An outside for the inside : a psychoanalytic reading of The Book of Margery Kempe

norton-margery-kempe-coverAn outside for the inside : a psychoanalytic reading of The Book of Margery Kempe

By Julia Steel

Master’s Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1993

Abstract: The Book of Margery Kempe dictated to several scribes by its fifteenth century eponymous author narrates the life of a late medieval female mystic whose mysticism is informed by affective spirituality. Conceived of for women and the laity, affective piety invited the devout to imagine themselves present at biblical events. This kind of spirituality valued love for Christ above scriptural accuracy. Because of affective spirituality’s emphasis on the familial pathos of holy events like the Passion and Resurrection, this type of devotional practice provided for the mystic an outside for the inside; in other words through speculation of and participation in Christ’s and the Virgin’s joy and suffering, the mystic could use devotional practice as a container for her own unconscious desires and symptoms that most probably had their origins in early childhood.


The objective of this kind of inquiry is not to psycho-analyze Margery Kempe the individual, but rather this thesis will contextualize the psycho-analytical meaning of Margery’s devotional practice with other accounts of female piety and affective devotional literature that informs it. It is evident in Margery Kempe’s visions of holy family life that Virgin and Christ dyad is an oedipal fantasy of the child who is the father of himself. Through her own participation in the Virgin and Christ’s life together, Margery inserts herself into this dyad, effectively triangulating it. As I will show using Freud and Kristeva, this Holy Family Romance of Virgin, Christ and mystic is fecund ground for the articulation of repressed oedipal desires. Additionally, Margery’s description of Christ’s suffering body on the cross and her own subsequent mystical ecstasy is evocative of Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic processes of the archiac mother-infant dyad. Her mystical ecstasy, achieved through her abjection of self whereby she loses inside/outside and pleasure/pain distinctions, mirrors a phase in infancy known as primary narcissism. This phase is prior to language acquisition, boundary distinctions and the break-up of the mother-infant dyad. As an idealization of primary narcissism, the mystics’s fusion with Christ implies that he represents the Phallic Mother or the fictitious possibility of a return to a lost maternal paradise.

Click here to read this thesis from Simon Fraser University