Is It Secret; Is It Safe?: Lessons from Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe did not like to talk about her visions.

That’s an odd thing to say about England’s queen of performative piety, who took her white clothing and loud wailing on intercontinental tour. It’s an even stranger thing to say about possibly England’s most famous medieval visionary.

Indeed, Kempe’s revelations and auditions fill a substantial number of chapters in the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe, an anthology of internal religious experiences and external adventures in the life of an eclectic laywoman. (The text claims to be dictated by the protagonist herself; I will be speaking here primarily of the two Kempes in the text, actor-author, whatever their relation to the person who composed the Book as a whole). [1]

Like many medieval women visionaries, Kempe recounts numerous types of visions. Most frequent are auditions, seemingly internal; sometimes only Christ speaks; sometimes it is a conversation. Kempe also experiences lavishly recounted “transporting” visions: for example, as a spectator of Christ’s passion, or a bridal ceremony. She also occasionally has access to knowledge about people’s afterlife fates. But despite the overwhelmingly important role that her “conversations and high contemplations” play in her spiritual life, she is rather reticent about disclosing them to the people she encounters.

Margery Kempe, carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn.

It is most evident in the text when people complain about the heart of Kempe’s externalized devotion: how frequently she “burst out in violent weeping and sobbing” or “cry and roar” during sermons or while praying (or just encountering a mother and child on the road). [2] But while the Book has plenty of passages wherein Christ explicitly states the tears are his gift, Kempe does not defend herself by conveying this message. In one episode, the celebrant of that Mass experiences a similar sobbing breakdown which (according to the text) convinces him of her legitimacy; in another, she is (or allows herself to be) forced away from a hospital, which leaves her without a confessor or access to the Eucharist.

When Kempe is confronted about her behavior or describes animosity towards herself, the foremost topic is her “manner of living”—including her special manner of dress, special diet, habit of fraternal correction directed at…everyone, and above all her sobbing and wailing.

The disconnect between the Book’s descriptions and its protagonist’s silence is not total. Some people Kempe encounters do fill in the blanks, as when a Franciscan friar says she must be the famous (infamous?) woman who speaks with God. In Kempe’s recounting, however, his comment merits no response from her but does convince her that God’s instruction to go on pilgrimage was correct—which she does not reveal to the friar. [3]

More importantly, Kempe does sometimes initiate the announcement of her revelations. She discloses them to her confessor, her husband (at least, some of her revelations), her son: the people to whom she is closest. At God’s command (or so she insists), she reveals her conversations and extreme intimacy with Christ to a series of powerful clerical and charismatic figures: a bishop she has never met; two (or more) anchorites she has never met; university doctors of theology she has never met; a confessor she has never met before. According to the actor-narrator, she told them “to find out if there were any deception in her feelings. [4]

As numerous scholars have noted, her disclosure of her visions to official or sanctioned religious authorities invokes the doctrine known as discretio spirituum (discernment of spirits). [5] At the most basic level, discretio spirituum is scrutinizing apparently divine phenomena, such as visions or miracles, to determine whether they are truly divine or result from another cause. By the time in which the events of the Book of Margery Kempe take place, the 1410s, many theologians and Church leaders promoted a very specific application of this doctrine. It entailed both the need to prove that (mainly women’s) visions and miraculous asceticism were gifts from God instead of delusions from the devil or the human brain; and the struggle over who had the authority to determine what constituted enough proof.

The Book’s frequent declarations of Kempe seeking and gaining approval from a diverse array of Church leaders, including both Franciscans and Dominicans, illustrates a reasonably sophisticated handling of the doctrine, as Franciscans and Dominicans were often at odds over the legitimacy of a particular person or event. Somewhere along the way to the composition of the Book, someone recognized the importance, methodology, and unwritten problems of discretio spirituum.

There remains, however, the problem of the Book itself.

Excerpt from the Book of Margery Kempe, British Library, Add MS 61823, f.49v.

On one hand, you might observe that within the narrative, Kempe the protagonist sought out repeated verification of visions that (with the probable exception of her family) she shared with no one else. Moving around as a person in her world, she would have had no need to legitimize visions she shared with no one else.

On the other, you might point out that the full narrative is not present to any of the individuals Kempe encounters during her adventures. Only the listener or reader has access to it. And the reader (including any scribe along the way) does witness Kempe’s most intimate visions and would be looking for validation.

So, if the composer of the Book is willing to announce all types of visions experienced by the protagonist who apparently mirrors that composer—why does the Kempe of the text hide so many of her visions so intently?

