Today, I’m teaching on The Book of Margery Kempe, which is one of my all-time favourite pieces of medieval literature. Every time I teach on it, I have this moment of self-doubt. I wonder why it is that I have acquired the delusion that fourteen-year-olds with just three weeks experience of medieval literature would possibly care about Margery Kempe.
Margery was an ordinary late-fourteenth-century woman, and a mother of fourteen children. Yeah, you read that right. Fourteen. She had her own money – she was a brewer and owned a grain mill, and had inherited money from her father’s mercantile activities. She was a pretty ordinary medieval woman, until after a difficult birth she was visited by a series of visions. Visions in which she became the wife of Jesus Christ, assisted the Virgin Mary with his birth and otherwise got down and dirty with Jesus himself in various different scenarios.
She wrote the first autobiography in English, detailing these religious revelations. Or, rather, she dictated it to various different scribes who tried to get it down and struggled through language barriers and through the public shame associated with Margery.
Because the problem with Margery was that she was a very loud woman. Crying, screaming and wailing in public, Margery would often drive other people away. So moved was Margery be the religious knowledge she had, that she would spontaneously weep and wail whenever the moment struck her.
To a modern audience, Margery’s weeping and wailing reads as comic. I remember a tutorial back through the mists of time in which the two of us simply could not take Margery’s weeping and wailing seriously. The tutor patiently explained that, actually, socially disruptive speech and noises often come out when people are trying to speak in a space that is not for them. She told us the story of one time she was teaching Margery, and a member of the faculty she was in at the time had been fired, and the woman was shouting and swearing, bursting into the classroom. When people won’t listen to your words what you have to make is noises.
Because Margery is someone who takes up space in places where she shouldn’t. She goes into churches and cathedrals and educates the churchmen on what Christ is really like. She preaches in public and is chastised by Friars who tell her to ‘go spin and card as other women do’. Does that sound a bit like get back in the kitchen? Yeah.
And this is why, I think, I’m yet to have any rebellion from students on Margery Kempe week, because, actually, this bizarre self-styled pseudo-saint who weeps in public whenever she sees anything that reminds her of Christ (a man, a woman, a dog, etc.) embodies and represents that struggle between what is now called “lived experience” and accepted authority.
I think this is particularly relevant now. Now that so many women (and men) are coming out of the Hollywood (and Westminster!) woodwork to speak in a space that was closed to them before. A lot of the discussion is angry and disruptive, as well as essential and cathartic.
Something is finally happening to that toxic narrative that women offer up resistance to romantic advances simply to test the dedication of the applicant, a sentiment put by Jane Austen into the mouth of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, just to show how ridiculous it:
“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
So what does this have to do with The Book of Margery Kempe? Well, six hundred years ago, Margery was fighting against a male establishment to share her “lived experience” of closeness with Christ. It doesn’t necessarily matter that this “lived experience” is very odd indeed.
It is something that Christine de Pizan and, much later, Cixous say. It is something that women I speak to say all of the time. What is “written” and “accepted” doesn’t fit with the experience of many people I know and speak to.
And the students love Margery. I don’t know if it’s that she’s bonkers, or of she is one of the only points in medieval literature where we are completely out of the world of the romance super-elite, but for someone who has visions of Christ and spends all day weeping Margery is oddly relatable.
I think every one of us who has been told it is not our time or place to speak, for whatever reason, can relate to Margery, and perhaps we wish we had done a bit of crying and screaming of our own.