirely different shape than on a modern map. I found myself working in generalities, guessing the approximate locations of cities. I believe this relates to the medieval experience of travel. Although travellers like Kempe would not have been using maps like the Mappa Mundi for navigation, their knowledge of the terrain and routes of their travel would have been vague at best. Without detailed maps or GPS navigation, Medieval pilgrims would have most likely imagined the bird’s-eye view of their travel as a vague progress towards the Holy Land, if they imagined it at all.
Lastly, the T-O structure of the map, with Jerusalem at the center, reveals the centrality of the Jerusalem pilgrimage to Medieval Christian life. On the modern map, Kempe’s travels create a diagonal zig-zag across Europe and into the Middle East, proceeding down and to the right. On the Medieval map, however, she proceeds directly up to the center of the world. Her journey even appears straighter due to the slight squashing of the Mediterranean. Her journey becomes an ascent towards the walled heart of the world.
During her stay in Jerusalem, Margery Kempe decided to travel to religious sites in the surrounding areas. First, she wished to travel to the River Jordan, although her companions forbade her from accompanying them there. She prayed to God, and claimed that he gave her permission to travel without the permission of her companions. In describing this experience, Kempe gives some of the only details about her surroundings and local people that occur in the entire narrative. Even so, she mentions them only in relation to how they affect her own experience. Kempe describes the extreme heat of the day as an aspect of her suffering. When she decides to climb Mt. Quarentyne, she writes that the heat and the steep terrain prevent her from making the climb. Her companions also refuse to help her. Because of this, we get one of her few descriptions of people who live near Jerusalem and are not Christian. A “good-looking” “Saracen” helps Kempe to climb the mountain when her companions will not, and she generally states that the “Saracens” were kind and helpful to her.
All of these descriptions serve to heighten Kempe’s depiction of her own suffering and to cast her companions in an unflattering light. She states that she “found all people good and gentle to her, except her own countrymen.” The kindness of the Muslim people in Jerusalem serves to highlight the failings of her companions, not to make any argument for religious or racial acceptance.
There is also another effect of Kempe’s depiction of herself as an outcast among English pilgrims but a welcomed, pious figure among others. She distances herself from “normal” English people, representing herself as better and holier than them. She allies herself instead with strangers in many places. These strangers tend to be members of the clergy, nuns, monks, or other figures with religious authority or random, often destitute, people that she meets along the way and that she claims are sent by God to guide her. By associating herself with religious authorities, she depicts herself as religiously orthodox and correct, and her companions as degenerate for rejecting her. By claiming those who help her as servants of God, she increases the appearance of her own religious importance (God rearranges the world to help her) while remaining humble as she meets these guides in times of suffering. Her acceptance among “Saracens” functions slightly differently, as they are not Christian and not situated as servants of God. However, it seems like Kempe is using them to rebuke unkind Christians, by saying that even non-Christians accept and help her, and even recognize her piety.
Another interesting trend in this section is the boldness and permission Kempe receives from God. For various reasons, including the fact that she is a woman and the fact that she continuously weeps, Kempe’s companions and other people attempt to limit, contain, and constrain her. When she encounters obstacles such as this, she turns to God for permission, fortification, and vindication. Whether or not Kempe actually experienced the voice of God telling her to go to the River Jordan despite being forbade from doing so, claiming this experience gives her the confidence to do so, and provides a retort to anyone who contradicts her. It justifies her actions to her readers and to the people she was traveling with in the moment. It also seems to be a source of internal fortitude. Kempe writes that because of God’s warnings, pronouncements, and reassurances, she dared to “act the more boldly in consequence.”
P.S. I looked up the etymology of the word “quarantine” and it is actually partially derived from the name of the place where Jesus fasted for 40 days, which is Mt. Quarentyne!
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.