Religion With a Human Face

MARGERY KEMPE was not a typical medieval lay person. Far from it: few lay people abandoned spouse, children, work, and ordinary life in search of religious perfection, as she did. People in her company often grew tired of her religious talk, vigorous weeping, and unusual religious practices, such as vegetarianism and wearing white garments. Her visions aroused suspicion that she was possessed or epileptic or a hypocrite or a heretic.

But Margery also had admirers, especially among the clergy, who defended her visions and tears as genuine gifts from God.

It’s difficult to determine what exactly “everyday faith” was in the late Middle Ages. The vigorous and slack all practiced the same religion. Though there were doubters and dissidents, most men and women, masters and servants, kings and cloth merchants were generally moved by the same religious beliefs and rituals.

In spite of, and maybe because of, her extreme devotion, Margery reveals in sharp relief the everyday faith of the late Middle Ages.

Unsatisfied Hunger

One central yearning had great force in later medieval life: an intense desire for religious experience.

In the 1200s, the church, more than ever before, began successfully reaching people through preaching, art and drama, books and pamphlets, and annual confession and Communion, among other things. In response, there was a widespread hunger for religious experience, a hunger, ironically, the church, which created it, could not satisfy. People found parish life humdrum and spiritually undemanding. In unprecedented numbers, devout lay people began seeking a more intense religious life while staying married and working in their secular vocations.

Margery Kempe was one of those people. She was born about 1373 in Norfolk (England), the daughter of a respected merchant and public official. She married merchant John Kempe, with whom she had fourteen children. She died sometime after 1433.

In her younger years, she was orthodox and respectful of the church—though she knew some clergy were spiritually lax and sometimes told them so. Still, she went frequently to her parish church, heard sermons, confessed often, weekly sought the Eucharist, fasted, wore a hair shirt for a time, said her rosary, and gave alms. But she sought something more.

In her twenties, Margery began having visions in which she talked on a friendly basis with Jesus, Mary, and some saints. In one vision, Jesus told her that her religious practices were good, but they were for “beginners,” and that Margery should go deeper.

Thus began her remarkable religious quest. At about age 60, she dictated her memories to two scribes, who put together the first autobiography in English, the Book of Margery Kempe, from which we know her story.

Discovering the Gospels

This passion for religious experience was shaped by a growing awareness of the four Gospels.

Between the 500s and 900s in western Europe, the Old Testament loomed large in religious consciousness. Perhaps the Germans and Celts identified with the Hebrews, who subdued rival nations and conquered the Promised Land. Early medieval clergy were inspired by Old Testament references to incense in worship, anointings with oil, tithing, and strict observance of the Sabbath.

These Christians read the New Testament filtered through their warlike cultures and Old Testament imagery. Jesus was more the stern judge to whom all would answer. The apocalyptic judgment in Matthew 25:3146, with its grand vision of the end of time, with the separation of the just and unjust, held the early medieval imagination.

After the Viking invasions ended in the eleventh century, western Europe gradually became settled, urbanized, literate, populous, and prosperous. Under these conditions, Europe “discovered” the Gospels, which resulted in a deep religious change, comparable to the Reformers' “discovery” of the apostle Paul in the 1500s.

A Gospel-based faith fostered an emotional spirituality that slowly flowed through society. The religious (monks and nuns), priests, and laity yearned to learn more about Jesus, his mother, and his apostles. The new spiritual yearning, coupled with wider literacy, encouraged the use of personal prayer books, like the lavish “books of hours” made for the rich, and the many plainer books for the less wealthy.

Since Latin was a barrier for most people, vernacular translations flourished—not only of the Gospels but also of the Psalms (which were believed to have been written about Christ), devotional tracts, and sermons of early church fathers.

