One of the most striking features of the autobiography of Margery Kempe is the outward manifestation of piety demonstrated most memorably through her continuous, unrestrained weeping. During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, mysticism and other more direct methods of communing with God arose, and Margery’s distinct manner of faithfulness reflects the shifting attitudes of this period. Her feelings toward this external expression of her faith vary throughout The Book from outright resistance to qualified approval to an actual desire that this weeping continue for the sake of Christ. Rather than serene, monkish piety, Margery’s was visceral and physical. Margery believed her tears were conferred upon her by God. Despite the fact that she regarded her weeping as a form of suffering, she acknowledged it as a gift because it reminded her of the continuous presence of God in her life. In the first mention of her weeping, Margery described the process as a form of “bodily penance” in which “our merciful Lord visited this creature with tears of contrition day by day.” She expressed her penitence through this weeping, and at times it is clear that this process was between her and God alone. Margery defended herself from charges that “she was a false hypocrite” who “wept when in company for advantage and profit” by allowing a priest to examine these convulsive acts. According to the priest, “she wept copiously” in the presence of no one “but himself and the clerk,” indicating that these paroxysms were not pretense but legitimate.
By her own account, Margery’s weeping began as a form of atonement for sin, for it occurred primarily “when she contemplated her own wickedness,” but it soon transformed into a multipurpose act directed not only at herself but also those around her. Her tears served a didactic purpose, reminding those who witnessed her own suffering of the suffering of Christ, who endured “hard strokes, bitter scourging and a shameful death at the last for me and all mankind, blessed may he be,” though she was adamant that her own suffering was “truly nothing” compared to what he suffered. Similarly, Christ informed her in one of her visions that her pious weeping reiterated the sorrow of the Virgin, so Christ gave her “great cries and roarings, to make people afraid of the grace I put into you, in token that I wish that my mother’s sorrow be known through you, so that men and women might have more compassion of her sorrow that she suffered for me.” By weeping both alone and in the presence of others, Margery’s hysterics developed a multiplicity of meanings, symbolizing both her personal communion with God and her desire to share this. However, while this morally instructive purpose existed, Margery was clearly uneasy with the boisterous and eruptive nature of her emotional outpourings. In one moment of despair, God informed her that “if you do not wish to suffer any more, I shall take it [her weeping] away from you,” to which she replied, “No, good lord, let me be at your will, and make me mighty and strong to suffer all that you ever wish me to suffer, and grant me meekness and patience as well.”
Eventually, Margery not only accepted her weeping as God’s will, she embraced it as a form of his mercy and was “compelled to believe steadfastly, without any doubting, that it was God who spoke in her, and would be magnified in her for his own goodness and her profit, and the profit of many others.” By the end of her autobiography, she became almost dependent upon these tears, as she was dependent upon God, “for she was sometimes so barren of tears for a day or sometimes half a day, and had such great pain for the desire that she had of them, that she would have given all this world, if it had been hers, for a few tears, or have suffered very great bodily pain to have got them…” By equating her tears with the physical presence of God, Margery welcomed her odd form of piety by conceding “there was no savour nor sweetness except when she might weep.” Margery recognized that her weeping was difficult to comprehend for many who witnessed it, but in the concluding passages of her first book, she stated that “what she understood physically was to be understood spiritually” by others. For Margery, as well as for other mystics and religious lay people of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, piety was to be found in many different ways among diverse people and not merely in those individuals with the sanctioned piety of monasteries and convents.