The best books about medieval pilgrimage and why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel with Margery Kempe

ffiona Perigrinor Author Of Reluctant Pilgrim: The Book of Margery Kempe's Maidservant
By ffiona Perigrinor

Who am I?

I’d already published a scholarly book about the household of a medieval widow, who was just a decade older than Margery Kempe and lived sixty miles away, so the time, place, and mindset seemed very familiar. As a Jungian Psychoanalyst I’m interested in how individuals find the central meaning in their lives. Clearly for Margery it was the search for God, although she doesn’t appear to have been a kindly soul. When I read that she twice quarreled with her maidservant, I realised the maidservant could tell her own tale. And so she did, and sometimes it seemed she was dictating it to me! Characters really do speak for themselves... 

I wrote...

Reluctant Pilgrim: The Book of Margery Kempe's Maidservant

By ffiona Perigrinor,

Book cover of Reluctant Pilgrim: The Book of Margery Kempe's Maidservant

What is my book about?

This is the tale of two fourteenth-century Norfolk women – Margery the mistress, the privileged daughter of the Mayor of Bishop’s Lynn and her maidservant, a nameless orphan, who travel together on a pilgrimage through England, then overseas to Jerusalem. But they’re bound by something more mysterious than service, which unravels as they face the perils of travel, heresy trials, and mutual betrayal.

Margery Kempe was a real person. She dictated her book to her priest in the 1440s and it’s available today in paperback. But it’s infuriating (as she was) because it says little about her family (she had fourteen children) or how she travelled. So I asked her maidservant to write her own book and discovered she had a very different tale to tell.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Margery Kempe: A Mixed Life

Why did I love this book?

I find it difficult to have any admiration for Margery Kempe since I don’t believe she was a mystic – she was frequently quarrelsome, meddling, vain and judgmental, and those who travelled on pilgrimage with her often wanted to get as far away from her as possible. Bale, however, has sympathy for this troubled soul and explores her life through the text of her book, focusing on the places she visited, her friends and enemies, objects she admired, and her intense feelings which were on a dramatic spectrum from despair to bliss. After reading A Mixed Life I still don’t think Margery is deserving of sainthood but, like her long-suffering maidservant, I appreciate her a little more and respect her tenacity and dedication to her religious quest.

By Anthony Bale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Margery Kempe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a new account of the late-fourteenth-century mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe. Kempe, who had 14 children, travelled all over Europe and recorded a series of unusual events and religious visions in her work The Book of Margery Kempe, which is often called the first autobiography in the English language. Anthony Bale charts her life, and tells her story through the places, relationships, objects and experiences that influenced her. Extensive quotation from Kempe's Book, and generous illustration, gives fascinating insight into the life of a medieval woman. Margery Kempe is situated within the religious controversies of her time, and…

Medieval Women

By Eileen Power,

Book cover of Medieval Women

Why did I love this book?

Eileen Power was a pioneer in Women’s History and this was the first book I read when I went back to university. It’s an inspiring collection of essays on medieval ideas of women, working women in town and country, education, and nunneries. If you’re planning to write a book about women in the Middle Ages, start your research here.

Power refers to many diverse contemporary texts such as The Goodman of Paris and works by Chaucer and Christine de Pisan, which enabled me (or, which will enable you) to portray authentic detail in my own book. The essay on nunneries, which I drew on for my novel, is a summary of her seminal work on medieval English nunneries. There are also forty-two well-chosen illustrations that complement the text.

By Eileen Power,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Medieval Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout her career as a medieval historian, Eileen Power was engaged on a book about women in the Middle Ages. She did not live to write the book but some of the material she collected found its way into her popular lectures on medieval women. These lectures were brought together and edited by M. M. Postan. They reveal the world in which women lived, were educated, worked and worshipped. Power gives a vivid account of the worlds of the lady, the peasant, the townswoman and the nun. The result is a historical yet intimate picture of a period gone by…

Book cover of The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England

Why did I love this book?

I love this book  Hanawalt’s research is intriguing – using manorial court rolls, coroners’ reports, and wills she reveals the lives of ordinary folk and opened the doors for me to peasant homes in the later Middle Ages. I thoroughly enjoyed her description of everyday life from childhood to old age, the household economy, blood ties, wealth, homesteads, and surrogate parents and children. I discovered that family concerns were not so very different then to ours today and was reminded that the past is not a foreign country where they did things differently. It’s both scholarly and readable, a book to dip into or relish from cover to cover, another essential for writing historical fiction about the Middle Ages.

By Barbara A. Hanawalt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ties That Bound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Barbara A. Hanawalt's richly detailed account offers an intimate view of everyday life in Medieval England that seems at once surprisingly familiar and yet at odds with what many experts have told us. She argues that the biological needs served by the family do not change and that the ways fourteenth- and fifteenth-century peasants coped with such problems as providing for the newborn and the aged, controlling premarital sex, and alleviating the harshness of their
material environment in many ways correspond with our twentieth-century solutions.Using a remarkable array of sources, including over 3,000 coroners' inquests into accidental
deaths, Hanawalt emphasizes…

Book cover of Pilgrimage in Medieval England

Why did I love this book?

If you want to know the reality of medieval pilgrimage, read this book. I learnt a lot from it and got a real feel for this group of people. Webb describes the multiple reasons for going on pilgrimage, as a penance, fulfilling a vow, looking for a cure or a blessing, or just having a good time. She introduces us to a wider variety of individuals than Chaucer’s famous pilgrims and describes the most important shrines in England, like Walsingham and the St Thomas shrine in Canterbury, as well as numerous small shrines with local cults where country folk went to worship in the hope of finding their lost keys or cattle. You might discover, as I did, there is still one near you!

By Diana Webb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pilgrimage in Medieval England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The men and women who gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" are only the most famous of the tens of thousands of English pilgrims, from kings to peasants, who set off to the shrines of saints and the sites of miracles in the middle ages. As they travelled along well-established routes in the hope of a cure or a blessing, to fulfil a vow or to see new places, the pilgrims left records that let us see medieval people and their concerns and beliefs from a unique and intimate angle. As well as the most…

Book cover of The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God

Why did I love this book?

There’re numerous books on medieval pilgrimage, and even though I don’t agree with all of Sumption’s conclusions, I’m recommending this for its readability and fascinating anecdotes and quotations, drawn from contemporary accounts, which were invaluable for my research. It’s informative about both the devout and more worldly travelers, kings, queens, clerics and nobles, and the common people of the day.

One major drawback is that his focus is largely on France and Rome, while Jerusalem, Santiago, and the German pilgrimage sites don’t get the attention they deserve. But this just demonstrates how popular pilgrimage was throughout the Middle Ages and how busy the highways and byways were with crowds of pilgrims. I learnt that people were much more mobile at this time than I had thought.

By Jonathan Sumption,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age of Pilgrimage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brings alive the history of pilgrimage in Europe

We are apt to forget how much people traveled in the Middle Ages. Not only merchants, friars, soldiers and official messengers, but crowds of pilgrims were a familiar sight on the roads of Western Europe. In this engaging work of history, Jonathan Sumption brings alive the traditions of pilgrimage prevalent in Europe from the beginning of Christianity to the end of the fifteenth century. Vividly describing such major destinations as Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury, he examines both major figures--popes, kings, queens, scholars, villains--and the common people of their day.…

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