[To be continued…]

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] There is a substantial body of scholarship on the authorship of the Book and the relationship between the author, possible scribe or scribes, and protagonist of the text, including whether the Book qualifies as the first English-language autobiography. See, the debate between Nicholas Watson and Felicity Riddy in Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Linda Olson (eds.), Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 395-458. Many scholars use “Margery” to refer to the protagonist and “Kempe” to name the author; I have chosen to use “Kempe” for both because the general masculine tenor of Internet history discussions increases the importance of using non-infantilizing language to speak of historical women.

[2] Book of Margery Kempe, ch. 72, 83. For readers unfamiliar with Middle English, quotations are taken from Barry Windeatt (trans.), The Book of Margery Kempe (Penguin Classics, 1985). The original is available online through the TEAMS Middle English Text series.

[3] BMK, ch. 30.

[4] BMK, ch. 11.

[5] The foundational discussion on Kempe and discernment is Rosalynn Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late Medieval Women Visionaries (York Medieval Press, 1999), 109-153.

Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore and an Easter Homily of Maximus of Turin

MS B44 Inferiore of Milan’s Ambrosiana Library is an unstudied aestivial (summer season) homiliary from the thirteenth century. It is an exceptionally large manuscript, measuring approximately 40cm by 30cm. An eighteenth-century librarian of the Ambrosiana marked it as a homiliary of the “Ambrosian rite,” which is not a description meaningful for ascertaining the paradigms on which the homiliary’s structure is based. The invocation of the “Ambrosian rite” does, however, point to peculiarities in the Lombard region’s liturgical calendar which B44 might reflect. The homiliary’s reflection of local liturgical traditions could best be judged through a study of its “sanctorum” portion; this, however, was not the focus of my time with the manuscript. Despite its large size and length, the homiliary only spans the summer part of the liturgical year. Its de tempore section begins with the Easter Vigil and ends with the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. The Feast of Mary’s Nativity was locally important since the Milanese Duomo was dedicated, from at least the eleventh century, to the Blessed Virgin’s birth.

            To familiarize myself with the manuscript’s structure and homiletic content, I surveyed the sermons it included for the Easter season (1v-52r), noting sermon incipits from Easter until Pentecost. Though for the sanctorale section, there are a wide variety of authors, the Easter de tempore section largely consists of homilies from Sts. Ambrose, Bede, Gregory, and Augustine. The sermon choices are, however, eclectic, and do not match the arrangement of the paradigmatic homiliaries summarized by Réginald Grégoire in his still-unsurpassed Homéliaires Liturgiques Médiévaux. In short, MS Inf. B44’s Easter sermons do not match those included in the Roman and Toledan homiliaries, nor those in the collections of Pseudo-Fulgencius, Paul the Deacon, or Romain d’Agimond. As far as contemporary homiletic developments go, Inf. B44 also is far removed from the pocket-manuscript homiliaries popular among the mobile mendicants; more generally, the patristic collection of Easter homilies here does not reflect high medieval developments in preaching. No “scholastic” sermons based around themae are included, nor is there any trace of the politically and socially-charged “activist” preaching of mendicants like Giordano da Pisa (1255-1311) or Remigio de Girolami (d. 1319). In short, though Inf. B44 compiles an eclectic set of sermons, it is a conservative exemplar of the homiliary genre.

            The description of the eighteenth-century Ambrosiana librarian on the manuscript’s first folio also notes that B44 Inf. was acquired for the Ambrosiana in the seventeenth century, when it was removed from Milan’s cathedral. It is unknown if the homiliary had been a possession of the cathedral from the outset, and, if not, why or when it was moved to the cathedral. Judging by the highly moralizing and interior-focused content of the Easter sermons, it is possible that the homiliary had been used by the cathedral canons or a northern Italian monastic community. From its large size, it seems the homiliary likely would have stayed in one place, for use in private mediation or as an aid for the composition of monastic sermons. If we seek a more specific paradigm, it should be noted that B44 Inf. shares basic similarities with high-medieval Cistercian homiliaries copied in northern Italian and Burgundian monasteries, such as the house of Morimondo near Milan. These Cistercian homiliaries were usually fairly large, written in twelfth-century miniscule, and included sermons of Augustine, Bede, Ambrose, and Gregory—all characteristics that B44 Inf. shares.[1] However, further study of the Cistercian homiliaries of northern Italy is necessary to ascertain whether these and our manuscript conform to a common paradigm.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Maximus-of-Turin-Miniature-from-Medieval-Manuscript.jpg
Saint Maximus of Turin, Anonymous (Italian, Piedmontese), Carte Sciolte, n. 390, Archivio Storico della Città, Turin, from Codice degli Statuti di Torino o Codice della Catena,” 1360.

