Below is The Prologue. It features the voice of Margery Kempe.
Bishop’s Lynn, circa 1431
The garden is crying, the fields weep, the green grass bends down with sadness, for Arthur’s dead! My Lord Jesus Christ maketh me to lie down in those green fields, and I seek solace from Him, for my heart is full of sorrow. Tears fall from my eyes, bathing the ground, but what can spring from this? What growth from such loss, I cry? Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, the Lord is my shepherd, and I his lamb. I will walk by those still waters, too, though I know not where they empty out. He tells me not to fear, even when I’m falling. Dear Lord, I’m falling.
I’m an old woman, and it is hard to begin anew, my memory fades, my hand is numb, my tongue wooden. Glimpses of the past waver before me like reflections on the surface of the water. I lean down to cup them in my hands, bring them to my eyes, but they scatter, break apart, sweep downstream.
The sun fills the cottage, but the desk at which Arthur sat is empty, a pile of sheets stacked neatly, an ink well full, three newly sharpened quills laid out in a line. The bucket of water, still full, sits by his chair. I pace back and forth, waiting for the words to tumble forth, my ear keen to sound, but no sound does come. How long, O Lord, will my heart labor? How long will I be wounded by such sadness? By such silence? Incline my ear and fill me as of yore, for I wouldst speak of Thou, my Lord. Let thy speech distil as the dew…
When they pulled Arthur from the river, his blond locks covered his face like he were a fallen angel, his body white and broken, his lips blue like his eyes. When I saw him, I fell down right there and tore at my breast and pulled my hair in grief, and my cries caused a great disturbance amongst the crowd, who whispered to each other about my behavior. He were like my son, were Arthur. A fellow pilgrim, but he’d never reached Jerusalem. Poor boy! My Lord, wouldst that Thou would set him on that holy hill of Zion amongst Thy elect.
The white light is above me, specks from a sunbeam, angels they are, who have always and ever surrounded me by the grace of the Lord. I see in one the face of my father, John Brunham, whose favorite I were. An important man, John Brunham. Mayor of Lynn, Alderman, Member of Parliament. I were as proud of him as a daughter could be, and though he could turn a hard face to the people of Lynn, he were a patient and gentle man with me, always ready with a smile, a soft, encouraging word.
He were not saddled by the opinion of others were John Brunham. I played beneath his desk while he traded in timber with the long-bearded men from the North, in wool with the gruff farmers from the Midlands, with cloth and linens from the well-dressed dandies from London. He cut a hard deal, did John Brunham, except when ye were nice to his young daughter, whose quill scratched away beneath the table, recording the conversations on used parchment.
When I would look up from my writing, there were his hand, clenched in a fist, knocking lightly on the underside of the table. I would pry his fist open, finger by finger, and there were always a gift, a sweet, or perhaps a foreign coin that a merchant had brought to win my favor. I tugged at my father’s fingers, removed his rings one by one and placed them on my own, where they dangled loosely. He looked down at me, he did, and smiled his love.
Later, when the merchants were gone, he would pull me up to him and demand an accounting of the transactions and I would read to him from my messy sheets. When I were done, he would open his hand before me, and I would shake my fingers and the rings would slide down into his palm.
I did accompany my father as he went about his business. I were bright, headstrong, and had a quick tongue, and though I were just a girl, my father wanted me to know his business, as we Kempe women always pitched in, and my brother were loose and wild in his ways and weren’t to be counted on. It weren’t in the regular way of things, but my father did push me forward in life, telling all who would listen, “A regular Eleanor, our Margery is,” referring to our much beloved queen from the past, the courtly Eleanor with the red-blond hair, just like my own.
When I were still a young lass, brimming with life, I met a student, a comely man, newly come from Oxford, who were a follower of that preacher John Wyclifffe. He’d Wycliffe’s Bible with him, did this young man, that Bible that were translated from Latin into our own English tongue, and I spent many a day hunched over it with him, reading and discussing those wondrous sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This young man said it were up to me, not the Church, to make meaning from those words, to establish my own covenant with God. The Church had forfeited its authority, he said, had washed its hands of the people, like Pontius Pilate with our Lord. The real Church, he said, were invisible, made up of an elect whose lives were like that of our Lord Jesus Christ’s.
