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Historical biographies

Margery Kempe: Mystic and Medieval Miller

(Credit: Susan Bartram, volunteer for the Mills Archive)

Margery Kempe was born around 1373 in King’s Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn) in Norfolk. At this time Bishop’s Lynn was a prosperous international port and Margery was born into an influential and wealthy family in the town.

The following account is taken from The Book of Margery Kempe dictated by Margery herself during the latter part of her life and which is sometimes referred to as the earliest surviving autobiography in English (Kempe 1373/2019). The Book details how Margery’s life changed from her early involvement in brewing and milling before she went on to become a visionary, holy woman and very well-travelled pilgrim in the fifteen century. Though travelling cannot have been easy for women at this time, her overseas pilgrimages included journeys to Rome, Jerusalem and Spain.

Around 1393 Margery married a successful merchant in the Norfolk town though there is some indication that she may have felt that she married beneath her. In the earlier years of her married life, as well as being a wife and a mother (having 14 pregnancies) Margery was also a well-known business woman in the town with involvement in brewing for 3 or 4 years followed by spending a short time in milling before she was called to a more spiritual life.

In order to maintain her lifestyle and keep up with her neighbours, Margery started a brewing business in order to earn extra money. It was not uncommon for women in medieval times to take up brewing and she describes herself in The Book as “one of the greatest brewers” in Lynn (1373/2019, p14). Despite this self-belief, she was inexperienced and instead lost a great deal of money pursuing this venture. She reported that she believed that this failure was due to God punishing her worldly ways and her pride.

Nonetheless, and undeterred, Margery soon started up another business by setting up a horse mill. Horse mills were popular in town settings, often for grinding malt for brewing (Watts, 2016). She described how she invested in sound horses and employed a competent, healthy worker. This business seems to have started off well and things went smoothly at first but then, for no apparent reason, one of the horses refused to pull. Nothing the worker did could persuade the horse to pull. Neither reward nor punishment worked. So he tried the second horse and, once again, this previously efficient horse just would not pull, no matter what he tried. Margery reports that the man decided to immediately leave her employment and while some people gossiped and said that she was cursed, others said that it was a warning from God. Margery took what had occurred as another sign that she needed to leave behind her pride and envy and change her worldly ways. So she turned to God and undertook a more spiritual life. What then happened during the latter part of her life is what takes up the majority of the book.

Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, 1373 approximately in B.A. Windeatt (Ed and Translated), Penguin Classics, 2019.
Watts, M and S, Quern to Computer: The history of flour milling, Mills Archive, September 6, 2016 accessed 12 October 2021.

Margery Kempe: Mystic and Medieval Miller

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