Margery Kempe: The patron saint of gossip victims

The gossip industry is getting so big, it could be an S&P 500 company.

Gossip drives TV ratings: Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, TMZ, The Insider, Extra, E! News, The Real Housewives series, to name some. Television programs increasingly are built on gossip—shows that pull apart the personal failings, appearances, character flaws, and humiliating public missteps of the famous and not-so famous.

The New York Times reported several years ago gossip websites were pulling in a combined $3 billion, a number that not only has likely grown since, but is bigger than the current market cap of the Times itself, even companies like JCPenney.


Twitter squalls routinely break out over who is right and who is wrong in their take on the latest failings of the famous, whose sometimes complex personal lives and unhealthy reactions to constant media scrutiny make headlines out of molehills. Where would our self-esteem be if we couldn’t Tweet about the latest misadventures of Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton?

If we examine why we love gossip so much, we’d have to admit that envy plays a part, a grim joy in helping to tip people off their pedestals. I also think gossip—which is as intellectually satisfying as eating cheese doodles--is a perversion of something important, a sense of community in an alienating, computerized world. When instead, we really should be spending energy on caring about our neighbors—in order (ideally) to help them out, or protect the innocent.

Across America, the communal instinct drives people to act as good Samaritans. But too often small-town America has to be subjected to a virtual lynch mob once they turn on their TV or take to the Internet.

I know a bit about this, because I just finished writing a book about a medieval woman who I strongly believe the Catholic Church should recognize as the Patron Saint of gossip victims, "Skirting Heresy: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe" (Franciscan Media, June 2014).

Margery Kempe was an English woman who was a near contemporary of St. Joan of Arc—a wife, businesswoman, and mother of 14 children, who started having unusual experiences in the early 1400s. Religious visions appeared to her, of Jesus and of the saints.

Like Joan of Arc, she acted on her visions -- telling friends and family, weeping uncontrollably in church, and reprimanding neighbors when she saw them committing what her visions told her were sins. She even dressed up as a nun and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome -- leaving her husband to run the business and care for their 14 children.

So you can see why people might have been tempted to trash-talk Margery Kempe. But in her day, there was much more to lose than her reputation or friendships: Proto-Protestant groups had sprung up all across England, challenging the vast power and wealth of the Church. Mighty nobles took sides both for and against these reformers, while clerics roamed the countryside hunting for heretics to burn.

So when word spread of Margery’s unconventional approach to her faith and exotic behavior, she was arrested by the same group of men who later seized Joan of Arc, and was charged with heresy. The penalty wasn’t just death—it was a burning at the stake (the very same fate for St. Joan; the 600th anniversary of her execution is coming up.) It was only by a hair’s breadth that Margery escaped.

Margery dictated details about her life and times (she couldn’t read or write), and the result, "The Book of Margery Kempe," became the first autobiography ever written in English. Her book was lost for centuries, the only surviving copy didn’t turn up until 1934. The Anglican Church would later name Margery a saint.

So I sat down to read it—at least a half dozen times, even backwards. The gripping humanity of her story is simply amazing.

I was fascinated by this brave, unusual woman and the price she paid for standing out from her neighbors and speaking truth to power. In "Skirting Heresy: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe," I probe her innermost feelings, I show, via fictionalized characters and dialogue, how her neighbors, townspeople and the powerful of the Catholic Church dealt with Margery, in often riotously funny fights. Read Margery Kempe’s memoirs backwards, and you’ll see hilarious scenes right out of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I also show how Margery found the courage to face down hostile crowds, predatory clerics, and intolerant English warlords—and still be true to the intimate religious experiences which she was convinced were gifts from God.

Anyone who has ever refused to conform, and paid the price, will find in Margery a kindred spirit, maybe even a patron saint.