The "Book of Margery Kempe", whose two parts were completed in King's Lynn (Norfolk) in 1463 and 1438, in part comprises autbiographical descriptions of the mystical imtimations of a lady born into a leading port's stately but troubled elite. These episodes are interlinked with equally dramatic accounts of mundane experiences, in Margery's home town, in many English regions, and as far afield as Brandenburg, Rome and Jerusalem. The heroine's determination to flout conventions and to marginalise herself leads to hair-raising escapades, related with graphic intensity worthy of a picaresque novel. The book has been much used to illustrate problems of status and marriage among medieval women: the figure of Margery has become something of a gender icon. The present study focuses on its content and themes in relation to their social, cultural and political settings. It highlights the text's value as an expression of urban mentalities, and as a reflection of pressing concerns in Lancastrian England - issues such as those of religious authority, commmunal harmony and national identity.
It is argued that the feminised mode of devotion commended in the text represents a sophisticated pious amalgam promoted by a group of Lynn clergy in order to counter the attraction of Lolardy, and to stimulate a reformation which might redefine and reinvigorate traditional values.
Anthony Goodman is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at the University of Edinburgh.