Even the illiterate had means of learning more about biblical stories. Margery Kempe was illiterate—a surprising condition considering the comfortable surroundings of her youth. However, she gained religious knowledge from readers, confessors, and preachers. In her autobiography, she says (referring to herself in the third person) of one priest, “He read to her many a good book of high contemplation and other books, such as the Bible with doctors' [theologians'] commentaries on it,” and she mentions specifically, Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden, The Scale of Perfection by Walter Hilton, and Bonaventure’s Stimulus Amoris.

Margery also learned the Bible in long conversations she had with confessors (spiritual directors) and clergy. On one occasion, Margery was chastising an archbishop about his swearing. She disliked swearing, especially oaths that referred to Jesus, for example, “By his wounds!” She told the archbishop, “You shall answer for them, unless you correct them or else put them out of your service.” Then she noted, “In a most meek and kindly way, he allowed her to say what was on her mind and gave her a handsome answer. And so their conversation continued until stars appeared in the sky.”

Passion for Preaching

Margery’s main source of Gospel knowledge came from preaching. She loved sermons. In the late Middle Ages, with an increasing demand for more biblical knowledge came a surge of interest in preaching, especially preaching that spoke to people personally. There were few good preachers, and those who were good became celebrities.

Margery told of one renowned Franciscan friar: “On St. James’s Day, the good friar preached in St. James’s chapel yard in Lynn [her home town] where there were many people and a good audience, for he had a holy name and great favor amongst the people, in so much that, some men, if they knew that he would preach in the district, would go with him or else follow him from town to town, such great delight had they to hear him.”

Margery was often deeply moved by preaching. Preachers generally tolerated her loud sobbing; they simply waited for her to quiet down and then went on.

On one occasion, though, her outbursts annoyed the Franciscan preacher, who barred her from his sermons. “She felt so much sorrow,” she wrote of the occasion, “that she did not know what she could do, for she was excluded from the sermon, which was to her the highest comfort on earth when she could hear it, and equally the greatest pain on earth, when she could not hear it.”

Embracing the Hard Sayings

This Gospel-based faith disrupted centuries-old patterns of Christian behavior. Hearers of Gospel stories began to emphasize their literal details and meanings—and act accordingly.

Medieval theologians taught that Jesus' hard sayings were advice, “evangelical counsels,” and not commands applicable to everyone. For centuries, only monks and nuns embraced Jesus' hard sayings by abandoning wealth, sex, family, vengeance, pride, ambition, and the like.

But as the Gospel revival spread through society, some lay people, including Margery Kempe, believed they too were called to observe the hard sayings as best they could. For example, at one point, Margery and her husband took vows of chastity. The church had no theological reasons to object to this yearning, but it had difficulty with some of the practical consequences—e.g., husbands' deserting wives and families to go on pilgrimages, wives' unilaterally taking vows of chastity.

This new emphasis sparked the creation of two orders. In the early 1200s, a radically new form of monastic life was created by Francis of Assisi (11821226) and Dominic of Calaruega (11701221), which shaped, and was shaped by, the new spiritual yearning. The friars, or “brothers,” tried to imitate literally the life of Jesus and his apostles. They were deeply moved by Luke 9:36, the passage where Jesus sends out the Twelve to proclaim the kingdom of God, taking “nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.”

In literal imitation, the early friars, composed of both clergy and laity, wandered about in a poverty verging on destitution, dressed in coarse garments tied at the waist with a rope, preaching in town squares, fields, and churches. Even after the initial burst of enthusiasm, their preaching remained lively, emotional, and Gospel centered. The best preachers drew large crowds and stimulated explosive reactions of repentance and religious exaltation.

Unlike monks, who lived behind monastic walls, the friars worked in the world. Their energy and creativity were seemingly boundless. They taught at universities, and many become great theologians—to name three, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and William of Occam. They managed investment funds in Italy to provide poor girls with dowries so they could marry. They went as missionaries to Muslim countries and even to the Far East.

They were also popular confessors, sought out especially by growing numbers of devout women for the advice they could give. Margery Kempe found some of her best advisers and supporters from among the friars.

