Author: kayleigh (page 2 of 2)

The Book of Margery Kempe: Venice

In the course of her pilgrimage, Margery Kempe mentions that she passes through Constance, Bologna, and Venice. The former two appear to be short stays, but she and her companions stay in Venice for thirteen weeks. After her estrangement from her companions, Kempe rejoined the group in Bologna after she arrived at the city before them, amazing them with her traveling ability. However, they made her promise not to talk too much about the Gospel, and to more or less act like a normal person. She agreed, and accompanied them onward to Venice.


In Venice, Kempe does not mention where she slept. However, she does say that she took communion every Sunday “in a great house of nuns,” presumably a convent. She praises the nuns for their welcoming nature in inviting her to take communion with them. She also mentions that the nuns were “amazed” at the visions of Jesus Christ that Kempe had while she was among them. These details have the potential to provide some information about Venetian convents at the time of Kempe’s visit. It is possible they were generally welcoming places that would invite any person (or perhaps any woman) to receive communion with them. It is also possible that they were used to the presence of pilgrims or that they held specific services for pilgrims. However, Kempe does not specify, so it is hard to tell if she took communion with them alone or with other pilgrims.


After their stay of thirteen weeks, Kempe and the rest of her company begin making preparations for the continuation of their journey. Unfortunately, Kempe has already fallen out of their favor again, so they all make preparations on their own and exclude her. The other pilgrims arranged a ship, bought containers for wine, and arranged bedding. This list of tasks reveals what was necessary for ocean travelers at the time, as well as the priorities of the pilgrims. It shows that they had to book passage on a ship, and also that the ship, presumably, provided food (because they do not prepare food) but did not provide bedding or wine. The need for bedding implies that the travelers would be sleeping in beds on the ship, and not ruder accomodations like hammocks or the floor. The emphasis on wine seems puzzling, because it does not immediately occur to be a necessity. However, it is possible that the travelers would have limited access to fresh water during their journey, and that, during the time period, wine was healthier and more accessible.


Kempe also reports an interesting incident on the ship. A priest steals one of her sheets and claims it is his own, and she stands up to him, at which point he swore on the Bible and left her scorned and without a sheet. This incident reveals something about Kempe’s status, which is also made clear by the contemptuous treatment at the hands of her companions (although this is also due to her somewhat trying personality). For some reason, many of the people Kempe encounters attempt to command her or take advantage of her in some way. This could be because travel during this time was inherently difficult and hostile. But it seems that people take it for granted that no one will believe Kempe’s word or take her side, which could be because she is a woman. A priest, especially, would be well-suited to defraud her because his word would bear much greater weight than hers. Kempe positions herself as nearly a martyr, using these incidents as further fodder for her religious zeal.


The Book of Margery Kempe: Constance

Towards the beginning of her pilgrimage, Margery Kempe passes through a city she refers to as Constance (most likely Konstanz, Germany) with her unfriendly companions. This city lies on the route between Norwich, England, where Kempe began, and Bologna, Italy, where she travels next. Her brief stay in Constance reveals how Kempe interacts with the cities that she passes through on the way to pilgrimage sites.

When Kempe and her companions arrive in Constance, Kempe mentions that she hears an English friar who is also a legate of the Pope is staying in the city. She does not describe her arrival to the city, the city’s physical characteristics, or the people she encounters in the city. Instead she jumps directly to her meeting with the Pope’s legate, who she seeks out because of his wisdom. She confesses to him, and tells him her entire life’s story, as well as her current troubles with her traveling companions, who dislike her and try to stop her from praying, crying, and maintaining a vegetarian diet. She also tells him “what grace God gave her of contrition and compunction, of sweetness and devotion” and the visions He had given her (Kempe 99). This is as immodest as Kempe’s constant assertion of her superiority over her companions. Kempe then tells of how her traveling companions invite the legate to dinner. The legate, who has taken Kempe’s side, tells her to behave as submissively at dinner as she always does. Then, when her traveling companions ridicule her, the legate stands up for her, and refuses to tell her to cease her unorthodox habits. This prompts her companions to abandon her, but the legate makes arrangements for her. Kempe tells of how, despite her dire conditions, God provides for her. He sends her a kindly traveling companion to accompany her to Bologna, where she arrives before her old traveling companions.

