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.
Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe in the twenty-first century
Laura Kalas and Laura Varnam
This introduction theorises and problematises the through-line of ‘encounters’ as full of dynamic, multiple, reciprocal, and disruptive potentialities for Margery Kempe studies. Harnessing the infamous ‘Pike Gate’ episode in the Book – as the editors term it – the introduction explores the ways in which Kempe transcends time and space as an un/popular, unruly holy woman always already everywhere. Arguing that Kempe encounters and refashions herself in order to reclaim her identity in an environment in which she is often reduced to a figure of mythology, the editors consider her fluctuating status as both legitimate and infamous; existing in and out of ‘truth’ as at once real and fictionalised. The asynchrony of the Book makes ‘something out of joint’ about Kempe, as Carolyn Dinshaw posits; the space of the feasting room in the worshipful lady’s house functions as a heterotopia where she exists, in Foucauldian terms, as ‘simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. Elucidating the volume’s four categories of encounter – textual, internal, external, and performative – the introduction explores the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe energetically and deliberately resists categorisation. In considering the volume’s chapters as dynamic, and often collaborative, encounters themselves across time, text, theory and mode, Kempe’s Book is brought into conversation with modern and medieval worlds to offer new, critical opportunities. The multiple encounters inside and outside of the Book gesture towards the very slipperiness of who we might deem Margery Kempe to be, and what our own encounters with her Book might mean.
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.
This chapter considers feminine swooning in romance fiction by female writers in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, arguing that the swoon offers the possibility of innovation and transformation, but also risks cliché and bathos. This chapter examines Carol (1952), Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking queer romance text, suggesting that Highsmith deploys fainting in a way that anticipates the work of ‘crip theory’ to challenge norms of sexuality and the healthy body concurrently: she valorises elements of sickness in order to challenge ‘health’ as construed by a heteronormative culture. In contrast to Highsmith’s work, E. L. James’s depictions of feminine sinking in the Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) novels are presented alongside Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728) to argue that the sinking James depicts might be understood as a form of bathos or disappointed hope: a falling into cliché ideas of gender submission. James’s work sets itself up in relation to several historical works of literature, including Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), but travesties its literary precedents into bathos. Nostalgia – the desire for temporal sinking back – is embedded in these novels as the eroticisation of past female powerlessness, largely produced through (mis)readings of iconic literary moments, including swoons. As a final contrast to James’s bathetic approach to the past, this chapter considers Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) and a reimagining of gender relations that hinges on a depiction of female faintness.
The Book of Margery Kempe has, since the earliest days of its rediscovery, been read as an autobiography. This chapter explores the dynamics at play in this generic ascription, arguing that the post-structuralist emphasis on autobiography as a mode of reading rather than one of writing can help to lay bare some of the effects of treating the Book as a historical witness to a life. In exploring the responses of readers, both academic and general, to the provocations of this text the chapter draws parallels between autobiographical reading and the tendency towards diagnostic and pathologising interpretations of Kempe’s story common in late twentieth-century interpretations of the Book. These interpretations, it is argued, are prefigured and guided by the Book’s own structural concerns and by a number of key episodes of Middle English interrogation, interpretation, and diagnosis. As moments of tension and sometimes violence, the episodes of the Book allow us to recognise in our own autobiographical desires a tendency towards control and domination of fluid narratives. In recognising the complicity of both text and reader in such analytical gestures, this chapter seeks to stress the affective and semiotic entanglements that constitute any moment of encounter, and further to suggest that an approach that recognises the essential role such dynamics play in the formation of Margery Kempe herself open the way for readings that reflect, in their own capacious way, an important part of The Book of Margery Kempe.
