“She should have more if she were ruled and guided by them”: Elizabeth Woodville and Margery Kempe, female agency in late medieval England

“She should have more if she were ruled and guided by them”: Elizabeth Woodville and Margery Kempe, female agency in late medieval England

By Laura Christine Oliver

Master’s Thesis, Baylor University, 2012

Abstract: This thesis argues that while patriarchy was certainly present in England during the late medieval period, women of the middle and upper classes were able to exercise agency to a certain degree through using both the patriarchal bargain and an economy of makeshifts. While the methods used by women differed due to the resources available to them, the agency afforded women by the patriarchal bargain and economy of makeshifts was not limited to the aristocracy. Using Elizabeth Woodville and Margery Kempe as cases studies, this thesis examines how these women exercised at least a limited form of agency. Additionally, this thesis examines whether ordinary women have access to the same agency as elite women. Although both were exceptional women during this period, they still serve as ideal case studies because of the sources available about them and their status as role models among their contemporaries.

Introduction: During a visit to York, Margery Kempe was brought before Henry Bowet, the Archbishop of York, who was well known for his stern stand against Lollardy and heresy. He quickly disapproved of her white clothing and commanded that she be fettered as a false heretic when he learned that she was a wife. Kempe boldly stated that she was not a heretic and he could not prove her one. Once she proved a solid understanding of the Articles of Faith, the Archbishop instructed her to take leave of diocese immediately and she must not teach or challenge the people in his diocese. Kempe refused to comply, and stated, ‘

No, sir, I shall not swear, for I shall speak of God and reprove those who swear great oaths wheresoever I go, unto the time that the pope and holy church have ordained that no man shall be so hardy to speak of God, for God almighty forbids not, sir, that we shall speak of him. And also the gospel makes mention that, when the woman had heard our Lord preach, she came before him with a loud voice and said, “Blessed be the womb that bore you and the teats that gave you suck.” Then our Lord said again to her, “Forsooth so are they blessed that hear the word of God and keep it.” And therefore, sir, I think that the gospel gives me leave to speak of God.’

A clerk then read from a letter of Saint Paul that stated women should not preach to which Kempe asserted that she did not preach because she never entered a pulpit, but simply used communication and good words before recounting a tale about a bad priest. The Archbishop commended the tale, but then asked for a man to lead Kempe away from him.

Click here to read this thesis from Baylor University

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