It is clear that Kempe believes that the most noteworthy aspects of her visit in Constance are her acquaintanceship with an important religious figure, her suffering at the hands of her traveling companions, her eventual vindication, and the divine intervention on her behalf. She reveals very little about the city of Constance. She gives no identifying features, meaning the city might not even be Konstanz, Germany. However, she reveals some aspects of the place pilgrims occupied when they passed through the city, and raises questions about the travels of religious authorities. What brought an English friar, who was a legate of the Pope, to Constance? Was he on official Church business? Was he living there? Was he on pilgrimage himself? Was he there to interact with pilgrims passing through? This in turn raises the question of Constance’s role in pilgrimages. Was it a common place for pilgrims to stop?

Whatever the case, it is shown that the pilgrims’ status is high enough to be able to invite an important religious authority to dine with them. They also complain to this authority, and grow angry when he takes Kempe’s side. They seem to interact with some level of informality. However, it is clear that legate has a higher status. He sits down first at dinner, and the company asks him to regulate Kempe’s behavior, showing that they understand him to have some control over at least the religious life of pilgrims (and, probably, Christians in general).

Kempe’s account of Constance reveals that pilgrims were able to find people who spoke their language in various cities, dine with them, and consult with them. More established English speakers in non-English-speaking cities could help English pilgrims exchange their currency and make travel arrangements, as the legate helps Kempe. This shows both that there were English people, at least religious authorities and pilgrims, abroad, and that they helped each other when they encountered each other in foreign places. This could even hint at a formal or informal support network for pilgrims that could potentially exist in the cities en route to important pilgrimage sites like Jerusalem.

The Book of Margery Kempe: Jerusalem

When Margery Kempe sees Jerusalem from above, she prays for God to reveal to her the heavenly as well as the earthly city of Jerusalem, and feels that she gazes on heaven. Overwhelmed with grace, she almost falls off the ass she is riding, and mentions that two German pilgrims and a priest assist her.

She describes her movements through Jerusalem as something like a religious city tour. Beginning at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the pilgrims follow friars through the city. The friars carry a cross, and the pilgrims carry candles. During the tour, over the course of three weeks, they visit Mt. Calvary, “the grave where the Lord was buried,” the place of Christ’s crucifixion, a marble stone where his body lay, Mt. Zion, the location of the last supper, the place where the disciples received the Holy Spirit, and the burial place of the Virgin Mary. At many of these sites, Kempe is able to receive mass and plenary remissions (or indulgences). Kempe experiences strong religious emotions, and cries, screams, and prays. She also describes seeing visions and hearing voices. At Mt. Calvary, she describes a vision of Christ’s crucified body. The only features of the landscape that Kempe describes are mountains (specifically Mts. Zion and Calvary) and hills. Descriptions of Kempe’s journey to Jerusalem reveal that she travelled with a group of other pilgrims (all men), although she frequently argued with them and at one point travelled alone with an old man she met along the way. She and her companions stayed in the houses of wealthy people in each city, and travelled by foot, ass, and boat.

It is clear from these facts that Kempe saw almost everything from a religious perspective. She doesn’t describe the people or buildings of Jerusalem, but rather focuses on each location’s association to Christ. Rather than describing the physical aspect of pilgrimage sites, she describes her own reaction to them, what Christ did there, and any visions or voices she experiences in prayer. Kempe’s focus is not ethnographic in any sense. She began her pilgrimage in order to increase her worth in the eyes of God, and she is only interested in the religious significance of the places that she visits. This can also potentially reveal something about the Jerusalem that Kempe visited. It appears from her descriptions that the city had a complex infrastructure in place for accommodating religious pilgrims. Upon her arrival to the city, she immediately interacts with two pilgrims from Germany, revealing that pilgrims are common enough for her to happen to find them in her time of need, and that they come from various locations. In addition, there are friars ready to escort the pilgrims through the city, taking them primarily to religious sites. Masses and plenary remissions are offered at these sites, which seem to be set up to accommodate (and perhaps attract) pilgrims. This implies that the city receives enough pilgrims to necessitate such infrastructure, and that the city encourages the influx of pilgrims. Kempe’s account shows how religious pilgrimages were able to function within a prearranged infrastructure without interacting too much with the non-religious life of a city— although this may also reflect Kempe’s singular devotion to her task.

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