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Page from The Book of Margery Kempe - History
There are a variety of reasons why I was attracted to Margery Kempe, both the historical figure and the character in her Book. They are, of course, not necessarily the same woman.
In the late 90s, while teaching Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, I started developing CD-ROMs for my students. I had noticed that the students, though no less intelligent, were thinking differently, less rhetorically and more filmically, if you will. Conversations floundered when we started to discuss irony and metaphor in the primary works of literature, and students were bored to tears by New Critical or New Historical approaches to the texts. But when I asked the students how they would cast the pieces, how they would film them, they came alive with suggestions. So, with the help of many kind people, I developed a CD-ROM on Homer’s Odyssey, more as a mnemonic aid than anything else. This resulted in a publishing contract to create a two-CD set on the History of the Humanities.
In the course of putting together those CDs, I hired numerous scholars to write small scripts on people, texts, art, or music of note. One of those scholars was Edward Nolan, who taught Medieval Literature at CU Boulder. Ed was a bit of a Rabelasian character (or so I always fancied), and deeply passionate about his subject. He wrote a small script on Margery Kempe (whom I had never heard of). Intrigued, I set off to read The Book of Margery Kempe and was mesmerized by Margery’s voice, or what was purported to be her voice, as she dictated her Book to not one but two different (male) scribes.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have met and been influenced by numerous strong women. They have taught me about the mystery tradition, yoga, meditation, tarot, herbs, the earth, and, of course, love (never can get too much of that one!). Margery seemed to me be one of those women: a bit headstrong and, yes, outspoken, but, ultimately, a figure worthy of our admiration.
In writing the work, I took a page from my students, and thought of it as a film–and indeed, wrote the piece as a script first. One of my favorite movies is Breaking the Waves. In that movie Emily Watson gave one of the strongest acting performances I have ever seen, and I have always imagined her as Margery Kempe. Another influence has been Morvern Callar, starring Samantha Morton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Emily. I thought she would be a perfect Janie. Since that time, I have also considered Carey Mulligan, star of An Education, as Janie. She has a wistful, almost wounded, look that I associate with Janie.
There are numerous rich areas for exploration in the story of Margery and Janie: imitation, the authentic life, fasting, mortification, the mediation of women’s spirituality by men, and, of course, the journey, which remains the most important element, at least for me. For you see, at some point I believe we all need to walk to the sea. Perhaps more than once…
Thinking Sex, Teaching Violence, and The Book of Margery Kempe
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Margery Kempe. In fact, I’ve thought about little else the last few months, since her Book was the focus of my most recent chapter in a dissertation that examines women’s desire in Medieval English texts – and The Book of Margery Kempe has a lot to say on the subject. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how Margery thinks about sex and why she thinks about sex the way she does.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about teaching – lately, about teaching The Book of Margery Kempe. I love teaching, and I love thinking about literature courses I’d love to teach. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of women, I look forward to teaching a course devoted to medieval women one day. The reading list would obviously include works written by women during the Middle Ages, and we have few examples, especially in English. I will be teaching The Book of Margery Kempe, and when I do, I want to do it well, so I was wary of the weariness I’ve experienced while reading it.
The opening page of the manuscript containing The Book of Margery Kempe where the work is described as “a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches” in the first line (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 1r).
Much like Margery, I have a confession to make: I have never been especially fond of her Book. But I have also never failed to recognize its value. As one of the only known Medieval English works written by a woman and often considered the first autobiography written in English, her Book is extremely precious, in part, because it provides us insight into a medieval woman’s life that is dictated in her own voice if not written by her own hand. It survives in a single manuscript, discovered in 1934 and dated to approximately 1440. When I had the opportunity to see the manuscript on display at the British Library, I revered the object behind the glass because I understand the worth of its words. When I re-read the narrative recently, I felt exhausted, often frustrated that so many pages remained until its end.
The Book is long it is neither chronological nor linear. Sometimes it seems repetitive to the point of redundancy. But it is salacious, tender, even occasionally funny. It is also profoundly sad.
Excerpt in which Margery describes how “she went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits” for the better part of a year following the birth of her first child, during which time she was tormented by visions of “devils” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 4r).
Best known for her spectacular physio-emotional displays that so often occurred in public and provoked concern, Margery Kempe has always been a controversial figure as a woman mystic. Her Book is, in many ways, a memoir that recounts her spiritual journey, tracing the origin of her mystical experiences to the birth of her first child at age twenty and the self-described madness that ensued. It is only when Christ appears to her, seated next to her on her bed, that Margery’s sanity returns. In many of her visions, Margery’s interactions with Christ exhibit sexual undertones indeed, some visions are overtly sexual. While erotic language and metaphors were not uncommon in medieval mystical writing, especially those involving women mystics, Margery’s visions are unusual in that they imply sexual activity with Christ himself.
