Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Margery Kempe: Medieval visions, delusions, and hallucinations

Margery Kempe (c. 1393 – after 1438) was an English Christian mystic who dictated autobiographic notes to a scribe. Married when twenty years old, she had a postpartum psychotic episode after the birth of her first child and went through at least fourteen subsequent pregnancies. Psychotic symptoms, delusions, and hallucinations continued all her life. She had visions of Christ but was worried they were sent by devils. After one such vision, she decided to devote her life to God and do good deeds. She went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to Prussia, to Santiago de Compostela, also to Rome where she gave away all her money to the poor and survived by begging.

She continued all along to have visions and fits of uncontrollable weeping. She described terrifying visions of fire-breathing demons who goaded her to take her own life. She once cut her wrists, then had to be restrained and bound to her bed. Walking about the world dressed in white and weeping incessantly, she was sometimes treated as a lunatic, sometimes arrested as a heretic to be burned at the stake. Her example illustrates the difficulties in distinguishing some symptoms of mental illness from genuine spiritual experience, especially when read some 600 years later.


Excerpt from The Book of Margery Kempe describing her visit to Norwich to see “Dame Jelyan” (now known as Julian of Norwich). British Library. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.



Fall 2022  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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