            Particularly interesting among Inf. B44’s Easter sermons is the second entry for the fifth day after Easter, located between ff. 16v and 17v. This homily, misattributed in the manuscript to St. Ambrose (probably as a result of local enthusiasm for that venerable bishop), is actually a probable composition of St. Maximus of Turin, and its main theme—defending oneself from lustful temptations—coheres well with the manuscript’s probable monastic origin. However, how the sermon conveys this theme is in no way typical, as it does so by extended engagement with the story of Ulysses and the Sirens. Though in Late Antiquity, scientific exegesis of Greek mythology was very common in neo-Platonic circles, Christocentric engagement with a mythological text is a rare phenomenon, even within Maximus’ own homiletic corpus.

            To provide a brief analysis of the sermon: Maximus begins by recalling the passage of Ulysses’ ship past the isle of the Sirens, whose lusty song is irresistible to the sailors. Because Ulysses knows that the ship will be lost if it is captured by the siren song, he ties himself to the mast. For Maximus, the mast and the ship to which the sailors cling are figures of the cross of Christ, on which all sin is expiated. Maximus soon moves from the example of Ulysses—whose story he calls “fictive and not factual”—to Moses’ healing of his people by means of a snake affixed to a staff. Unlike the Ulysses example, the history of the Jewish people is factual, and so truly prefigures Christ’s sacrifice. It can be argued that Maximus’ Christocentric interpretation of Ulysses’ binding to the mast is inspired by Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, the methods of which Maximus then applies to Greek myth. There is, after all, a strong exegetical tradition, beginning already with the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, which sees ships—specifically Noah’s ark—as a figure of the cross. From there, the paradigm might be easily transferred even to the ships of Greek myth. But transference is not all that Maximus is doing, notwithstanding his curt dismissal of Ulysses’ story. For later in the sermon Maximus encapsulates salvation-history thus: “Fittingly is he crucified on wood so that, since man was deceived in paradise by the tree of desire, he might now be saved by the same tree of wood; and the matter which was the cause of death might be the remedy of health.” In Maximus’ thought, nature itself—here instantiated in wood—constitutes the means of salvation, providing remedies for the bodily weakness of humankind. Since Ulysses’ salvation came directly through divinely-created nature, his tale is not just some forgettable fable. In this conception, however subtly stated, pagans and non-Christians are not outside the economy of salvation, for they, too, exist within a grace-filled nature which can proffer the remedies for their ailments.

For my transcription, translation and recitations (in Modern English and Latin), see my multimedia edition of Maximus of Turin’s homily for the fifth day after Easter in Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore.

Mihow McKenny
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Mirella Ferrari, “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo,” in Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.


D’Avray, D. L. The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture. 3 volumes. Translated by Mark Sebanc and E. M. Macierowski. Eerdmans, 1998-2009.

Ferrari, Mirella. “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo.” In Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.

Grégoire, Réginald. Homéliaires liturgiques médiévaux : analyse de manuscrits. Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1980.

Longère, Jean. La Prédication Médiévale. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983.

Maximus of Turin. Maximi episcopi taurinensis sermones.Edited by A. Mutzenbecher. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 23. Turnhout: Brepols, 1962.

Rahner, Hugo, S.J. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. Translated by Brian Battershaw. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

The “Sinful” Soldiers of the Early Ottoman Military Structure: οι ἁμαρτωλόι

This short research blog focuses on the development of the word ἁμαρτάνω “to sin” from the advent of Christianity to the late Byzantine era. The word, ἁμαρτάνω, is widely used in the Bible as it appears forty-three times. To word’s primary meaning in the Bible was to “err and sin”; however, from time to time, it was also used to signify the action of offending. ἁμαρτάνω occurs in many different forms in the New Testament as we see it in aorist first-person singular active form Ἥμαρτον” eight times, second-person singular indicative middle six times, and second-person indicative active plural form three times.[1] I will trace the different nuances in the meaning of this word in the subsequent periods, especially in the late Byzantine period. My argument is that as several Greek and non-Greek sources indicate, the word ἁμαρτάνω began having a military connotation in this period as it was applied to the Christian military units who had cooperated with the enemy forces, especially the Turks.

Inscription, in The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum

        In Homeric times, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious connotation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament suggests that, initially, the word was used to convey the action of “missing” i.e failure to follow rules and signify a moral deficit or immoral physical undertaking. [2] However, in the later periods (c. 400 BCE), we begin seeing a shift from legal to religious use since ἁμαρτάνω made its way to the Book of Kings in the old testament, meaning “to rebel” against the god and his order in the earth.[3] From a theological standpoint, rebelling against the will of God means to err from the true path and therefore to sin. In this way, those who had intentionally deviated from moral or religious standards came to be defined as αμαρτωλός “the sinful one” in the later Christian religious texts.[4]

Early Christian symbols on an Egyptian textile, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

