Category: Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe: Zierikzee

After departing Norwich and Yarmouth, England, Margery Kempe travels with her confessor and a group of companions and arrives in Zierikzee. Out of personal interest, I looked into Zierikzee and discovered that today it is a small city in southwest Netherlands, near Rotterdam. Margery mentions briefly that they traveled by boat and that it took one day for them to get to Zierikzee from the port in Yarmouth, England. Kempe describes Zierikzee as a “large town” but otherwise does not focus much on the architecture or inhabitants of the city (96). Instead, Margery puts intense focus on the religious practices she performs while in Zierikzee and places immense focus on the way her fellow travelers treat her. For example, she speaks at length about how the Lord visited her in Zierikzee and gave her “tears of contrition for her own sins” and other people’s sins as well (96). She claims to have attended communion every Sunday when it was possible, “with weeping and violent sobbing” so that people marveled at her (97). Kempe then details how in England she had not eaten meat or drunk wine for four years, but that in Zierikzee her confessor asked her to begin doing so. Margery did for a while, but then stopped, and prayed to “her confessor to excuse her if she ate no meat” (97). Her eventual refusal to eat meat annoyed her confessor as well as many of the company she was traveling with. Margery spends most of her time discussing Zierikzee by talking about how cruel her company was to her, stating that they were annoyed by how much she wept and spoke of the Lord’s goodness. Once Margery expresses how hurt and ashamed her company has made her feel, they tell her they hope she dies “the devil’s death” (97).  Her closest friends desert her and even her maidservant is taken from her, and the entire company (save one person) abandons her in the night. One of the company invites her to travel with fellow pilgrims to Constance, Germany but she laments over how this company treats her as well, as they cut her skirts short and made her wear a type of sack so she’d look like a fool. She does remark that the man of the house wherever they would stay after leaving Zierikzee treated her kindly and with high esteem, leaving the impression that the people of this area were very kind towards women, moreso than her original English company. It is never stated what time of the year they arrived, or how long Margery Kempe stayed. However, it can be assumed it was a couple weeks, as she describes going to communion on multiple Sundays.

Margery Kempe as a traveler is evidently consumed with the culture of Christianity, but focuses on a reverence between her personal relationship with God, claiming that God visits her and forgives her for disobeying her confessor when she speaks to God directly. She frequently has visions of the passion of Christ, which move her to tears, as they did in Zierikzee. She describes her tears as though they are a hairshirt, a gift from God proving her superior love for him. Her way of gaining auctoritee (authority) through writing her travel narrative appears to be a way to reaffirm that her role as a pilgrim is about her pure and true devotion and connection with God, and that her devotion and loyalty is stronger than those she is traveling with to see a variety of Holy sites. The main thing I found interesting in Zierikzee was Margery’s description that she had not eaten meat or drank wine for four years in England, prior to her travels to Zierikzee and beyond. Her confessor asking her to eat meat and drink wine out of obedience and her pleading with God to forgive her for not listening, thus causing animosity between Margery, her confessor, and her company, was a topic I wished to delve into. The role of eating meat and drinking wine in Christianity of the Middle Ages seems as varied then as it is today. Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas stated that moderation in wine is sufficient for salvation, but that for certain persons absolute abstinence is necessary to reach perfection (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 149). On the other hand, the medieval church did still celebrate saints related to wine like St. Amand and St. Martin. When it comes to meat, Christian vegetarianism is still widely debated today, but the practice of Christian vegetarianism has scriptural and historical support. For example, before the fall of man, the Bible is commonly interpreted to describe a setting where all humans and animals with a soul are vegan and that “it was good,” with raw veganism being the diet prescribed by God to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:29-31). While abstinence from meat is most common during periods of fast like Lent, the reasons given by the Church for why it was abstained from were due to the fact that things that are flesh or come from flesh (eggs, etc.) are “unclean” due to their creation from coitus. When considering Margery and her cultural religious background, she may have adopted this lifestyle of abstaining from meat and wine in order to become closer to God and become more God-like herself, by mimicking the diet of man before the Fall. She could have viewed this diet as a way to strengthen her relationship with God, which is why she chooses to disobey her confessor, as his wishes may have been seen as trying to tear her farther from God. In this way her refusal to obey her confessor and the chagrins of her company can almost be viewed as “going against God”. Her company and her confessor may have become frustrated with her diet due to the logistics of travel. Perhaps meat and wine were some of the most readily available meals to the group in Zierikzee, and her denial of these became a burden when trying to dine on the road.



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.

The Travels of Ibn Battutah: Timbuktu (Sample Post)

Here you will write an annotation about the location named in the post’s title, according to the following guidelines:

Guidelines: For each post, you will choose a location featured in your travel narrative. You will then answer two factual questions to the best of your ability (some locations or narratives may not include all of this information):

  • What kinds of things does the author describe there? Is (s)he focused on the buildings, the culture, the people, the environment?
  • What do we learn about the practical or physical aspects of the traveler’s journey (food, lodging, weather, terrain)? When did they arrive, and how long did they stay?

Once you have summarized the factual information about the traveler’s stay, you must also interpret these facts in some way that is interesting to you. Example questions might be:

  • What might we assume about the traveler’s own culture based on the observations noted here?
  • What aspects of this location, or this description of the location, are particularly unusual to you as a modern reader? Which are unusual to the medieval traveler? Are these the same?
  • What do you think is the writer’s purpose in recording this information? To whom is s(he) writing?

You should not attempt to answer all of these questions, and you do not have to choose any of them. The point of this assignment is to move from facts to an interpretation of the facts. What do you find particularly interesting or significant about this stop on the traveler’s journey?