After bearing fourteen children and suffering under the constraints of being a middle class woman in the High Middle Ages, Margery Kempe has had enough. She’s going to take a vow of chastity and make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see Jerusalem.
Always pious, she’s long dreamed of making a pilgrimage, fantasizing for hours while memorizing her father’s gilded pilgrimage map. But as a wife, she’d have to have a husband accompany her. And her husband will not. Worse, he continues to press his affections on her and she fears for her safety… and sanity. Because like many women, she suffers from post-partum depression, but for Margery in one of these states she saw a vision of Jesus which filled her soul and made her even more determined to travel to Jerusalem.
This is a story about her life, her friendship with Dame Julian of Norwich (an anchoress and well-regarded mystic), and her travels as a pilgrim in medieval Europe at the dawn of the Reformation.
First off, I need to make it clear that this book is not non-fiction. It is a fictionalized account of Margery Kempe’s life in much the same vein as Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and Jean Plaidy’s novels. Which means it does take liberties with some of the facts and it has several imaginings that have little basis in fact. The author acknowledges this and even points out the inaccuracies in a postscript… which is honestly wonderful and I wish more authors did this. It reminded me in many ways of Anya Seton’s “Katherine” and Judith Merkle Riley’s “A Vision of LIght” so if you like that kind of book – like I do – then this is a book for you.
Margery Kempe is a fascinating woman. She is credited as writing the first autobiography in English… a fact which cannot be overlooked. She completed several pilgrimages as a woman alone and even had to stand trial not once but twice for heresy. This was a Europe which was systematically crushing out the Lollards and anything or anyone who was considered “different” or who challenged the status quo... and Margery certainly did that.
The book does acknowledge that people are a product of their age. There’s some definite sexism, misogyny, classism, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim sentiments displayed by characters in this book. It’s period appropriate, unfortunately. But it is there and it can be hard to read. In particular the sexism faced by Margery and other women is a prominent theme in this book.
The author has an engaging writing style that is approachable for most. Margery’s voice is clear and distinct. She’s a fun character as are the people surrounding her. In particular I liked Isa, Margery’s Muslim guide through the Holy Land, and Dame Julian herself. Both were real people, and interestingly both featured prominently in her actual autobiography.
In all I enjoyed this book. It’s perfect for fans of history who want a little meat in their story, but also want it to be light and refreshing.
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I received an ARC of this book Via NetGalley