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.

The books I picked & why

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Margery Kempe: A Mixed Life

By Anthony Bale,

Book cover of Margery Kempe: A Mixed Life

Why 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.

Medieval Women

By Eileen Power,

Book cover of Medieval Women

Why 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.

The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England

By Barbara A. Hanawalt,

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

Why 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.

Pilgrimage in Medieval England

By Diana Webb,

Book cover of Pilgrimage in Medieval England

Why 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!

The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God

By Jonathan Sumption,

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

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages, and England?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages, and England.

The Middle Ages Explore 216 books about the Middle Ages
Christian Pilgrimages Explore 6 books about Christian pilgrimages
England Explore 647 books about England

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