A characteristic episode of Margery Kempe describing a visit to “the church yard of Saint Stephen” where “she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently the fire of love burnt in her heart” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 71v).
Margery describes herself as illiterate in her preface, but this does not mean that she was unlearned. It does, however, mean that she required a scribe. Her narrative was mediated by two male scribes, which complicates her status as an author, an already fraught term in the Middle Ages on par with autobiography, since the genre did not yet technically exist. She was a wife, the mother of fourteen children, and inordinately mobile, traveling for extended periods of time on pilgrimage to holy sites, which took her away from her husband and children. Unlike other religious women, Margery was neither virginal nor cloistered. She preferred to be on the move, and traveling was one of the ways she was able to avoid unwanted sex.
Bishop blessing an anchoress, a woman who lived a life of enclosure dedicated to prayer and contemplation (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 079: Pontifical, dated 1400-10).
Here, I pause to provide a content warning and meditate for a few moments on what that means. The discussion that follows involves sexual violence, a topic tied to gender and power, which are, in turn, topics pertinent to any discussion of literature. Because I am constantly working at the intersections of gender, sex, and violence, I think a lot about how to prepare my students to successfully navigate discussions of sexual violence, knowing very well that it may be personally relevant for them. After all, sexual assault is rampant in the United States, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five women experiences sexual assault while in college, and they are most vulnerable during their first year. While men experience sexual violence at a significantly lower rate than women, those who do are likely to have those experiences prior to or during college. Sexual violence remains an omnipresent part of our cultural conversation, even when we’re not talking about it explicitly and we should be.
A content warning is a standard feature of my syllabus. I believe that my students should be aware that they are likely to encounter sexual violence in our reading. It does not encourage them to opt out of reading assignments or evade challenging discussions instead, the contextualization enables them to wrestle meaningfully with the material in the way that best fits their needs and fulfills our learning goals. If they are prepared for the content, they may be able to avoid unnecessary triggering, a term that gets tossed around far too frequently by folks who are far too flippant about rape culture and has been distorted through stigmatization. A “trigger” warning suggests an inevitable, uncontrollable reaction, whereas a “content” warning cues students to prepare accordingly. Semantics aside, we need to be proactive when teaching The Book of Margery Kempe.
Following the spiritual revelation that sparks her mysticism, Margery renounces sexual activity. She commits herself to chastity and begs her husband to live chastely with her – that is, to allow her to abstain from sex, to not force her to have sex with him. He refuses. For years, Margery endures marital rape.
I realized recently that my ability to properly empathize with her situation had been impaired by my own biases about the narrative’s style.
I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which unravels the relationship between speech and gendered violence. There is a point at which Solnit refers to the 1940s and 1950s, which I always think of as the decades from which Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique emerged and exposed the tragic irony of America’s failure to understand how women could possibly be so miserable as housewives when they couldn’t get a credit card without a husband and couldn’t get birth control, period. While contraception was legalized in 1965, women could be legally raped by their husbands in the United States until 1993.
Publicity Director of Planned Parenthood Marcia Goldstein with signage prepared for display on New York buses in 1967 (photo by H. William Tetlow, Getty Images).
Solnit simply refers to the dates for the purposes of prefacing an anecdote about a man she knew who, during that time, “took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision.” She writes, “Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.” Margery immediately came to mind.
During the medieval period and well beyond, women ceased to occupy a separate existence from their husbands when they married. A wife did not retain a will of her own her will was legally subsumed by her husband’s. On this subject, I am well versed. But for some reason, Solnit’s exemplar resonated with me more acutely than Margery’s experience previously had. Certainly, the rather arduous experience of reading her Book had engendered more impatience than sympathy, but I had failed to really feel the extent of her suffering, and for that I felt deeply guilty.
I returned to the passage where Margery describes her sexual loathing and her subjection to repeated rape:
“And aftyr this tyme sche had nevyr desyr to komown fleschly wyth hyre husbonde, for the dette of matrimony was so abhominabyl to hir that sche had levar, hir thowt, etyn or drynkyn the wose, the mukke in the chanel, than to consentyn to any fleschly comownyng saf only for obedyens. And so sche seyd to hir husbond, ‘I may not deny yow my body, but the lofe of myn hert and myn affeccyon is drawyn fro alle erdly creaturys and sett only in God.’ He wold have hys wylle, and sche obeyd wyth greet wepyng and sorwyng for that sche mygth not levyn chast.”
“And after this time, she never had the desire to have sex with her husband, for the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any fleshly commoning, except in obedience. And so she said to her husband, ‘I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is drawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.’ He would have his will, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing because she could not live chastely.”
I haven’t stopped thinking about those particular tears. Or my misgivings about her memoir.
