Exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart
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.
The Book of Margery Kempe is often one of the earliest works by a women encountered by English literature students. As a consequence, it is sometimes read as a text without a pre-text. Yet although considerable evidence survives of English women’s engagement in a vibrant literary culture in Latin and subsequently French from the early Middle Ages onwards, the relationships between The Book of Margery Kempe and her literary antecedents are still relatively unknown or unexplored. This chapter asks what happens if we encounter The Book not at the start of a tradition or canon of women’s writing, but in the middle of one. It does not make claims for direct influences between Margery Kempe and her Book’s literary antecedents. Rather it unravels intriguing parallels with texts associated with some of the earliest women writers in the English tradition, including the eighth-century letters of Boniface’s early medieval women correspondents, Hugeburc of Heidenheim’s Hodoeporicon [or voyage narrative] of St Willibald (written c. 778–80), and Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of Leoba (written c. 836). Particular attention is paid to the treatment of travel and pilgrimage in these earlier texts that anticipate Kempe’s own accounts of her journeys around England and Europe and to the Holy Land; to the representations of the subjects’ encounters with other people, countries and cultures; and to the gendered construction of authority within the texts, and the tensions that often emerge between subject and scribe.
The Book of Margery Kempe’s third-person narration has received very little sustained analysis from a narratological perspective. Although the Book is not an autobiography in the modern sense, this chapter draws on Philippe Lejeune’s notion of ‘the autobiographical pact’ and his analysis of third-person narration in modern autobiographies to argue that Kempe’s use of the third person is a mode of figuration that both inscribes her divided identity and precludes the reader’s encounter with a knowable life. Autobiography holds out the promise of that encounter but ultimately thwarts it. After briefly contextualising Kempe’s practice in relation to late medieval devotional writing, the chapter uses the narratological distinction between the utterance [énoncé] and the enunciation [énonciation] to analyse the multiple effects of Kempe’s insistent reference to herself in the third person, either as ‘sche’ or ‘this creatur’. A further aspect of that third-person narration is Kempe’s distinctive, but understudied, use of the deictic ‘this’ in the phrase ‘this creatur’. The chapter argues that this usage contributes to Kempe’s radical understanding of her subjectivity in the Book as a process of self-begetting. Third-person narration allows Kempe to articulate her selfhood as a tension between identity and difference, unity and division, and also brings out what is implicit in all autobiographical texts, namely, their status as both writing – a written text – and as the documentary recording of a life.
This chapter proposes a series of connections between ways of imagining the task of writing and ways of imagining the swoon, whereby the swoon is offered as a model of artistic transformation. The swoon in the work of the writers considered here is a shadow of dominant narratives of resurrection and rebirth: it is used to describe dark and ‘death-born’ processes of revivification, and we find it frequently in the work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers who seek to channel feminine morbidity in order to challenge masculinist discourses of health and power. If the swoon had become tarnished by associations with feminine incapacity by the end of the eighteenth century, the writers discussed here play on that association in order to devise new forms of writing and of politics. Recent work in disability studies, particularly from scholars formulating ‘disability aesthetics’, has demonstrated how the formal dimensions of artistic work are shaped in relation to ideas and lived experiences of the body: disability aesthetics rejects notions of the ‘healthy body’ as the crucible for the production of art. I (re)present the work of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce to show that they revere a morbid process of swooning as the initiator of art, and in so doing they reject received narratives of health, virility and vitality. James Joyce’s descriptions of souls swooning is given special consideration here as part of his complex reconfiguration of the mind and the body in relation to the aesthetic.
Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe illuminates the capaciousness of Margery Kempe studies in the twenty-first century. Through multiple, probing ‘encounters’, this innovative collection of essays generates and inspires interdisciplinary, overlapping, supportive, disruptive, and exploratory theoretical and creative approaches to the Book, and is a valuable new critical companion. Structured around four categories of encounter – textual, internal, external, and performative – the volume suggests particular thematic threads yet reveals the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe resists strict categorisation. The fundamental unruliness of the Book is a touchstone for the analyses in the volume’s chapters, which define and destabilise concepts such ‘autobiography’ or ‘feeling’, and communities of texts and people, both medieval and modern. The chapters, written by leading scholars in Margery Kempe studies, cover a broad range of approaches: theories of psychoanalysis, emotion, ecocriticism, autobiography, post-structuralism, and performance; and methodologies including the medical humanities, history of science, history of medieval women’s literary culture, digital humanities, literary criticism, oral history, the Global Middle Ages, archival discovery, and creative reimagining. Deliberately diverse, these encounters with the Book capture the necessary expanse that it demands. Topics include the intertextuality of the Book, particularly in Europe; Kempe’s position within a global context, both urban and rural; the historicity of her life and kin; the Book’s contested form as a ‘life’ textualised and memorialised; and its performative, collaborative mode. Encounters are dynamic, but they always require negotiation and reciprocity. This volume examines how encountering Kempe and her Book is a multi-way process, and paves the way for future critical work.
