How To Be a Medieval Woman by Margery Kempe, org. published in the 1430s, Little Black Classic, Penguin.
I love Penguin’s Little Black Classics. They’re pretty, they’re neat, they’re easy to bring with you everywhere. They recently released a new set of titles, about 20 I think? These new LBCs are longer, about 100+ pages compared to the 50 of the original bunch.
I only have one of the new set so far and it’s this one, How To Be a Medieval Woman. I got it because it sounded like fun. And because I thought it was something slightly different than it was. The back says this is a book of “Advice on marriage, foreign travel and much more“. That is not the case, which is unfortunate, because that’s the whole reason I thought it would be fun. You know, a woman writing about her experiences being a woman during a time where women were repressed like hell? I thought it was gonna be advice on how to avoid robbers, thieves, men with unsavory intentions, and keeping your virtue intact while still seeing the world! Amazing. I totally expected this to be Margery Kempe giving out rebellious and liberating advice on how to travel, marry and generally be a woman during a time where that was certainly not easy. I understand now I may have projected some things onto this book, that the description didn’t quite merit. Still, it certainly doesn’t describe what the book actually is about either.
It turns out this chronicles Kempe’s religious experiences and travels, with not even the shadow of advice. It’s pretty tedious, honestly. This is perhaps mostly due to the fact that I have absolutely zero interest in the subject of people with religious visions or Margery crying uncontrollably, constantly, because she loves God and Jesus speaks to her. I have nothing against religion, and I liked the comfort religion gave her, but this still wasn’t a fun read. Although, the whole idea of that kind of religious dedication and experience is foreign to me, so I almost hoped that would be enough to keep me interested, but I simply couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm. If only it hadn’t been so tediously written to top it off. I ended up struggling through it.
There are fun moments in it, though. Like how she’s constantly abandoned by her fellow pilgrims, because she cries all the time, how 90% of everyone she meets thinks she’s actually seeing visions of the devil and so on. But they’re mostly fun thinking about later, when you look at it away from the dry, redundant way it’s told. I think some of the blame for it being so tiresomely written is that, that’s simply how you wrote things back then, form and style didn’t factor in.
I’m not blind to the historical significance of this work, however. It is considered one of the first autobiographies, and written by a woman even! It’s an important document, not just about the time, but the female, religious experience etc. It’s just, as I’ve said, I have no interest in it. Really none at all. Of course this is merely an excerpt from the actual book, so maybe that would’ve been a more giving experience, but not one I’m likely to have now. This was enough Margery Kempe for me.
My expectations simply weren’t met, they were somewhat crushed, in fact, which is not entirely the fault of Margery Kempe, rather the fault of Penguin for deceiving me into thinking this would be something it wasn’t. If they’d been more clear in their description I never would’ve picked this up and none of this would’ve happened. But I guess we’re all made stronger by our less agreeable reading experiences. And at least now I know who Margery Kempe is, which I’m thankful for.
This is the first Little Black Classic I haven’t liked, but I’m still a fan of the concept. Onward and upward towards different, better reading experiences.