Laura Varnam
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‘A booke of hyr felyngys’
Exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart
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Building on recent work in the history of emotions, this chapter argues that Margery Kempe’s interaction with her fellow believers, within the Book itself and in relation to her readers (both medieval and modern) is predicated on an emotional exchange and encounter that takes place in the heart. This imitative encounter is facilitated by an embedded and repeated lyric couplet in the Book that draws on well-established devotions to the Sacred Heart in Middle English lyrics and in the work of Mechthild of Hackeborn, depicting the heart as a locus for emotional reciprocity and connection with Christ. Reassessing Kempe’s interactions with her female communities in particular, I argue that the Book ‘stirs up’ and enacts a compassionate empathy that is fundamentally sustained by supportive female networks and that offers an empowering model for the twenty-first-century academy. We learn from Margery Kempe’s book of ‘felyngys’ by putting her exemplary and heart-felt devotion into practice. But Kempe’s exemplarity is always in process, always negotiated and critiqued in each moment of its unruly performance. I argue, therefore, that The Book of Margery Kempe produces a new kind of lay exemplarity that is emotionally capacious, socially dynamic, and invitingly adaptable, and which encourages us to think more flexibly about how we frame and understand interactions between medieval exemplary texts and their readers.

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