The swooning Shakespearean body is mired in expressive crisis. The Shakespearean swoons that are brought into focus in this chapter are abyssal: they stage a fall into the dark depths of a body that is inaccessible to the modes of ‘reading’ attempted by other characters in the plays. This chapter examines pivotal swoons in Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Julius Caesar (c.1599) and Othello (1604), because these are plays in which bodies are explicitly presented as texts to be read and deciphered – and swooning reveals such processes of reading to be complex, fraught and/or tragically flawed. Each of these swoons occurs when the body cannot be parsed through the signifying systems available within the world of the play: when the systems by which bodies mean something – according to humoral theories of the body and/as character, or via narratives of differentiation according to sex and race and religion, for example – break down under pressure.
A plethora of passing out coincides with historic moments during which emotional demonstrativeness is highly valued: there is therefore a flourish of swooning in eighteenth-century novels under the rubric of sensibility. This chapter argues that the literary swoon has a crucial status in the discourse of sensibility: it is the most dramatic in a long list of textual somatic signs of sensitivity – sighs, blushes, tremblings, flinchings, agitations, palpitations, tears, fevers. But, paradoxically, the swoon pushes high sensibility over into insensibility. In sentimental literature, the swoon becomes a test of the aspirations to produce a communicable, socially useful version of interior feeling through a new rhetoric of the body. It is also an important component of evolving performances of gender: sentimental scenes of swooning fall back on the pleasures of regarding the inert female form, and a complex scenography is created around ‘fallen women’ (which might pertain to other sentimental depictions of suffering, such as the conditions of slavery). Focusing on feminine swooning in two novels separated by forty years – Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) – this chapter analyses their treatment of the swoon as symptomatic of differing attitudes towards the female body in relation to sensibility. As anxieties about sensibility and its representation in ‘feminine’ novels deepen towards the end of the eighteenth century, a morbid excessiveness of feminine feeling is linked to different types of falling: to the disastrous tumble of the ‘fallen woman’; to ‘falling ill’; to ‘falling into hysterics’.
This chapter explores some of the earliest surviving examples of swooning in English, in which the swoon’s symbolic power is bound up with the potential it allows for dramatic alteration: for conversion, for renewal, for sudden change, for spiritual revival into life from death. In the ‘Life of Mary Magdalen’ (c.1290), the swoon is bound up with religious renewal and transformation, and with the new life in ‘Crist’ that might come from a symbolic death. This early example binds suffering in childbirth to swooning, and anticipates the (apocryphal) artistic tradition of the Swoon of the Virgin during the Passion, bringing birth pangs and swooning together in an overwhelming agony that produces new life. This chapter also examine the relationship between passivity and passing out in terms of the construction of gender in the most famous swoony text of medieval literature, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1380). Troilus, a ‘weldy’ knight, swoons spectacularly in this text and Chaucer provides us with a strikingly physiological account of the swoon. Criseyde also swoons at an important point in the text, and these paired but asymmetrical passings-out reveal much about mutuality and difference in the lovers’ relationship. The radical claims made by contemporary theorist Leo Bersani in respect of masochism are considered here alongside the erotics of suffering rendered through the medieval literary swoon. Attentively reading the swoons in Chaucer’s poem helps us to understand its larger patterns of transformation, including its movement into tragedy.
Chapter 58 of The Book of Margery Kempe documents how a priest new to Bishop’s Lynn takes on an eight-year commitment to read scriptural and devotional works to Margery Kempe, thus enhancing both her and his own spiritual expertise. Amongst the works they read and discuss together are Bridget of Sweden’s revelations, works by Walter Hilton, Bonaventure, and Richard Rolle. At the end of the list, however, Kempe offers a seemingly throwaway reference to ‘swech oþer’ works they also shared: ones which, so we contend, must have been both varied and numerous to fill up an eight-year period and which found their way into Margery’s writing in often covert – and possibly even unconscious – ways, as part of the Book’s strategy of authorisation. Although not named amongst the works listed in the Book, we argue that the ‘swech oþer’ texts, a term tantalisingly appended to the list of named books presented, would likely have included the thirteenth-century Liber specialis gratiae attributed to the Saxon nun Mechthild of Hackeborn (d. 1298). Drawing on some of the most vivid and compelling correlations between the two texts, we argue not only for Kempe’s familiarity with Mechthild’s writing but also for a much more central positioning of this earlier work within the literary and spiritual cultures of fifteenth-century England than has generally been understood.
This chapter argues that the swoon has had a crucial place in literature in English for the last millennia. Swoons occur in narratives at moments of high emotional intensity: they often dramatise ecstasy and grief. Swooning can indicate a profound disturbance of the human body’s balance, in literal fashion, and this introduction argues that swoons are presented in literature to be read and interpreted; and are often used by writers to explore bodily experiences that disturb or challenge dominant narratives of health. The swoon is explored as an event of the body that always also calls for the practice of hermeneutics: it is a ‘somatic testimony’, in the sense that Mary Ann O’Farrell suggests of literary blushing. Swoons are intimately connected to explorations of sickness and of dying; they cluster in narratives that are preoccupied with femininity and queer sexuality; and can be unsettling indicators of political instability (the swooning body as metonym of the body politic in disarray). A literary history of swooning is therefore also a history of crux points for how we have imagined the body, and in particular for evolving ideas of health, gender, sexuality and race. This chapter examines the ubiquity of falling and swooning as indices of high aesthetic response, from classical religious iconography to contemporary literary theory, and suggests a new basis for understanding the aesthetic through non-normative accounts of the body.