Kempe, Margery: Title Commentary

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The Book of Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


SOURCE: Staley, Lynn. "The Image of Ecclesia." In Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions, pp. 83-126. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

In the following excerpt, Staley focuses on Kempe's representations of women, authority, and church hierarchy, examining instances of Kempe superceding or transcending church authority and observing her emphasis on the inherent importance of women in Christian communities.

Kempe's account of Margery's experience in Rome suggests her appraisal of a Church that cannot recognize an embodiment of its own ideals. Margery is cast out of the congregation of the Hospital of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Rome by the slander of an English priest "þat was holdyn an holy man in þe Hospital & also in oþer placys of Rome" (80). As Kempe implies, what passes for holy in Rome has less to do with spiritual insight than with worldly pomp. Though his malice deprives her of both a confessor and the eucharist, Kempe provides for Margery a new and compensatory series of relationships that are based upon spiritual understanding. Her account of the first of these relationships is especially curious. Upon being informed of her plight, the priest of a nearby congregation invites Margery to confess to him though he says he does not understand English. Kempe does not say whether or not Margery accepts the invitation; instead, she describes another sort of confession:

Than owyr Lord sent Seynt Iohn þe Evangelyst to heryn hir confessyon, & sche seyd 'Benedicite.' & he seyd 'Dominus' verily in hir sowle þat sche saw hym & herd hym in hire gostly vndirstondyng as sche xuld a do an-oþer preste be hir bodily wittys. Than sche teld hym alle hir synnes & al hir heuynes wyth many swemful teerys, & he herd hir ful mekely & benyngly. & sythyn he enioyned hir penawns þat sche xuld do for hir trespas & asoyled hir of hir synnes wyth swet wordys & meke wordys, hyly strengthyng hir to trostyn in þe mercy of owyr Lord Ihesu Crist, & bad hir þat sche xulde receyuen þe Sacrament of þe Awter in þe name of Ihesu. & sithyn he passyd awey fro hir.


Though the preceding description of the non-English-speaking priest implies that Margery is confessing to another human being, what Kempe, in fact, describes here is "priuy shrifte." Margery confesses to herself, or to her private vision of Saint John, is absolved by that same vision, and directed to the sacrament. Kempe's wording insists on the reality of what is a new, spiritual relationship. Margery sees and hears Saint John in her spiritual understanding as she would actually see and hear another priest. Kempe's nomination of Saint John as Margery's confessor may owe a debt to the Revelations of St. Elizabeth of Hungary where the Virgin presents the Evangelist to Elizabeth as a witness to the private charter between them. Signifying his obedience to the Virgin's spiritual authority as well as his own episcopal and literary authority, Saint John then writes the charter. The scene, however, is devoid of any social commentary or even of any social context. Kempe's use of Saint John links Margery to Elizabeth of Hungary, but it also suggests her ability to exploit incidents she found in the literature of the holy that served her complicated and intentionally ambiguous purposes.1

That Kempe is interested in the nature of the confessional relationship is clear from another incident that occurs during Margery's stay in Rome. Seeing a priest celebrate at the church of Saint John Lateran, she believes him to be a good and devout man. She wishes to speak with him, but he is German, and they cannot understand one another. However, they pray for thirteen days, and they are granted a sort of Pentecostal gift: they can understand one another though neither can actually speak the other's language. Bound by their love of Christ, they contract a new society. He forsakes his office to support her, taking her for his mother and his sister, and enduring a good deal of ill-will for Margery's sake. In exchange, Margery grants him her obedience, at his behest changing back into black clothing and serving an old woman for six weeks (see 82-86, 97). Where Margery directly challenges another English priest, who turns against her because she will not obey him, she meekly obeys the German priest because he is good (see 84-85). The relationship between penitent and confessor that Kempe describes is not described in the patriarchal language that defines a hierarchal unit. Instead, Margery is mother and sister to her priest; she is daughter only to Christ.