At night I did pray to my God with great fervor and then laid myself down on my bed to wait for Him. I could hear Him riding in on the wind, and then He did enter my bed, and whispered His sweet music in my ear. His words breathed life into me, they did. And for many a day thereafter, I would stumble about in a daze, lovesick, a willing bride of our Lord’s, and paid heed to no man or woman for my thoughts were on higher things, until my father called me aside and did ask me if I were in the birthing way.
Yes, Father, I said, I’m bearing a dove within me.
And he frowned and said, What nonsense is this, daughter?
Not nonsense, Father, just the word of our Lord, who bears me to His throne.
My father had grown right worried with my ways, as I’d taken to quoting from Wycliffe’s Bible to all who would listen. I shunned fancy dress, wore a plain smock, and fasted three days a week in preparation for Sunday’s holy meal, the eating of His Body, which produced such great sweetness in me that I couldn’t resist it, that when it entered my mouth I cried out in ecstasy for all to hear. Afterwards, at night, I beat myself with a rod and a rope until, exhausted and torn open, He finally came and I lay down with Him and suckled at His breast.
As time passed, Father grew ever more concerned, and said to me, What’s this, thou will be taken for a Lollard, what with thy talking about God and saying all men are equal.
And I said, But God talks to me, Father. Tells me what to say. Shall I deny what is true?
Needs must, daughter, he said, worried, the wrinkles etched in his forehead. Needs must.
And he instructed me that henceforth I were to stay at home, to look to things that were proper for a woman. It would be taken amiss, he said, by the people of Lynn should I continue in
such a manner. And dangerous, too, he added, wringing his hands. What with the Revolt just a few years past, the peasants still angry, still hungry.
He shook his head, placed his hand on my shoulder. Ye do not want to be like that John Ball, whose head were placed on the top of a pike on the Bridge of London for talking this kind of nonsense. Or that Wat Tyler or Jack Straw, them who spoke of the people’s rights. Where are they now? Understand me, do ye, Margery?
I bowed my head in submission. I do, Father.
And thou must act as if ye can neither read nor write, Margery. Never be seen with book in hand, and be careful what thou say. And never, never tell anyone ye can hear the voice of God. The Church doth not abide a woman who hears such things.
I returned to my room, weeping as only a young lass can, for I were adrift, at a loss, thinking I would be without my bride groom, until He came down to me, His breath ambrosial, His voice a song, His touch a delight, and I gave myself to Him, gave Him my all, as He rocked me into a deep sleep.
I did as my father told me, but I were a wild one after that, and took to wearing all manner of outfits, my cloaks slashed and underlaid with various colorful cloth that I did find at Father’s place of business. Sometimes I wore gold pipes on my head, but at other times I let my hair go loose, and the wind would catch it, whip it around in a golden halo, and the people did look at me, stunned they were and mean-spirited, too, excepting for one young man, a burgher by the name of John Kempe, who made beer and were a tall, good-looking man who let his hair down to his shoulders and shaved his face and looked at me with eyes that said I would, I would have of thee, all of thee, if thy will.
And so it were, at twenty, that my father did gladly give me away to John, and we did spend much time in the way of love, did John and I, for we were of one mind, of one body, and together we did make our own world, finding great pleasure in doing so. So it went, for many a year, our love growing and the children coming, but at times I were mindful that the voice and body that had comforted me when I were young, that had raised me up and infused me with the war with the warmest feelings I’d ever known, had gone. It were an indescribable loss, one that stung my heart, as if I’d been jilted by a lover.
That silence of our Lord did drive me to great heights of temptation. I reckoned that if I could not earn His praise and attention, then surely I could earn that of the people of Lynn. So I dressed in fine clothes and carried myself in a haughty manner, and then I set my hand to business, for my father had taught me well and stoked my interest therein. But it all came to naught. Everything I set my hand to aroused the ire of others, as if God were guiding me back to Him through my failures, through the scorn and reproval of others.
Then I took the rod to myself, as I did of old, and fasted, and secretly wore a hair shirt, and did daily penance, warring with my body, which were a source of so much trouble for me, until the Lord came back and whispered softly in my ear that I could kiss His mouth, kiss His head, kiss His feet, as sweetly as I could. And I did, I did kiss Him with great abandon and joy in my heart.
