After the birth of her first child, Margery fell ill and was overcome with fear for her life. After a failed confession that resulted in a bout of self-described "madness," Margery Kempe claimed to have had a vision, calling her to put aside the "vanities" of this world. Having railed against her family and friends for many weeks, Kempe says that Jesus appeared in a vision at her bedside, asking her: "Daughter, why have you forsaken Me, when I never forsook you?"
From then on, Margery undertook two failed domestic home-based businesses, a brewery and a grain mill, not uncommon enterprises for medieval women. Though she tried to be more devout after her vision, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Turning away, at length, from what she interpreted as the effect of worldly pride, Kempe devoted herself completely to the spiritual calling which her earlier vision suggested. In order to live committed to God, Margery and her husband agreed to live a celibate life together.
She then began making pilgrimages. In her Book Kempe herself describes a visit she made to St. Julian's Church in Norwich, c. 1410: "Then she [i.e., Margery] was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city, named Dame Jelyan...for the anchoress was expert in such things and good counsel could give..." Margery, in fact, describes how she and Julian discussed Margery's visions as to their orthodoxy, deciding that because they led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit. Kempe also journeyed to other various holy sites: to Rome, where she stayed at the Venerable English College in 1416; Jerusalem; Santiago de Compostella; and a journey in the 1430's to Norway and the Holy Roman Empire, where she visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack.
The stories surrounding her travels are what eventually comprised much of her Book, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her Book is on the mystical conversations she shared with Jesus for more than forty years, though another key focus was also on her persecution by civil and religious leaders.
She describes having mystical experiences which were particularly spectacular, and there is wide divergence of opinion regarding whether or not she was a true mystic. Some feel that she was "a woman whose intelligence was mediocre but whose strong will surrendered...to her Divine Lord...who sought by her words and example to spread the Kingdom of Christ.." (E. I. Watkin, Poets and Mystics) Others judge her to be a "hysterical young woman [who] calls herself a poor creature...I am afraid she was. She is obviously proud of the 'boisterous' roarings and sobbings which made her a nuisance to her neighbours. She never quite rings true..." (W. R. Inge, Mysticism in Religion)
Though Margery is often depicted as an "oddity" or even a "madwoman," recent scholarship suggests that she wasn't, perhaps, as odd as she appears. Her Book is actualy a carefully-constructed spiritual and social commentary. One scholar notes that at some time in the 1420s, a man took it upon himself to record the life of this extraordinary Norfolk woman. Although he died before finishing the task, it was continued by another scribe, then published as The Book of Margery Kempe. About the time Margery began dictating her book, John, her husband, had a fatal fall and Margery returned to Lynn to take care of him. Both he and her son died soon after.
Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book. It's probably the best insight we have about a middle-class female's experience in the Middle Ages. There's no doubt that Margery Kempe is unique and unusual among the more traditional holy women and men of her age. Kempe's Book is also significant as a record of the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual career, Kempe's adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church was challenged by both church and civil authorities. Kempe was even tried several times for such "illegal" acts as allegedly teaching and preaching publicly on Scripture and faith, and wearing white clothes, interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman. Nevertheless, she stood her ground and proved her orthodoxy.
The Book of Margery Kempe is known to have been completed in 1438. That same year, a "Margeria" Kempe, possibly Margery, is recorded as having been admitted to the Trinity Guild of Lynn. The last record of her is in the city of Lynn in 1438, and it is not positively known when or where she died.