Traveling Companion from Hell

Group tours are only as enjoyable as the people who join you on the tour. In 1413, an English tour group suffered from one of the most obnoxious, tactless twits to ever join a package tour.  Her name was Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe was born around 1373 in present-day King’s Lynn, England into a prosperous merchant family.  Her father was the mayor of the city.  At an early age, Margery committed a sin that left her worrying about her chances of getting into heaven. 

She never revealed her sin, but she began going on pilgrimages seeking salvation. She visited Canterbury and many other holy sites in England.  Eventually, in 1413 when she was about 40 years old, she decided to go on the ultimate Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  

Margery joined a group of English pilgrims since it wasn’t safe to travel alone.  By the time the group reached the south coast of England, Margery had worn out her welcome.  She had fits of religious ecstasy during which she wept hysterically. She talked incessantly about her vivid dreams which she believed were guidance from God.  None of her fellow travelers were as deeply religious and they quickly got tired of her shtick.

Worse, Margery tactlessly pointed out all their faults.  At a time, when everyone ate meat and drank beer, she urged her fellow travelers to become water-sipping vegetarians like her.  Resentment at her hectoring reached fever pitch aboard the ship to France. During a storm several travelers suggested pitching Margery overboard believing her antics had offended God, but the storm passed and cooler heads prevailed.

Margery traveled across France with her tour group, still oblivious to her own obnoxiousness. Finally, as they faced the Alps, her fellow travelers couldn’t take it anymore. They booted her out of the group, leaving her alone as they crossed the Alps.  

Margery may have been clueless about her own faults, but she had an unsinkable spirit. She hired a guide to help her cross the Alps. When her old tour group reached Italy, who was waiting to greet them? Margery! 

It’s a sign from God, the group decided and they invited her to rejoin them. They traveled across Italy and boarded another ship taking them to the Holy Lands.  During this leg of the journey, they had ample opportunity to regret letting Margery back into the group, but they were now stuck with her.

In the Holy Lands, Christian pilgrims were required to stay with their tour group for their own safety from bandits and for crowd control due to the number of pilgrims. (The closest modern equivalent is the annual Haj when millions of Muslims travel to Mecca.)

In Jerusalem, she added a couple of new tricks to her repertoire.  At the Holy Sepulcher, she writhed on the floor in religious ecstasy while shrieking and babbling incoherently, much like a modern day Pentecostal speaking in tongues.  Other pilgrims and Saracens watched her antics in amused contempt or shock.  Her behavior was so embarrassing her tour group refused to let her eat at the same table with them at their hotel.  Even the priest accompanying their group openly speculated that Margery was possessed by the devil.

When the group returned to Italy, they dumped Margery on the dock with a thud and abandoned her.  But Margery bounced back again. She found sympathetic souls who allowed her to join them, at least until they got tired of her.  She eventually made it back to England about two years after she set out for Jerusalem.

Margery went on several more pilgrimages.  Her unshakeable faith in God supported her through the hard times, many brought on by her own tactless behavior.  In her final years, she decided to tell her life’s story.  Margery was illiterate, but that didn’t worry her.  She hired a ghost writer to whom she dictated her story. 

Margery Kempe’s life was filled with entertaining adventures, many of which are hilarious because she remained clueless about her offensiveness.  For more of her adventures, see Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life & Times of Margery Kempe, by Louise Collis (1964).  

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