Good Friday and Christmas Meet

This Gospel-centered faith highlighted two special days of the church year, days which focused on the human, forgiving Christ.

In early Christianity, the central religious festival was Easter, which celebrated the risen, glorious, triumphant Jesus, the conqueror of death. But Gospel-centered faith emphasized the suffering Christ of Good Friday. Devout people believed Jesus had endured this pain for them personally. The Gospel accounts of scourging with whips, crowning with thorns, carrying of the cross, the pounding of the nails, the hours of suffering, and the lonely death were represented in art, mulled over in prayer, and even imitated in life. Crucifixes became increasingly realistic, so much so that today many moderns find them grotesque. But to medieval Christians, they were inspirational.

At Leicester, Margery “came into a fine church where she beheld a crucifix, which was piteously portrayed and lamentable to behold, and through beholding of which, the passion of our Lord entered her mind, whereupon she began to melt and utterly dissolve with tears of pity and compassion. Then the fire of love kindled so quickly in her heart that she could not keep it secret for, whether she liked it or not, it caused her to break out in a loud voice and cry astonishingly, and weep and sob very terribly, so that many men and women wondered at her because of it.”

When Margery was in Jerusalem, the Franciscan guides described how Christ had suffered in various places: “And this creature [as she referred to herself] wept and sobbed as plenteously as though she had seen our Lord with her bodily eyes suffering his passion at that time. And when they came up on to the Mount of Calvary, she fell down because she could not stand or kneel, but writhed and wrestled with her body, spreading her arms out wide, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart would have burst apart, for in the city of her soul, she saw truly and freshly how our Lord was crucified.”

The Gospel-centered faith also had a new appreciation for Christmas, with its emphasis on Christ’s humanity and vulnerability. Francis of Assisi created what may have been the first Christmas creche in 1223 to make real Christ’s humanity. People could see that Jesus had been like them, that he had been a real baby.

Likewise, Mary grew in prominence. A real baby needed a real mother, and the loving young mother and her beautiful baby were depicted countless times in all the visual arts.

Margery Kempe was also deeply moved by the birth story. She meditated on it so long and intensely that she imaginatively entered the biblical scenes. In one long vision, she was Mary’s maid, caring for her and Jesus in the way a medieval servant girl might bring food, do chores, and change diapers.

Holy Travel

Religious pilgrimages were astoundingly popular during this era. Many medieval Christians wanted to see with their own eyes the holy places and holy people that figured so prominently in their religion.

Margery Kempe was a tireless pilgrim. She began in a modest way by visiting with her husband local shrines in England. But in one astounding burst of energy, she deserted her family and visited Assisi, Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostela (in Spain) in a three-year period. She then went to shrines in Norway, Prussia, and Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen.

There was a ritual for undertaking a pilgrimage. At the parish church and before relatives, friends, and neighbors, pilgrims were invested with a distinctive outfit consisting of a broad-brimmed hat, a sort of knapsack, and a walking staff. Pilgrims settled accounts and paid debts.

Before Margery set out on her epic pilgrimage, “She asked the parish priest of the town where she was living to say on her behalf from the pulpit that if there were any man or woman who claimed any debt against her husband or her, they should come and speak with her before she went, and she, with God’s help, would settle up with each of them so that they would hold themselves content.”

True pilgrims forgave enemies and asked pardon of those they had offended. Before Margery entered Jerusalem, she spoke to her fellow pilgrims, with whom she had lots of friction because of her annoying religious talk. “She said to them that she supposed they were annoyed with her, 'I pray you, sirs, be in charity with me, for I am in charity with you. And if any of you have in any way trespassed against me, God forgive you for it, as I do.' “

Most late-medieval adults probably went on pilgrimage, if only a day trip to a regional saint’s shrine. But the geographic heart of the Christian story was Palestine. Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands made the long, expensive, and dangerous pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the same reasons Margery Kempe did: she said she “had a desire to see those places where he [Jesus] was born, and where he suffered his passion and where he died, together with other holy places where he was during his life and after his resurrection.”

