picture of the Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe's book
is still in print today

Margery Kempe (born c. 1373) was an Englishwoman who wrote what is often considered the first English-language autobiography. In a few places in her book, she describes what appear to be obsessive thoughts. Because she was illiterate, she had to dictate the book to a clergyman, who wrote down her narrative in the third-person voice.

...Our Lord withdrew from her [i.e., Margery Kempe] all good thoughts and all good remembrance of holy speeches and dalliance, and the high contemplation which she had been used to before, and suffered her to have as many evil thoughts as she before had good thoughts. And this vexation endured for twelve days . . . so now she had as many hours of foul thoughts and foul memories of lechery and all uncleanness, as though she had been common to all manner of people. . . . so had she now horrible sights and abominable, for aught she could do, of beholding men's members, and such other abominations. She saw, as she thought verily, diverse men of religion, priests and many others, both heathen and Christian, coming before her sight, so that she might not eschew them or put them out of her sight, showing their bare members unto her. . . . she thought these horrible sights and cursed memories were delectable to her, against her will. Wherever she went, or whatever she did, these cursed memories remained with her. When she should see the Sacrament, make her prayers, or do any other good deed, ever such cursedness was put into her mind. She was shriven, and did all that she might, but she found no release, until she was near at despair. It cannot be written what pain she felt, and what sorrow she was in....

From W. Butler-Bowdon, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, a modern version (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936) (originally 1436), 352-3; see also 34-5, 217-9; also excerpted in Dale Peterson, ed., A Mad People's History of Madness (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 3-18.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Margery Kempe, born around 1373, was the daughter of the town mayor. She got married around the age of 20 and had fourteen children. At the age of about 40, she left England to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Rome. She also visited many other places in Europe during a four or five-year period of intensive traveling, recorded in her Book of Margery Kempe.


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