This chapter presents a fresh approach to the Book by applying current methodologies of oral history to analysis of its internal operations. In particular it draws upon the notion of intersubjectivity, and post-positivist approaches to memory, in order to shed new conceptual light on the processes by which the Book was created. The frequency with which Margery tells and retells her life story in the Book is striking. This happens over a twenty-year period before the Book was finally written down, and often via the medium of confession. By the time Margery came to have the Book written she had thus had extensive opportunities to retell and collaboratively refine her life story with clerics who are described as highly educated, and/or holding high office, and, in one case, of saintly reputation. This enabled her to ensure that the final, recorded version of her life story was convincing, in order to support the claims it made about her holiness. This chapter contends that the Book allows us access to vital truths about the experiences of an individual medieval woman, and the society in which she lived, regardless of the precise accuracy of events described within it. In taking this approach the argument is especially influenced by Daniel James’s study of the life of Doña Maria Roldán, based on her personal testimony. Thus, engaging with the methodologies of oral history allows for new reflection on the status of the Book as History, in relation both to medieval and modern epistemologies of historical truth.
This chapter re-examines Margery Kempe’s Jerusalem pilgrimage in relation to Jerusalem’s multiracial soundscapes and the place of her orthodox Christian tears within this soundscape. Margery Kempe’s tears are quotidian in the cosmopolitan soundscapes of multiracial and multireligious late medieval Jerusalem. This analysis also includes an interactive portion in the form of a Margery Kempe YouTube channel that has 360-degree video. This interactive DH section also rethinks feminist immersive DH models in relation to 360-degree video versus virtual reality and how race, gender, disability inform feminist DH models in working with immersive DH. Finally, the chapter considers Margery Kempe’s tears in her return to a white hegemonic Christian England and the issue of white women’s tears in affective devotion.
This reassessment of the familial, social, and political contexts which helped shape Margery Kempe’s life and character is rooted in new evidence from archival sources. An examination of the Brunhams’ and Kempes’ family and other connections outside, as well as within, Margery’s home town shows that her father’s status was higher than has previously been appreciated and her implied judgement of John Kempe as of lower social worth not unreasonable, suggesting her marriage was a genuine love-match rather than the strategic alliance which might have been expected. The nature of the conflict which beset Lynn’s governing community in the early fifteenth century is reviewed together with the roles played by Margery’s friends and supporters, among them the Carmelite friar Alan of Lynn (here identified for the first time as a member of a third-generation immigrant family), her revered confessor, Robert Spryngold, and the ‘worshipful burgess’ and later mayor who interceded on Margery’s behalf with the intolerant friar-preacher. The mayor is plausibly identified as John Permonter, who successfully brokered a settlement between the merchant-burgesses who had traditionally held sway in this supremely mercantile borough and the ‘artificers’ once dismissed as unfit to hold civic office. Not only do Margery’s friends prove to have been peacemakers in the long-running conflict over the borough’s governance, but Margery herself appears to have embraced, rather than resented, the changing social order in her home town, forming associations in later life with members of the newly empowered class of artificer-burgesses.
This chapter argues for the synchronicity of two seemingly disparate aspects of The Book of Margery Kempe: the authority and genesis of Book II, and Margery Kempe’s maturing interaction, in Book II, with the natural world. The chapter, drawing on ecocritical theory, proposes that these two, distinct phenomena concurrently ‘materialise’. The first half of the chapter explores the greater vocal authority of Book II, which relies less upon memory and mythology than Book I, and more upon recent physical and spiritual interactions with the world during a specific life-moment in older age. There exists a synchronicity between the writing of Book II and Margery Kempe’s formal admittance into the prestigious Guild of the Holy Trinity in King’s Lynn by April 1438. The second half of the chapter explores Kempe’s relationship with the natural world in Book II. Donna Haraway has called for earth’s inhabitants to undergo a sympoietic ‘worlding-with’ all beings that will create new narratives for earthly flourishing. Kempe’s negotiations with the elements of nature show a holy woman inscribed not only into the Guild record but simultaneously into a world of just such a natural connection. Kempe narrates each episode with a distinct and immediate auctoritee and concludes with prayers that reiterate the ordo creationis. As designated ‘creatur’ of the Book, Kempe concludes the text with a richer understanding of Creation and her privileged place within it.
The final section of this book considers two contrasting instances of contemporary swooning: Marianna Simnett’s Faint with Light (2016), a light and sound installation which records Simnett repeatedly passing out; and the ubiquitous use of *swoon* as an online ‘action’. Online swooning is considered in relation to the endemic irony David Foster Wallace referred to as ‘sardonic exhaustion’, which leads to questions about the role swooning might have now in terms of the virtual, affect and embodiment.