Carving of a medieval woman on the end of a pew in King’s Lynn Minster, formerly known as St. Margaret’s Church, the parish church of Margery Kempe (photo courtesy of Laura Kalas, author of Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation, and the Life-Course , published by D. S. Brewer, 2000).
With more than 500 years between us, it can be challenging at times to make tangible how extraordinarily different and difficult medieval women’s lives must have been – and yet, sexual violence remains so prominent a presence in our daily lives that content warnings appear in my syllabi.
I see Margery Kempe so much more clearly now, the medieval woman writer who is a singular survivor just like her Book. And I want my students to be prepared to see her as I do: individual and immortal.
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame
 While it is obviously standard practice to refer to an individual by their surname, this practice also presumes that one’s surname represents the individual to whom it refers. Perhaps less obvious are the problems with identifying medieval women by their surnames when those very names are indicative of the subsuming of their identities by their husbands in conjunction with coverture, the legal doctrine that removed a woman’s rights and separate existence in marriage. Margery Kempe’s surname, for all intents and purposes, is tied to her erasure as a woman. I have chosen to refer to her as Margery to center her as an individual and retroactively counteract the masculine authority that governed her existence.
 Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 59-60.
 The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1996), 26.
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- Margery Kempe - The narrator of the Book, which is Kempe's autobiography. Margery begins her story when she is a young wife suffering a post-partum breakdown. She then tells of her first mystical visions of Jesus and the ways her life changed afterward. Margery has an eventful life, full of travel, controversy, and confrontation. She travels across England, as well as to Jerusalem, Rome, Spain, and Germany—extraordinary for a middle-class woman of her time. Everywhere she goes, her ostentatious, highly emotional religiosity attracts attention, and her claims of receiving direct visions of Jesus arouse suspicions of heresy. Her most important experiences, however, are all spiritual, and her narrative reflects Margery's intense inward focus and her mystical raptures.
- John Kempe - Margery's husband. John is confused by Margery's turn away from married life and toward religious devotion, and he shows both frustration and a great deal of patience with his rather demanding wife. It takes Margery several years (and many children) before she can convince John that the two of them should live together chastely, devoting themselves to God. Eventually, Margery succeeds, and they take a vow of chastity. For many years afterward, Margery and her husband live apart, and her great travels are solo journeys. Margery returns to her husband in his old age, however, after he is injured in a fall. She speaks of John in his decrepit state sadly and tenderly, and she nurses him until his death.
- Margery's Son - The only one of Margery's children to emerge as a full-fledged character. Margery's son is described as “a tall young man” who works as a merchant in Germany. He is at first rather loose-living, and his mother warns him often of the dangers of lust and “lechery.” Margery's worry causes friction between them, but when the son becomes covered in sores and pustules, apparently due to a venereal complaint, he decides to mend his ways. Margery's son eventually reforms, makes a trip to Rome, and settles down with a German woman. After the birth of their first child, the couple comes to England to visit Margery, but the son becomes sick and dies soon after.
- Margery's Daughter-in-Law - The German woman whom Margery's son marries. Margery's daughter-in-law stays with Margery for several months after the death of her husband. As the daughter-in-law is preparing to return home, Margery suddenly decides to accompany her back to Germany. Margery's daughter-in-law seems reluctant and is rather inhospitable to Margery when they are in Germany.
- Alan of Lynn (“Master Aleyn”) - One of Margery's spiritual advisors and friends. Master Aleyn is a Carmelite Friar and an expert in mystical writings and theology. He befriends Margery soon after her mystical experiences begin and defends her when her unusual behavior begins to draw hostile notice. Margery learns much of the writings of such English mystics as Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle, as well as female precursors such as St. Bridget, thanks to Master Aleyn. Much later, Master Aleyn's association with Margery gets him in trouble with his superiors in the church, and the two are forbidden to meet for a time. Before Master Aleyn's death, however, the pair have a joyful reunion.
- Archbishop of Canterbury (“Arundel”) - The most important and powerful bishop in England. Margery seeks an audience with the Archbishop on the advice of the Bishop of Lincoln. The Archbishop is curious about Margery and asks her many questions regarding her spiritual experiences and her beliefs. Margery speaks with him well into the night, and in the end, he decides to sanction her unusual choice of spiritual vocation. The Archbishop gives Margery permission to wear white clothes, and, later, he writes her a letter certifying that she is not a heretic.
- The “Preaching Friar” - A friar, renowned for his preaching, who comes to live in Lynn. Margery looks forward to hearing the friar preach, but he is not used to being interrupted by loud wailing during his sermons. The other religious figures in Lynn try to get him to accept Margery's eccentricities, but he cannot. He bans Margery from his church and sparks a backlash against Margery in Lynn, inspiring many who dislike her behavior to speak out against her.