        ἁμαρτάνω is mostly used to signify the action of “sin” and neglecting the commands of God with an exception of “offending” in the New Testament.[5] In the Book of Romans, for instance, we see the following structure: “γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον ἀνόμως καὶ” which means “Indeed without law I sinned without law also[…]”.[6] Here, ἁμαρτάνω was used in the aorist, active, and indicative form. In another example, this time from the Book of Corinthians, the word is used in such a construction: “οὕτως δὲ ἁμαρτάνοντες εἰς τοὺς” meaning “thus moreover sinning against those […]” in the participle, present, active form.[7] Besides the action of sinning, ἁμαρτάνω seems to be used in a different meaning, “to offend”, in the Book of Apostles although a minor disagreement exists between various interpreters. Regarding the following phase: “Καίσαρά τι ἥμαρτον[…]” while New American Standard Bible renders the word as “committing”, the King James version translate the term as “offending”. However, the new international version disagrees with these suggestions, interpreting the whole phrase as “Caesar [in] anything sinned […]”.[8]

Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. London: Osprey, 1983.

        Besides its use in legal and religious spheres, towards the late Byzantine period, we begin seeing the word, ἁμαρτάνω, or its variants in Greek and Turkish texts in the military context. With the Turkish advance towards western Asia Minor and the Balkans in the later 13th and early 14th centuries, the local Greek-speaking people began adjusting to the newly established political reality in their respective territories by means of cooperating with their new rulers. A significant portion of the Greek population in these regions had converted to Islam, while others participated in the Ottoman military system as auxiliary units. As the later Byzantine writer Pachymeres states in his Ιστορία, the Greeks from Anatolia, “ἐπιμιξάντων καὶ Ῥωμαíων ἐξ ἀνατολῆς”, had occasionally joined the Turkish forces to raid the Byzantine territories in the hopes of acquiring material gain.[9] Besides Pachymeres, Doukas also refers to these Greek collaborators in his historical work, calling them “μιξοβαρβαροι” meaning half-Greek and half-Turks.[10] Although these authors shunned using the word, ἁμαρτωλός, several Turkish authors borrow this term from their Greek correspondents. An early Ottoman called Aşıkpaşazade reports that the founder of the Ottoman principality, Osman Gazi, had a “martolos” ( مارتلوس) by the name of Artun who acted as a spy in the Byzantine territories for the Ottomans.[11] After the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, as the land surveys indicate, the Ottomans had given landed estates to several Christian military units who were also called “martolos”.[12]

Greek Armatolos by Carl Haag (1820–1915).

         Lastly, after the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans also formed provincial forces in mainland Greece named “armatolos” which had a clear phonetic resemblance with the word “amartolos”. Although several scholars argued that this term had derived from a medieval loan word from Latin arma “weapon” via Greek αρματολός it is also within the boundaries of possibility that the development of that word might have originated from αμαρτωλός since the use of the latter preceded the former. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), these αρματολός units had actively participated in military encounters against the Ottoman forces as we are able to trace their role in Greek folk songs: “συλλογιστείτε το καλά, /ότι (: γιατί) σας καίμε τα χωριά· / γρήγορα τ’ αρματολίκι,/ οτ’ ερχόμαστε σαν λύκοι” “Think well, / that [why] we burn your villages; / quickly the armatoliki, / that we come like wolves”.[13]

        In sum, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious implications during Homeric times as it was used to convey the idea of “missing” (i.e. “missing the mark”). However, in the later periods, it started appearing in the Bible as the word began to signify the act of transgression against the word of God. In the late Byzantine period, however, a derivation of this word,  ἁμαρτωλός, was used for Christians who cooperated with the enemy forces since it was thought that they rebelled against God by aligning themselves with the non-Christian adversaries. 

[1] Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Search for word: ἁμαρτάνω.

[2]Danker, Frederick W. et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Exeter: Eerdmans, 1974) 44.

[3] Ibid. 43.

[4] Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed. James Morwood and John Taylor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

[5] Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Exeter: William Eerdmen Publishing, 1985. 49.

[6], Romans 2:12-16.

[7], Corinthians 8-12.

[8], Acts 25:8.

[9] George Pachymeres, Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, 5 vols (Paris, 1984–2000) 4:643.18.

[10] Doukas, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas, ed. Harry Magouilas. Detroit, 1975. 33.

[11] Aşıkpaşazade, Osmanoğulları’nın Tarihi ed. Kemal Yavuz and Yekta Saraç. İstanbul: MAS Matbaacılık, 2003. 324.

[12] Suret-i Defter-i Sancak-ı Tirhala, ed. Melek Delilbasi and Muzaffer Arikan, (Ankara: TTK, 2001) 296-334.

[13] Demetrius Petropoulos, ελληνικα δημοτικα τραγουδια Vol1 (Greek Popular Songs), (Athens: Βασικη βιβλιοθηκη, 1958): 3-65.