Delicious Matyr: Feminine Courtesy in Middle English Devotional Literature for Women

Delicious Matyr: Feminine Courtesy in Middle English Devotional Literature for Women

Bartlett, Anne C.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 9 (1992)


Near the beginning of her Book, Margery Kempe describes the violent trauma that accompanies the birth of her first child. She reports becoming ill during her pregnancy, experiencing a difficult labor, and then suffering what many have suggested was a severe postpartum depression. She claws her body with her fingernails, reviles her husband and friends, and beholds terrifying visions of demons and hehfire. One day, however, while she is alone, an incident occurs which restores her to emotional and physical health: “[Christ] appeared to this creature which had forsaken him, in the likeness of a man, the most seemly, most beauteous, & most amiable that ever could be seen, clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bedside, looking upon her with so blissful an expression that her spirits rose, and he said to her: “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, when I remained faithful?” After uttering these words, her visitor ascends slowly, gracefully, majestically, and disappears into the parted heavens. After this encounter, Kempe is able to speak, eat, and drink; and she is released from her restraints. Although she claims in hindsight that at this point “she did not understand the power of our Lord,” which reveals the non-ahegorical nature of her initial understanding of this incident, the sudden appearance of a handsome and courtly Christ does function redemptively for Kempe. As the representative of an omnipotent and invisible Father, the courteous son reassimilates her into the cultural economy of language, desire, and subjectivity from which her traumatic childbirth and subsequent madness had exiled her. She returns once more to her daily activities: “she knew the friends and acquaintances who came to her, and afterwards … did all of her daily occupations.”

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