- Julian of Norwich (“Dame Julian”) - One of the greatest English mystics and best-known female writers of the Middle Ages. Julian was an anchoress (female hermit) in a convent in the city of Norwich. The author of a book of her “revelations,” Julian was often sought out for guidance by political and religious authorities, as well as by common folk. Margery goes to pay her respects to Julian soon after her own mystical visions commence. The pair have a long conversation in which Julian tries to instruct Margery how to tell a true vision from a false one. Julian also tells Margery that her tears are a blessing and a sign of God's favor.
- The German Priest - A priest who befriends Margery in Rome. After Margery is kicked out of the English community in Rome, she is taken in by several others, including a German priest who becomes her confessor. The priest advises Margery to give up her all-white wardrobe and care for a destitute Roman woman, and Margery obeys. Since the priest does not speak English and Margery does not speak German, the propriety of his acting as Margery's spiritual advisor is suspect. At dinner one evening, however, Margery speaks to the German priest in English, and he translates her words into Latin for some English priests, who become convinced that God approves of the relationship.
- Unnamed Priest, Margery's Secretary - The priest who records Margery's words, providing the text of the Book. This priest befriends Margery late in her life and agrees to help her tell her story. This is actually the second attempt to write down Margery's life story. The first came several years before, when Margery made the attempt with an unnamed helper (very likely her son), and the result was a nearly illegible manuscript. The priest breaks into Margery's story on occasion to verify her account or to back up her claims—for example, when Margery helps heal the young woman stricken, as Margery had been, with post-partum psychosis. The priest has a brief episode of trouble with his vision at the start of writing the Book, but he and Margery pray and his vision clears.
- Richard (“The Broken-Backed Man”) - A poor Irishman who aids Margery on her return from Jerusalem. Before Margery leaves on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, her confessor prophesies that she will receive help from “a broken-backed man.” In Venice, on her way home from Jerusalem, Margery is abandoned by her fellow pilgrims, but she meets Richard, who has a deformed spine. Margery immediately sees Richard as the “broken-backed” man of her confessor's prophecy and hires him as an escort. Richard frequently seems bemused by his employer and is often afraid that they will attract bandits as they travel. In Rome, Margery gives some of Richard's money (which he has given her for safekeeping) to the poor, which annoys Richard. Margery promises to repay him, and does so when, by chance, she meets Richard again at Bristol, where Margery is setting off on her second pilgrimage abroad.
- Margery's Confessor (“Master R,” “Master Robert Spryngolde”) - A priest of Lynn, and Margery's primary spiritual advisor. In Margery's visions, Jesus instructs her several times to honor and obey the wisdom of Master Robert. Master Robert believes in Margery's visions and defends her several times against those who would claim that her tears are fake or inspired by the devil rather than by God. Master Robert predicts that Margery will be helped on her pilgrimage by a “broken-backed man,” and the appearance of Richard in Venice seems to fulfill his prophecy. Margery's confessor helps her through many crises, including Margery's difficulty with her enemy (the preaching friar) and the great fire that endangers the church in Lynn. The greatest crisis in their relationship comes when Margery departs for Germany with her daughter-in-law, after Master Robert has advised her to stay home. On her return, Margery apologizes humbly and is forgiven. Margery's sense of profound gratitude toward her confessor is best expressed by her prayer to Jesus that Master Robert have half of any blessing that Margery may receive in heaven.
- Vicar of St. Stephen's (“Richard of Caister”) - A priest of Norwich, well-known for his personal holiness and his great knowledge. The Vicar befriends Margery and defends her from accusations of heresy. He asks for Margery's prayers, and Margery is greatly moved to learn of his death.
- Archbishop of York - The spiritual leader of one of the largest towns in England, and one of Margery's inquisitors. When Margery is arrested near York, she is brought before the Archbishop, who questions her sharply about her tears. The Archbishop is soon convinced of Margery's orthodoxy but is still concerned about the rumors he hears about her. In the end, the Archbishop simply tells her to leave town as soon as she can. When Margery is arrested again soon after, she is once more brought before the Archbishop. This time, the Archbishop seems more annoyed at Margery's accusers, and he refuses to imprison her, despite the protestations of the men of the Duke of Bedford. The Archbishop appreciates Margery's homespun wisdom—he is clearly amused by certain earthy stories Margery tells, although the stories are critical of priests. The Archbishop seems to grow to like Margery the more he sees of her, but as a busy administrator, he is glad to see the troublesome woman depart.