Supernatural Remains

Pilgrimage arose out of the intersection of two theological ideas: the need to do penance for sins and the cult of relics.

A pilgrimage was considered penitential, like fasting or alms giving, because it required a great sacrifice of time and money. It was also dangerous. Many pilgrims died of disease or shipwreck or at the hands of robbers; some were enslaved. But to the medieval pilgrim, the risks were worth the reward: forgiveness of sins and renewed faith.

Pilgrimage was rooted in the veneration of saints and their relics, or relicta ("things left behind"). Medieval Christians believed the barrier between this life and the next was porous: saints were not dead any more than Jesus was. Theologians taught that people could not only ask saints, God’s friends, to intercede for them but could do so from any locale. But many medieval people believed that at the shrines, saints were present in a special way—Saint Peter at Rome, Saint James at Compostela, Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury, and so on.

The bodily remains of saints were taken from their graves in solemn ceremony and placed in receptacles called reliquaries, which were often magnificent works of art. Since the demand for saints' bodies outpaced the supply, the bodies were reverently dismembered, and the pieces received the same treatment as intact bodies. In addition, items associated with the saint—clothing, pieces of a cross or sword by which they were executed, and the like—were also revered.

Many medieval Christians found it deeply satisfying to go to the saint, kneel in his or her presence, touch his or her remains (if one was especially fortunate), and ask the saint to intercede with God. Pilgrims often expected miracles, especially healing from infirmities and disease, at these shrines. Margery believed that while she was at Jerusalem, she had received a special spiritual gift, which she described as a roar or a scream, which she could not control when religious emotion swept over her.

Helping the Dead

Concern for the dead was another central feature of late medieval religion, and the doctrine of purgatory was very much alive. The official teaching was hazy at the edges, but the point was clear enough: some Christians who had died in God’s grace were still burdened with unforgiven sins and unfulfilled penances. They needed to be cleansed.

People in purgatory could no longer help themselves, and they might remain in the purging fire for decades, centuries, or unimaginably long periods. Medieval Christians had a strong sense of solidarity, and they believed they could help one another even across the grave. One person’s prayers, alms, or good deeds could literally be donated to another person, including those in purgatory. Those concerned about dead parents, spouses, children, or others prayed for them, asking God to be merciful and to shorten their time of purgation.

Margery Kempe believed she was told by Jesus that she could assign her merit to other people. Once, when she was reluctant to leave the Holy land, she said Jesus spoke to her: “ Daughter, as often as you say or think, Worshipped be all those holy places in Jerusalem that Christ suffered bitter pain and passion in, you shall have the same pardon as if you were there with your bodily presence, both for yourself and for all those that you will give it to.' “

Margery believed she was chosen as a special intercessor for all in need, including those in purgatory. Sometimes, she said, she would continue “weeping for two hours and often longer without ceasing when in mind of our Lord’s passion, sometimes for her own sin, sometimes for the sin of the people, sometimes for the souls in purgatory, sometimes for those that were in poverty or in any distress, for she wanted to comfort them all.”

If saints were honored on All Saints' Day (November 1), Christians in purgatory were remembered on All Souls' Day, November 2. But many thought official prayer once a year was not enough. Medieval miracle stories help us understand this anxious concern for the dead. These stories often tell of people coming back from purgatory to visit their kin or friends, asking for their help or lamenting their failure to help.

The most powerful form of prayer was the Mass, and saying masses for the dead was a central feature of popular faith. In the thousands of wills that survive from this era, it is typical to find legacies for prayer and masses. People of middling wealth might arrange for a mass on the day of their death, for the thirty days thereafter, and on the first anniversary of their death. The rich created perpetual endowments, called chantries, in which a priest was to say Mass daily for them, their kinsfolk, and if they were generous, for all Christians in purgatory, until the end of time.

