Margery Kempe: Madwoman or Mystic – A Narrative Approach to the Representation of Madness and Mysticism in Medieval England
By Alison Torn
Narrative and Fiction: an Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by David Robinson et al. (University of Huddersfield, 2008)
Introduction: Historically, the boundaries between madness and mysticism have been characterised by fluidity. However, since the emergence of psychiatry in the 1800s, attempts have been made to place a firm distinction between the two experiences. In our increasingly Western, secularised society, experiences of mysticism have become marginalised outside of their religious context and in some cases, pathologised within the classificatory systems that construct mental illness. In this paper, I want to examine this contested boundary by discussing my analysis of a medieval woman’s experience of both madness and mysticism. I shall argue that rather than this text being interpreted as an early narrative of madness, it is primarily an attempted hagiography, that is a narrative of a saint’s life.
The Book of Margery Kempe tells the story of one woman’s spiritual journey in Medieval England over a twenty-five year period, describing her quest to establish spiritual authority as a result of her personal conversations with Jesus and God. Whilst the text is written in the third person, it is generally acknowledged to be the first autobiography written in the English language. It is also recognised as being the first autobiographical account of madness. The narrative begins around 1393, with the self-acknowledged onset of madness, which pre-empts for Margery, a spiritual crisis. This episode of madness is barely dealt with, taking up just two pages of a two hundred page book.
Throughout the remainder of the Book, Kempe describes not only conversations with Jesus, Mary, God and other religious figures, but also visitations, with the aforementioned figures appearing to Margery and also Margery herself, participating in biblical scenes such as the birth and crucifixion of Christ. Her religious fervour leads to prolonged public demonstrations of loud wailing, sobbing and writhing, much to the irritation of both commoners and clerics. Kempe’s story relates not only Margery’s struggle to achieve some form of divine spirituality, but also her polarised reception within society. Some, most notably religious authority figures, revered Margery as a holy mystic, whilst others, mainly commoners, rejected and slandered her as a devil worshiper. Whilst some authors have construed Margery’s religious visitations as part of her madness, I want to make a thematic distinction between these two experiences, as I believe, as Margery herself did, that they are inherently different.