Fourteen years before Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy and for "violating divine law" by dressing as a man, another woman was forced to defend herself to a roomful of men. In 1417, Margery Kempe faced a gallery of brocaded clerics and pasty politicians at her heresy trial, but unlike Joan, she was not martyred, which may be one reason I hadn't heard of her until I picked up Mary Sharratt's stunning novel "Revelations."
In a note at the end of the novel, Sharratt explains another reason maybe less known: Kempe's autobiography (dictated in 1436 and considered the first autobiography in the English language) was lost to history until 1934, when a group of young people playing pingpong at an old Catholic estate found the book while searching for a ball.
Since translated and published, "The Book of Margery Kempe" is rambling and pious, but still, according to Sharratt, "a veritable treasure trove for medievalists that explodes our every stereotype of medieval women."
With this early autobiography as a springboard, Sharratt — a former Minnesotan and the author of a number of novels about notable and forgotten women in ancient history — dives into a fascinating and important story.
Margery Kempe was born to a prosperous family in Bishop's Lynn, England, in 1373. Intelligent and inquisitive, she questioned everything. Contemplative by nature, she visited holy anchorites who would read to her from sacred texts. But if women were inclined to scholarship back then, their only option was cloistered life, which didn't appeal to the sensuous Kempe, so she chose the only other respectable route — marriage and family.
Sharratt portrays this stage of Kempe's life with an unrest that Kempe herself must have felt. She bears 14 children, endures postpartum depression, marital rape, poverty and fatigue, but also — despite her local priest's dark theology of demons and damnation — moments of intense love for and from God.
Compelled by this loving vision of God and commissioned by Julian of Norwich to spread that female mystic's "Revelations of Divine Love" to the world, Kempe leaves her family and goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and across Europe with Julian's manuscript hidden in her staff.
Against a backdrop of heresies and threats to the crown, Kempe experiences religious ecstasies that draw attention. She is a woman traveling alone. She wears white. She is independent, wails loudly, and preaches about love. For these crimes she suffers insult, attempted rape, slander and suspicion. Worst of all, she is pilloried by her own Church.
"I understood why these men feared and hated me," she realizes while at trial. "If I could live in union with my Beloved and seek his grace and goodness in my heart, what need had I for any of them?"
It can't be easy to depict religious ecstasies without their seeming nutty, but Sharratt — by turns lofty and gritty in her prose — pulls it off, letting us choose for ourselves whether Margery Kempe was the real deal. Knowing what we know now about the human psyche, curated history and Church politics, I'm inclined to think — thanks to Sharratt's thorough research and compelling narrative — that she was.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities writer and reviewer.
By: Mary Sharratt.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 300 pages, $26.
Event: 1 p.m. April 27, Magers & Quinn, Facebook Live.