Lift High the Bread

In the 1100s and 1200s, some heretical groups, called Cathars, or Albigensians, taught that all material things were essentially evil; they consequently attacked the belief that Jesus could really be present in the bread and wine of the sacrament. In reaction, the church reemphasized the goodness of material creation and defended the reality of Jesus' presence in the elements, especially through the doctrine of transubstantiation: while the bread and wine appeared unchanged to the senses, theologians taught, the priest’s consecration had in fact made them Jesus' real body and real blood.

The belief in Jesus' real sacramental presence found strong resonance in people influenced by the Gospel-centered faith. At mass they could see with their own eyes the Creator and Savior of the universe and could, by partaking, be physically united with him.

The awesomeness of Jesus' physical presence discouraged casual reception of the Eucharistic bread (lay people didn’t receive the cup). So partaking of the elements was rare for most lay people. The church demanded it at least once a year, during Easter, but only after confession, penance, sexual abstinence, and fasting had prepared the believer to receive worthily.

Most Christians were content each Sunday merely to observe the consecrated host—the Lord lifted up, as they believed. Some lay people, in fact, called out for the priest to raise the consecrated host so they could see it, a practice eventually incorporated into the Mass. The metrical Lay Folks' Mass Book shows the importance of this practice.

When the time is near of sacring [Communion]
A little bell is wont to ring.
Then shalt thou do reverence
To Jesus Christ’s own presence
That may loose all baleful bands.
Kneeling hold up both thy hands
And so the Elevation thou behold,
For this is he whom Judas sold,
And then was scourged and killed on rood [cross],
And there for mankind shed his blood,
And died and rose and went to heaven,
And yet he'll come with justice even
To every man for what he’s done:
That same is he you look upon.
—Lay Folks' Mass Book,1357

Margery Kempe received permission from the archbishop of Canterbury to receive the Eucharist every Sunday, an unusual practice for a lay person and one for which she was criticized.

Nonetheless some people found it difficult to believe that what looked and tasted like ordinary food was really the body of Christ. Again, eucharistic miracle stories that flourished in the 1200s tell us much about the age: In one a priest tortured by doubts sees the host bleed when he breaks it. In another, when a priest raises the host above his head, a doubting lay person sees an infant in the priest’s hands.

To refute heretics and console doubters, the church sanctioned the festival of Corpus Christi ("the body of Christ"). It was celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, usually in good spring weather. It began in church with a formal religious ceremony, including a special mass (whose words and hymns may have been composed by Thomas Aquinas). The festival then moved into the streets. A procession of clergy, town officials, members of guilds and confraternities (lay religious societies), and others followed the consecrated host, which was displayed in a magnificent vessel. The streets were lined with people, who decorated their houses with tapestries, flowers, branches, and other adornments. Believers knelt as the host, to them the body of the Lord of the universe, passed.

In some places, the festival included public plays—the Corpus Christi plays—so that all could see enacted on wagons the Christian account of salvation from Creation to the Last Judgment.

These are most of the main characterisitics of late-medieval Catholicism; an intense interest in good works and devotion to Mary were two other features. But medieval Christianity is too complex, with layers of practice and belief inherited from many centuries, to summarize briefly.

This great “age of faith,” as it’s been called, had its share of skeptics and critics. Some believers relied too much on superstition, and most of the devout did not take their faith as far as did Margery Kempe. Still, the central threads of late-medieval Catholicism are revealed in her life: it was a faith ignited by a rediscovery of the Gospels; an identification with Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and saints; and especially a desire to see, touch, and emotionally experience the truths of the Christian faith.

By Joseph Lynch

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #49 in 1996]

Joseph Lynch is professor of medieval history at The Ohio State University. He is the author of “The Medieval Church: A Brief History” (Longman).
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