By 1413, Margery Kempe—an up-and-coming mystic and self-proclaimed holy woman—was dividing the masses of England down lines of public opinion. Although she could not read, she apparently memorized much of the Bible through hearing, and she claimed to have had personal access to holy wisdom through vivid visions in which she saw and conversed with Jesus. Margery’s spiritualism pushed her in some unique directions; she became a vegetarian after a vision in 1409, then cajoled her husband into joining her in a vow of chastity by 1413, and, in her greatest calling-card, she became prone to profuse sobbing during religious services. Such antics made Margery one of those figures that people could only love or hate.
Around June 1413, Margery Kempe was concerned about her already divided reputation. As she dictated to a scribe in her autobiography, Margery Kempe, at that time, was “very much fearing public opinion, which said God should take vengeance upon her” (Book of Margery Kempe, Book I, chapter 9). To console her fears, Margery Kempe went to church in her hometown of King’s Lynn to pray, hoping for some divine aid in her ongoing struggle with public relations. Yet, ironically enough, what would occur that day in church would in no way bring her supporters and decriers together. Instead, what would befall her in the church would be seen by both her fans and critics as proof for their positive and negative opinions.
On that June day in 1413, Margery Kempe entered the church and lowered herself in prayer, calling up to the heavens for aid and strength. She quickly had an answer to her prayers, and other parishioners in the church did not need a mystic’s mind to hear God’s loud and clear response. Loud creaks and cracks echoed out in the sanctuary, and Margery Kempe described what happened next (in the third person) within her autobiography:
“Suddenly—from the highest part of the church vault, from under the base of the rafter—there fell down on her head and on her back a stone which weighed three pounds, and a short end of a beam weighing six pounds, so that she thought her back was broken in pieces, and she was afraid that she would be dead in a little while. Soon after she cried, ‘Jesus, mercy,’ and immediately her pain was gone” (Book of Margery Kempe, Book I, chapter 9).
As this was a very public and eye-catching event, news about Margery Kempe’s close encounter with the falling rock and beam from her very church spread fast. Her supporters proclaimed that it was a miracle—God had shielded her from pain and harm, and she walked away from the incident unscathed. Yet, her detractors instead proclaimed that the falling rock and beam were a warning from God, and a sign that her actions were not looked upon favorably from heaven. As Margery herself mused, “many people greatly glorified God in this creature [Margery]. And also many people would not believe it, but preferred to believe it was more a token of wrath and vengeance than of mercy or favor” (Book of Margery Kempe, Book I, chapter 9).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Detail of a miniature (dated c. 1320-1340) of an allegorical figure embodying Tristesse (Sadness). Image taken from f. 10 of Roman de la Rose (index Romance of the Rose), [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).
- The Book of Margery Kempe, dictated by Margery Kempe, and translated to modern English by B. A. Windeatt. New York, Penguin Classics, 2000.