By Daniéle Cybulskie
There are few medieval texts I find so entertaining as The Book of Margery Kempe, the fifteenth-century story of a seemingly ordinary woman of Bishops Lynn, England, whose life was transformed by visions of Jesus. The Book of Margery Kempe is pseudo-autobiographical: illiterate herself, she dictated her story in order to have a record of her visions and her trials, as ordered by God. Much of the book is devoted to recounting her communications with Jesus, and follows many conventions of religious writing, but it is the people in and around Margery’s story that make it so compelling to me.
In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a type of Christian religious devotion emerged that we now call “affective piety”. Practiced in large part by women, affective piety involved meditating on the human life and physical form of Jesus in order to evoke strong emotions, and to better understand his suffering. Margery’s devotion, however, takes this form to extremes that test the patience of everyone around her.
From the time of Margery’s first communication with Jesus – after she is tormented by demons following the birth of her first child – her devotions most often take the form of loud, extended, theatrical weeping when she is reminded of Jesus’ suffering or her own unworthiness of his sacrifice. For example:
yyf sche sey a creatur be ponischyd er scharply chastisyd, sche schulde thynkyn that sche had ben mor worthy to ben chastisyd than that creatur was for hir unkyndnes agyens God. Than schulde sche cryen, wepyn, and sobbyn for hir owyn synne and for the compassyon of the creatur that sche sey so ben ponyschyd and scharply chastisyd. (ll. 4084-4088)
(if she saw a creature be punished or sharply chastised, she should think that she had been more worthy to be chastised than that creature was, for her unkindness against God. Then should she cry, weep, and sob for her own sins, and for compassion towards the creature that she saw be punished and sharply chastised.)
Basically, anything that even remotely reminded Margery of the state of her soul (or others’) could set off great bouts of tears. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the volume and frequency of her weeping annoys congregations at church, pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem, and generally everybody on the street. A pair of priests even tests her by sending her out into a remote church, just to see if she is only weeping so loudly for attention (section 83). People were happy to have her with them when they died, so they could absorb her holiness, even though “thei loved not hir wepyng ne hir crying in her lyfe tyme” (“they loved not her weeping nor her crying in their lifetimes” ll.4097-4098). The pilgrims she travels with bully her and try to leave her behind, and a crowd gets fed up enough to threaten her with burning. Fortunately, she is delivered, and lives a long time (she begins her autobiography twenty years after much of the action it contains), reassured frequently by Jesus that her weeping is a blessing.
Beyond the impatient multitude, and the kindly folk – there are many – who support and teach Margery, is the striking figure of her husband. While this marriage is certainly not ideal by modern standards, it is a vivid, real relationship. Margery’s husband was always kind to her, she says more than once, and helped her heal from her postpartum madness, a kindness she repays when, as an elderly man, he suffers a fall which leaves him infantile and incontinent (section 76). When Margery approaches her husband (in their young adulthood) with the idea that she would like to live chastely, in order to devote more of her time and energy to God, he doesn’t agree at first, saying he’ll have his conjugal rights, like it or not.
Eventually, he does relent, and the two live apart until his head injury, but in the process of coming to grips with her request, Margery’s husband has a moment that jumps off the page. “Margery,” he says, “if a man came with a sword and would cut off my head unless you slept with me … would you let him cut off my head, or would you sleep with me?” (ll. 521-525) Margery gives him the wrong answer: she’d rather let him die. “Ye arn no good wyfe,” he replies (l.528). This familiar, modern-sounding hypothetical question is a moment that really stands out amongst much of the conventional phrasing that characterizes Margery’s story. Here and there, moments like this one bring a sense of real, living people pushing through.
Between Margery’s husband and people like the priest who claims that the first copy of this bookwas so bad that “ther schuld nevyr man redyn it, but it wer special grace” (“no man should ever [be able to] read it unless it was by special grace” l.76-77), The Book of Margery Kempe is a rewarding read for anyone who wants to get a sense of what people were like, and how they reacted to those outside of social norms. While scholars are still debating how much of Margery’s story is actually, verifiably true, the society in which she lived is a vital part of the book, and what makes it such an enlightening story.
You can read The Book of Margery Kempe in Middle English by clicking here. All quotations come from this TEAMS version, translations my own.
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Top Image: The first page of the Book of Margery Kempe – British Library Add MS 61823