Page from The Book of Margery Kempe - History
Margery Kempe is a controversial woman because of her lack of education and her mystic and spiritual belief of endeavors. She was the daughter of a respected merchant and public official. She was born in Lynn, a town in Norfolk, England and though she grew up in a wealthy family, she was never given a chance to be educated. Her mysticism begins as a child when she refuses to confess a secret sin which most likely affects her all through her adult life. She married merchant John Kempe in the year of 1393, with whom she had fourteen children. When Margery was in her twenties she began to have visions in which she talked to Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. In one vision, Jesus told her to go deeper in her religious practices. Margery Kempe dedicated her life by the call of Jesus in an unusual state by weeping, screaming and praying for Christians during religious services. She became so involved that she detached her daily life from her husband and children and set out on a long journey ending up in Jerusalem. When her pilgrimage comes to an end she dictates her spiritual autobiography to scribes.
Her Autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe has great significance because it is the earliest known autobiography in English. In her book, Kempe portrays herself as an honest and devote human being. Margery's message is taken from her direct relationship with Jesus that is based on unconditional faith and love. The Book discusses every aspect of Margery's life: from her marriage, religious conversion, and many pilgrimages. She was accused by her contemporaries of fraud and heresy, and often criticized by later scholars as hysterical and crazy.
Margery Kempe is a woman of mystery because of the unknown truth to her spiritual hysterias. Her lack of education gives scholars today a reason to exclude her from truly being a significant woman of medieval times. Nonetheless, Margery Kempe also had admirers, even among clergy, who defended her visions as genuine signals from God.
Atkinson, Clarissa W. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Clarissa W. Atkinson, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School, combines insight and sympathy in examining the world of Margery Kempe. Her work examines the character of Margery Kempe though her autobiography, her pilgrim journey, her family life, her relationships with the Church and Clergy, the custom that created her faithfulness nature, and the framework of late medieval female sacredness. Mystic and Pilgrim will appeal to anyone interested in medieval religion and women's history. Both scholarly and general audiences will enjoy the comprehensive text. This book is a popular citation in studies of The Book of Margery Kempe. Mystic and Pilgrim is a resourceful book that places Kempe in both historical and religious context. As one of the most cited authors, Atkinson has documented her work well by using footnotes and index.
Cholmeley, Katharine. Margery Kempe: Genius and Mystic . New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947.
After many readings and interpretations of The Book of Margery Kempe, Cholmeley realized that it was indeed essential to the study of history and spiritual life. Cholmeley describes Kempe's attitudes towards religious leaders who were not fulfilling their duties and also gives accounts of Kempe's religious pilgrimages. Cholmeley concludes with describing how many of Margery's contemporaries criticized her. Cholmeley also includes information of the way of living during the fifteenth century medieval period. This book is simply written and can be read by anyone interested in the life of Margery Kempe. This book does not include a bibliography, footnotes, or an index that may help he reader.
Collis, Louise. Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe . New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.
Collis has turned the life of Margery Kempe into a literature piece which includes a history of explicit detail of her life in an exciting quest narrative. Usually known as a novel author, Collis also gives a precise historical overview of life in Europe while Margery was alive. With its many historical references, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman would be most appreciated by historians or those with medieval history knowledge. The text is comprehensible and is a easily flowing text, however, the historical references may frustrate general readers. Illustrations are included and the book can be used in conjunction with The Book of Margery Kempe. Collis does cite the sources she using and also uses footnotes and a bibliography.
Fienburg, Nona. "Thematics of Value in The Book of Margery Kempe." Modern Philology 87 (November 1989): 132-141.
Nona Fienburg, of Millsaps College, attempts to show how The Book of Margery Kempe exploits society during Kempe's lifetime. Fienburg believes that Kempe established her value in society and succeeded in challenging the evaluative system of medieval society. She uses examples from Margery's personal finances and family to show that she did succeed in establishing herself in a predominantly male society. Fienburg feels that Kempe's value is assured with the very existence of her book. Written for scholars, this essay can be used to further investigate Margery Kempe's personal triumphs
Gallyon, Margaret. Margery Kempe of Lynn and Medieval England . Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2004.
Margaret Gallyon is an employee at King's Lynn High School and collected enormous amount of history of the town and Margery Kempe. Her book examines the life of Margery Kempe including her development in the town, her spiritual journey of accepting the wishes and prayers of God, and her family life. Gallyon also examines the many trials of Margery Kempe when she was thought of committing heresies. This book is a good source for anyone interested in the biography of Margery Kempe at a broad level.
Goodman, Anthony E. Margery Kempe and Her World. Old Tappin, NJ:Longman, 2004.
Anthony Goodman is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at the University of Edinburgh, gives information about medieval life and times of a wife, mother, world traveler, and mystic in particular of Margery Kempe. He studies the Book of Margery Kempe trying to examine her life by each day dealing with the late medieval Lynn of England more than her divine spirituality. This source would be useful to a person who is interested in the life of a women during the medieval area of England. This book would not be helpful to a person looking at Margery Kempe's mysticism as much as Margery Kempe: Genius and Mystic by Katharine Cholmeley.
Harvey, Nancy Lenz. "Margery Kempe: Writer as Creature." Philological Quarterly 71 (Spring 1992): 173-184.
