Mysticism, Meditation, and Identification in The Book of Margery Kempe

Mysticism, Meditation, and Identification in The Book of Margery Kempe

Coulson, Carolyn

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 12 (1995)


In most of Margery Kempe’s visionary encounters with Christ, He appears to her not from within a particular historical moment of His life, but in a more universal and post-resurrectional guise in which He visits her world. Her first vision of Him is an example of this non-historical Christ: He appears sitting on the side of her bed, approachable and kindly, outside of the context of the biblical story and inside her personal, domestic world. Mystical visions such as this one are gifts to her from Christ, not the products of her religious or meditational diligence. She has not asked for such a vision, nor does she expect it; Christ gives it to her. However, Margery’s visions span a complex range of spiritual experiences, and not all of them are as spontaneous or unexpected as this first one. Karma Lochrie divides Margery’s visions into two types:

In the rest of her book we can observe the type of vision in which Kempe converses with Christ or with the Virgin. These visions are quite different from those narrative visions in which Kempe observes and participates in the life of Christ. The latter type are encouraged by such spiritual treatises as The Meditations on the Life of Christ.

In this paper I am concerned with a select group of Kempe’s visions which fall into this second group where Margery participates in the life of Christ. Apart from Lochrie, few scholars have explored the unique quality of these meditations which are so different from Margery’s other encounters with the non-historical Christ. In Margery’s visions of Christ’s Passion and the Death of the Virgin in capitula seventy-two to eighty, her proximity to the historical Christ and Mary is such that she enters into discussions with both of them. These scenes begin not as mystical gifts from God, but as meditations by Margery herself. During the course of the meditations, however, something happens: Margery becomes an active participant in the scenes, using speech to inject herself into the holy narrative. In three scenes, her use of speech has three different outcomes, which may be related to the origins of the scenes in either canon or apocrypha. At its most successful, the meditation becomes mystical, and at its least successful, Margery’s linguistic bid to become a character in the biblical narrative is silenced by the canonical Word of God.

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