After the birthing of our children, I did press John repeatedly to let me take the vow of chastity so I could truly be a bride of Christ, but John were a man much in the loving way, and he’d his way with me, even when I did not return his caress. Christ did tell me that John would come about, that he would renounce his husband’s right, and so he did, and it were a time of rejoicing, as I’d become whole again, ready to receive the love of Christ, to be His bride, and thereafter I did wear a white dress, which caused me great grief, for others would taunt and abuse me, but it were no matter, for in sharing His pain, I shared in His love.
Many a year passed and I did journey to His Lord’s holy places and partook of His suffering, building within me that path that our Lord did trod upon each and every day as he came to share His love with me, to ravish my body and spirit.
Now it had always been a thing on my mind to share with others my life with our Lord, like that Julian or St. Bridget who’d felt His grace, and to write my thoughts down, but He had told me for many a year to wait, until one day He said it were time to write, to make a book of my life, and to tell my story to a scribe so that the Churchmen would not suspect me of being a Lollard. And that day Arthur did show up at my door.
I would like to serve thee, Arthur said. To write of thy life.
My life? What of my life? I said. I wanted to test him. Those Churchmen are a sneaky lot and may have sent someone to snare me. They’d already done so with many others, poor people whom they’d burnt to death over at that Lollard’s Pit.
Thy life, Arthur said. It is an example.
Of what? I asked.
Of how to know God, he replied.
How to begin anew? It has been so many years since I put quill to parchment, from that time when Father cautioned me against reading and writing. Sometimes when Arthur took a
break from his writing, I would steal a peek at the sheets, but he’d written them in a secret code, so I could understand nothing that was there.
One day he discovered me looking at the sheets and said, “It’s as I thought. Ye do know how to read and write, don’t ye?”
I couldn’t deny it, but I held my tongue.
“Why did ye agree to tell me thy story, Margery? Ye do not need me.” I could tell he were upset. How to tell him that I did need him, that I needed to work myself into a state where the words did flow through me? That I needed to say them to someone?
“Oh, but I do need ye, Arthur! My father did teach me how to read and write, but it’s been such a long time that I do not know how to handle a quill properly. The words do flow more easily when I’m telling them to someone.”
He were upset and left early that day. And I were anxious. I knew that God wanted me to record my journey to Him, and I needed Arthur’s help to do so. I spent a restless night, praying to our Lord, asking Him to help Arthur see his way to understanding. And the Lord did answer my prayers, for I did find Arthur the next day in the cottage, seated at the table, quill ready to take down my words.
At the end of the day, he did say to me in a gentle voice, “We do live in dangerous times, Margery, and we both run great risks in what we’re doing, though it be right in God’s eyes. I know that.”
I nodded. “But we can’t stop,” I said.
“No need to. But look here.” He showed me the sheets and the writing thereon, which I couldn’t read. “I’ve inserted some German words in certain places and have used a code where
one letter stands for the next. It has taken me some time to perfect, but I imagine it will be difficult for someone to know what is there.”
Later, when my son Edmund passed away from the stomach ailment, we agreed that if the writing were ever found that I could say it were Edmund I dictated to, that during his time in Germany as a merchant he had made a habit of writing in a shorthand that only he could understand, one that did mix the English and German together.
What with the deaths of Edmund, John, and then Arthur, I were at a loss as to how to find that spiritual nourishment that had comforted me in the past. I did recall passages from The Bible and I thought of our Lord Jesus Christ’s life, of the Passion, but still I fretted, and could find no comfort in my life, turning this way and that, setting to one thing and then another, until one day He came down and wrapped Himself about me in a ray of light, and did breath His divine life into me, and He said, He said I were to take up the quill myself, to act as if I were dictating to someone, but to write my own story, to write The Book of Margery Kempe. Write my life? I asked. Write thy life, He responded. It were such a wondrous thing to think of! I cried the rest of the day, tears of delight overwhelming me.
And now I sit at that table, that table where Arthur did sit. I place a sheet before me and I take the quill, dip it into the ink well. I look down. The sheet stretches before me, a vast, open space of white. It reminds of those barren lands through which I traveled, one foot after another, forging a path to God, shaping it with my faith and love. I set my quill to that landscape–and begin to write.