Nancy L. Harvey, from the University of Cincinnati, attempts to show how Margery created The Book of Margery Kempe. Harvey states that Margery felt her book was "inside" her and that it was another person's duty to write it (Coincidentally, Margery was illiterate.) This essay looks at several aspects to the Book, including its medieval vocabulary, as well as sources and influences that shaped Margery's ideas. Harvey feels that Margery's spiritual experience had its physical manifestation in the Book. There are many quotes from the original text and no translation is provided. Harvey's essay would be most appreciated by scholars with some knowledge of medieval text. Overall, an interesting evaluation of Margery's self-reflections and inspiration.
Johnson, Lynn Staley. "The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe." Speculum 66 (October 1991): 820-838. Lynn Staley Johnson, along with this essay, has written a book about Margery Kempe entitled Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. This essay discusses how medieval works and their authors were at the mercy of scribes who copied, interpreted, and edited written texts. Scribes could have changed or used metaphors when Margery Kempe dictated her life story and she may have no way of knowing because of her illiteracy. Johnson repeatedly inquires if the scribes intentionally use words to reach complete power of the meaning of the work. Johnson feels that Kempe's constant emphasis of her own illiteracy caused many of her contemporaries to question her Book, thus contributing to the reputation of scribes. Johnson contrast the language of the two women by using Chaucer's use of language. This intriguing essay is an easy read for interested scholars and is a great for literary studies. Johnson's contains fascinating research concerning the scribes behind several of medieval history's distinguished authors.
Jokinen, Anniina. "Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1439)." Anthology of Middle English Literature . (3 January, 2004) < http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/margery.htm> (5 November2005).
Anniina Jokinen has compiled many essays of Middle English Literature and included on his site is a webpage dedicated to Margery Kempe. The page offers the biography of Margery Kempe's life, along with excerpts from her autobiography, essays that have been written by scholars and students, other books that are written about her, and other resources like images. this is a great site to begin a search for sources of Margery Kempe or any other person that is involved with Middle English Literature.
Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe . Ed. W. Butler-Bowon. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1944.
This translation, unlike an edition published by the Early English Text Society, was modernized for a general audience. Reading this text should present little problems for anyone with an interest in Margery Kempe. Many names and places are modernized and obsolete words have been replaced. The Book of Margery Kempe, the first known autobiography written in English, is a captivating tale essential to the study of women in medieval history.
McEntire, Sandra J., ed. Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.: 1992.
Each essay within the book assumes that Kempe did not suffer from hysteria, and her life and work should be taken seriously. The book as a whole attempts to further understand Kempe as an intelligent, mystical, and energetic woman. Although the reading level is moderately difficult, general readers will appreciate that both the early English and modern translations of The Book of Margery Kempe are given. This compilation provides further insight to the life of Margery Kempe by giving a lot of information on a variety of research that are discussed by scholars. This essay includes good footnotes and bibliography.
Partner, Nancy. "'And Most of All for Inordinate Love': Desire and Denial in The Book of Margery Kempe." Thought 64 (September 1989): 250-267.
In this essay, Partner believes that inordinate love is the motif at the center of the Book. Partner feels that Margery's life was governed by two opposing sides: one religious and holy, the other dark and repressive. This essay focuses on the denied desires that occurred in Margery's life story. She examines several examples of love and desire found in Margery's experiences. Partner concludes that Kempe's guilt over sins and the pressure of forbidden desire describes the life of any woman in late medieval society. This article is an interesting perspective on Margery's life. It can easily be read and understood by scholarly and general readers. An alternative to the religious and spiritual interpretations of Kempe's life.
Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions . University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
Lynn Staley is a former Professor of English at Colgate University and the author of "The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe." In this book Staley attempts to prove her belief that The Book of Margery Kempe is fiction. She feels that Kempe attempts to create a society and relate that society to herself. This book can be most useful to scholars who have some prior knowledge of Margery Kempe and her Book. Staley gives an intriguing speculation of the mystic Kempe and has written witty collective remarks regarding the period of Margery Kempe, the way of life, the faith in religion that people possessed, the everyday society affairs, and the feminist attitude of the medieval fifteenth century. The reader must also be familiar with early English text in order to appreciate Book examples. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions is an unique interpretation of Margery Kempe's Book. Lynn does give the reader a bibliography that can help further research endeavors.
Stanbury, Sarah and Raguin, Virginia. "Mapping Margery Kempe: A Guide to Late Medieval Material and Spiritual Life." Mapping Margery Kempe . (25 September, 2003) <http://www.holycross.edu/departments/visarts/projects/kempe/index.html > (5 November, 2005).
