Thursday, July 29, 2021

Revelations by Mary Sharratt illuminates the remarkable life of medieval English mystic Margery Kempe

“My story is not a straightforward one. Women’s stories never are.”

Margery Kempe, born in the small town of Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk circa 1373, was a woman who confounded and transformed her medieval world. Married to a much older man, she left her family life behind after bearing fourteen children, taking a vow of celibacy and choosing to pursue a spiritual path.

Following her first pregnancy, she had suffered a mental breakdown and was brought out of it after seeing a radiant vision of Christ which instilled her with a feeling of divine love. Later, as a middle-aged woman, after receiving support and understanding from the anchoress Julian of Norwich, Kempe took a pilgrimage route to the Holy Land and later to Santiago de Compostela. Toward the end of her life, she composed a book thought to be the first English-language autobiography.

Mary Sharratt’s Revelations brings us acutely into the interior life and outward experiences of Margery Kempe, who narrates her story in the first person. It’s a wonderful evocation of an extraordinary figure and the medieval mindset in general. The author is an eloquent chronicler of historical women’s thorny paths to self-fulfillment, and Margery faces significant obstacles on her journey, as a sole female disrupting the gender status quo, and traveling through a world designed for men.

“A questing soul with a hungry mind,” Margery challenges sumptuary laws by dressing in white, as her visions direct her to, and narrowly avoids convictions of heresy at a time when Lollards – followers of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English – are burned at the stake. On her wanderings throughout Europe, Margery sees many strange and wondrous sights (the landscapes are beautifully described), comes into the company of other travelers, and must quickly decide how much she can trust them. Trouble accompanies her everywhere. She remains a sympathetic figure, and at the same time, it’s clear how some of her actions and beliefs are incomprehensible to those around her.

Revelations is an illuminating read for anyone interested in stepping back into a long-ago time and envisioning its main character’s life and accomplishments. Though both are separate stories, it makes for a nice pairing with the author’s earlier novel Illuminations, about Hildegard of Bingen. 

was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this year (I read it from a NetGalley copy).


  1. I found this story so fantastic. She was a woman who was so brave, outstandingly so to go against all accepted norms of the time.

  2. If I had 14 kids I would take a vow of celibacy too.