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.
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.
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.
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.