Mapping Margery Kempe is a website of resources dedicated to the cultural and social matrix of The Book of Margery Kempe. This site want to focus on the period of the time in which Margery Kempe existed and the parish in which she was criticized by. The site will offer picture gallery, a long with the route of her pilgrimage, documents of the town Lynn, Middle English Text and writings of Saints, and teaching guides for teachers. This site would be useful to a student who wants to do extensive research on the Medieval Area along with the life of Margery Kempe. This site could also be useful to teachers who want to have more knowledge on the subject.
Stone, Robert Karl. Middle English Prose Style: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich . The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton & Co., 1970.
Robert Stone was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time of this publication. This book attempts to compare and contrast The Book of Margery Kempe and the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Stone discusses such topics as character, style, and technique of both works. he looks closely at the elements that make both characters important, such as they both came from the same geological place and the comparison of the literary capabilities. This book will not be valuable to someone without any knowledge of the English grammar and terminology. A scholar with a background in medieval history and English would best benefit from reading the book. Middle English Prose Style focuses on the structure of these medieval works, rather than historical content. this book offers a good bibliography that can be helpful for more research on the medieval period.
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The Book of Margery Kempe and The Role of Women in Medieval Society
Margery Kempe gets well after her first frightening experience and with the help of her husband, she regains her position for a moment. Her husband is understanding and Margery “asked her husband, as soon as he came to her, if she could have the keys of the buttery to get her food and drink as she had done before" which he allows her to do. This is the beginning of the shift in traditional gender roles that will carry through until the end of the book. Now that she is well again, according to the rules of her society she should get her strength back, take care of her husband and children, and hopefully, give birth yet again.
Instead of following through with these expectations, Margery seeks her own path and the story of her quest for a “perfect" life free of sin begins. She commits the greatest “sin" against society and its gender roles, however, when she refuses to honor her marriage agreement and sleep with her husband as well as leave her children and husband for her own reasons. It is through these many examples of Margery’s disobedience to the narrowly prescribed rules of gender and society that tells the reader what was expected of women by presenting her as an orthodox example.
When thinking about gender codes in medieval society, it is necessary to look at the way gender might have been used by exceptional women as a tool. Since they lacked other powers, this might have been their only chance. One of the most blatant examples of Margery going against medieval gender roles takes place during her confrontation with the Archbishop. In some ways, it seems that only way Margery, or any other medieval woman who was in trouble with the Church (the center of male authority) could command attention for an argument, was by using her femininity to provoke certain responses. This overlypiteous female weeping sequence in which the reader can easily imagine Margery sprawled on the floor, looking helpless and much like a victim is followed by the true impact of her “performance". She dries her tears and is instantly ready with a sharp tongue to take on the questions of the bewildered Archbishop and does so gracefully and meaningfully.
What is so great about this is that they were expecting a very pathetic weeping female to weakly respond to their questions, but instead were greeted by the “old, pre-conversion Margery Kempe" who responds to the question by shooting them right back. For example, the first question she turns back on the male authority is when they ask her why she weeps so mournfully. Margery responds with a very quick and thoughtful, “Sir, ye shall will some day that ye had wept as sore as I." There is no response from the Archbishop nor any of his clerks to this and immediately, as if to strengthen himself, he asks the articles of faith. Margery s able to respond to this “male" authority knowledge and again, this has such an impact because of her hyper-feminine performance followed by her sharp wit.
Margery’s use of language and rhetoric is showcased again when the Archbishop says to her that he’s heard she is a wicked woman. Instantly, and apparently without thought, she responds with, “Sir, so I hear say you are a wicked man." Here, and in the conversations between her and the male religious authority, the distinct difference of her feminine manipulations are most apparent since this intellectual religious debate was preceded by her “weak-woman" performance and display of feminine vulnerability. While some may not think Margery is sincere about her faith, she is, at the very least, able to make an impact and perhaps this is what is most striking about her. She plays the martyr for just long enough to get her point across and does so using her femininity (and traits typically associated with females such as clothing, virginity, and weeping—at least for this period).
Despite any reservations one might have about Margery’s sincerity and her flair for the dramatic, it should be remembered that the modern reader can glean a great deal of insight into the lives of medieval women by showing someone who went against the codes. Although Margery had some faithful that respected her, she was often called a “heretic" and one must wonder how much this had to do with her decisions about how to live away from her husband and family versus what she was expressing about religion. Women were confined to a narrow domestic sphere and any deviation from that role might bring punishment—both from society and the Church.