The subtle way in which Kempe substitutes God for male figures of spiritual authority reveals her awareness that, in describing Margery's life as a type of sexual revolution, she also provides a sharp look at the fundamental weaknesses of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. When Margery first feels the "fire of love" burning in her, God informs her that her private apprehension of him is more important than rituals signifying her conformity to accepted spiritual norms, such as fasting, wearing a hairshirt, saying many paternosters, or telling beads. By assuring her that "thynkyng, wepyng, & hy contemplacyon is þe best lyfe in erthe" (89) and by promising her that she will have more "merit" in heaven from "o Зer of thynkyng in þi mende þan for an hundryd Зer of preyng wyth þi mowth" (90), God (or Kempe) gives Margery the freedom of her feelings. God, both here and elsewhere, sounds suspiciously Wycliffite; compare the sentiments of the author of the important sermon "Of Mynstris in þe Chirche," which proclaims:

For Crist nedude not hise apostlis to risen euermore at mydnyЗt, ne to faste as men don now, ne to be cloþud as þes newe ordris; but al þis is broЗt in by þe feend and fredom of Cristus ordre is left. For Crist wolde þat suche cerymonyes weron takon of hym by mennys fre wille aftur þat þei weron disposude to t[a]ke hem oþur more or lasse. But kepyng of Godus lawe, Crist wolde þat were grownd in his ordre. And Crist wolde teche as nede were chaunghyng of oure cerymonyes; for as God tolde Adam and Ioseph by luytul and luytul what þei schulden do, so Crist wolde telle men of his ordre how þei schulden worche and seruon hym.2

Just as the author of this sermon presents Christ as founding an order owing allegiance to no earthly figure, Kempe substitutes God for more conventional figures of spiritual authority. When one anchor bids Margery "be gouernyd" by him, she evades him, saying "sche xulde wete first Зyf it wer þe wil of God er not" (103). Later, she sends the anchor word that God does not wish her to be so "governed." When Margery is despised by all for her weeping, God himself places the unsympathetic priest under heavenly interdict, "Dowtyr, Зyf he be a preyste þat despisith the, knowyng wel wher-for þu wepist & cryist, he is a-cursyd" (155). When one such priest is won over to her, Kempe notes, "þus God sent hir good maystyrschep of þis worthy doctowr" (166). By using a term—maysterschep—that connotes sexual hierarchy (a term also beloved of the Wife of Bath), to describe the priest's change of heart, Kempe makes it clear that what is at issue here is the very nature of, or foundation of, spiritual authority. She therefore describes God as complicit in Margery's efforts to compensate for ecclesiastical strictures against her. He tells her "þer is no clerk in al þis world þat can, dowtyr, leryn þe bettyr þan I can do" (158). When the church limits her access to knowledge by forbidding Master Aleyn ("by vertu of obedience") to instruct her or to speak with her, God tells her that he is more worthy to her soul than the anchor and, since she now lacks spiritual conversation, he will speak more often with her (168-69). By offering her spiritual love and companionship, God provides Margery with a way around the strictly hierarchical relationship offered by the Church.

What Margery moves toward is a reliance on Christ that finally obviates the need for obedience to any representative of the earthly priesthood. This is nowhere more apparent than in the second part of the Book. Structurally, the second part seems designed to mirror the first: both parts open with scribal testimonials, recount conflicts rooted in gender roles and conventions, and finally outline the process by which Margery achieves a spiritual enfranchisement that liberates her from the constrictions society imposes on women. Thus, the first part of the Book ends with a picture of Margery as a fully empowered visionary and writer, a person whose power comes solely from her relationship to Christ. The image offers a sharp contrast to the initial portrait of Margery as a weak, maddened wife, dependent upon an inadequate priest as mediator between herself and God. Kempe begins the second part by pulling us back into the realm of the family and the community, describing Margery's concern for her son's lax living. Through her prayers, he is converted to a more regular life, marries a German woman, and settles down on the Continent. Later, when visiting England in the company of his wife, the son dies and a month later Margery's husband dies. A year and a half later, the son's wife wishes to return to her native Germany, and Margery begins to sense that she should accompany her. What might take another writer many pages to narrate, Kempe accomplishes in one and a half brief chapters. The point of these events is obviously not their effect on Margery, since Kempe never mentions grief and never describes any process of mourning. Kempe, for example, spends far more time describing Margery's fears for her son's spiritual condition than she does describing his death. Instead, the deaths of both son and husband provide the occasion for another type of story, whereby Margery as a sort of holy pícaro achieves a final and breathtaking dissociation from her community that places her beyond the reach of male authority.

