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mysticism, Margery Kempe, literature, spiritual significance


Margery Kempe, fifteenth-century pilgrim and female mystic, stirred up controversy in her own day and continues to do so in the present. This controversy, then and now, centers on both Margery's spiritual life and its social expression. While she was alive, her contemporaries disagreed over the validity of her mystical experience and the way that experience manifested itself; now this conflict continues in contemporary critical debates over the nature of her literary and spiritual significance. The Book of Margery Kempe has heretofore been analyzed as autobiography, mystical treatise, devotional manual, and feminist tract. Clarissa Atkinson, for instance, sees the book as the first English autobiography in the vernacular, a view echoed and modified by many literary critics. Literary historians who stress the religious context of her writing characterize it as either devotional manual or mystical treatise (often judging it to be failed or lacking in some way). Feminist analyses frequently focus on the way Margery uses religious traditions to validate the individualistic social role she creates for herself against patriarchal religious structures.