The late 80s through mid-90s was a fertile time for experimental queer writers. (It was an exciting time for me as well, as a queer Creative Writing student during that period.) From fiery Kathy Acker to quirky Kevin Killian to angry David Wojnarowicz to loving Joan Nestle to ice cold Dennis Cooper, the sheer range of mood and purpose of this group of fresh voices made reading them an exhilerating crap shoot. Would I be enlightened, as I was with Acker, moved and angered, as with Wojnarowicz? Or The late 80s through mid-90s was a fertile time for experimental queer writers. (It was an exciting time for me as well, as a queer Creative Writing student during that period.) From fiery Kathy Acker to quirky Kevin Killian to angry David Wojnarowicz to loving Joan Nestle to ice cold Dennis Cooper, the sheer range of mood and purpose of this group of fresh voices made reading them an exhilerating crap shoot. Would I be enlightened, as I was with Acker, moved and angered, as with Wojnarowicz? Or would I be disgusted, as I was with Cooper? And how would I use what I read in my own writing? The unifying factor across these diverse voices was the idea that our own stories, our personal narratives, could be centralized in works of so-called fiction. Genre boundaries were blurred, as were the boundaries between fiction and fact, love and sex, overt activism and internal exploration. I loved reading (and writing) these sorts of stories - the kinds of stories where the storyteller's own personal story is just as important as the story they are telling.
Unfortunately, Margery Kempe is a huge failure in my book, despite it doing exactly what I described above. I wonder why I even wrote all of that as an intro. I suppose to justify to myself why I still admire these sorts of books, these kinds of experiments with structure, theme, perception, reality.
Anyway, Glück constructs two stories that are supposed to comment on one another: Margery Kempe's love for Jesus and the author's own love for some babe. I started off annoyed and then moved into dismayed and ended with an irritated sort of bored. One can't criticize the writing itself, which is often beautiful and challenging and beautifully challenging - despite an intense focus on extremely explicit, un-romanticized sex. Or perhaps because of it? We all have our muses, and for many writers of that era, sex itself was a muse - especially since queer sex often automatically gave its practitioners a sort of outlaw status.
But here's the thing: this is a book about a woman who loved God, written by an atheist (probably). It's utterly bizarre that the author decided that his obsession with some cute young thing would even equate with Margery Kempe's love of Jesus. Reducing Kempe's intensely spiritual connection to God to the ravings of some demented woman who is hungry for Jesus' dick is not just, well, reductive, it is genuinely diminishing. Diminishing in that particularly easy and ugly way that men diminish women all the time. In the modern parlance, Glück tries to mansplain Margery's complicated feelings as pure lust - albeit lust of a higher form, I guess. Lust to the/a higher power? LOL? But Margery Kempe - author of the first recorded autobiography and obviously a real person - was defined by her faith and her spirituality. She was not defined by her lusts! Love of the physical body is not the same as a spiritual connection, and sorry to anyone who still suffers under that delusion. I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm saying that one is an apple and the other is an orange and that the author is a nitwit for pretending that they are the same fruit. Sorry, author.
I'd like to say that at least the "personal narrative" portions of the book were interesting, but I can't. They are real at least, or were once real for the author. Sadly, the obsessive longings of an older gent for a younger lad are completely uninteresting to me. The genders could have been switched out and I would have been equally bored. . more
Well, now I know I will not have to wait until November or December to determine what was the worst book I read this year. I write that even though I am not offended by blasphemy and may even engage in it from time to time. Nor does graphic description of sex get me overheated with disgust. Yet neither the blasphemy nor the sex redeemed this book. A warning: If either of those two things offend you, then not only should you not read this book you shouldn&apost read this review either.
There are two Well, now I know I will not have to wait until November or December to determine what was the worst book I read this year. I write that even though I am not offended by blasphemy and may even engage in it from time to time. Nor does graphic description of sex get me overheated with disgust. Yet neither the blasphemy nor the sex redeemed this book. A warning: If either of those two things offend you, then not only should you not read this book you shouldn't read this review either.
There are two narratives intertwined in this novel. One is the Jesus fantasy of the 15th century title character, apparently a real enough, if deluded, person. The other is the author's homosexual yearning for L. The stories are meant to conjoin, at least that's what the author explains in the telling. Or, My book depends on the tension between maintaining an impersonation and breaking it. Or, In this novel every sentence is a discrete image of promise. A car door slams I think it must be L. Margery is traveling. Got it?
Mostly though, I had the sense that the author merely wanted to offend, notwithstanding what I believe were ostensible artistic impulses. I am not easily offended, but there's George Bataille's Story of the Eye and the picture Piss Christ by Andres Serrano (Google it up if you need to), and there's this:
Jesus kisses her too quickly, jamming his tongue down her throat he says, "I'm horny."
Again, it's not the blasphemy that offends me, nor the sex (Jesus does the whole playbook), it's the shitty writing. Like:
The thick drunken histamine ache of needing to shit L. can't find a toilet in time his face convulses it makes me feel awe Jesus doesn't have a conscience. Like L., whatever he does is normal.
Her cunt dripped like the shinbone of a saint that weeps in continuous relation to God.
There's more, much more, and now you know where to find it if that's your thing. . more
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