Kempe begins her account of this last pilgrimage in Margery's church, specifically with a conflict between Christ and Margery's confessor. When Margery wonders whether she should take leave of her confessor and accompany her daughter-in-law home to Germany, Christ answers, "Dowtyr, I wote wel, yf I bode þe gon, þu woldist gon al redy. þerfor I wyl þat þu speke no word to hym of þis mater" (225-26). Though Margery takes this to mean she will not have to contemplate another sea voyage at her age, she does ask for and receive permission from her confessor to take her daughter to Ipswich. When they are in route to Ipswich, Margery feels commanded to take her daughter all the way home to Germany. What Kempe then goes on to describe is the conflict Margery feels between Christ's command and her confessor's paternal care, "Lord, þu wost wel I haue no leue of my gostly fadyr, & I am bowndyn to obediens. þerfor I may not do thus wyth-owtyn hys wil & hys consentyng" (227). Christ answers these objections by asserting the primacy of Margery's private feelings, "I bydde þe gon in my name, Ihesu, for I am a-bouyn thy gostly fadyr & I xal excusyn þe & ledyn þe & bryngyn þe a-geyn in safte" (227). That Kempe was aware of the force of these words is clear from the next incident, in which Margery recounts her feelings to a Franciscan she meets in Norwich. This "doctowr of diuinyte" has heard of her holy living and is well disposed to her; he counsels her to obey the voice of God, saying that he believes it is the Holy Spirit working in her. By having this man verify Margery's feelings as the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, Kempe maintains the fiction that Margery is an obedient daughter of Holy Church. But the incident nonetheless points up the difficulties of obeying someone if you do not believe he is right, and Kempe presents Margery as docile only when a priest's reading of a situation agrees with her own. With Christ and a doctor of divinity supporting the trip and only her confessor opposing it, Margery takes ship.

If Margery's final pilgrimage begins with hints of her disengagement from ecclesiastical authority, her return is even more potentially explosive. Kempe first describes Margery as enjoying a triumph in London. Not only does Margery face down her detractors; she also speaks out boldly against the worldly lifestyles of Londoners. Since her devotions make her an unwelcome communicant in the churches of London, she becomes a peripatetic worshiper and a figure of special holiness to the common people:

… sche suffyrd ful mech slawndyr & repref, specyaly of þe curatys & preistys of þe chirchis in London. þei wold not suffyr hir to abydyn in her chirchys, & þerfor sche went fro on chirch to anoþer þat sche xulde not ben tediows on-to hem.

Mech of þe comown pepil magnifijd God in hir, hauyng good trost þat it was þe goodnes of God whech wrowt þat hy grace in hir sowle.


Kempe follows up her account of Margery as a quasi-populist preacher, a potentially radical identity, by describing her as proceeding next to the Carthusian abbey of Shene, which had been founded by Henry V in 1415.3 Not only was Shene a royal foundation; along with its sisterhouse, the Bridgettine abbey of Syon, Shene was a center for mystical piety during the later Middle Ages and was responsible for the dissemination of devotional texts like those Kempe evokes throughout her own Book. By locating Margery at Shene during Lammastide (see 245-46), Kempe appears to realign her with the Church and consequently with the spirit of obedience. First, as Kempe twice repeats, Margery goes to Shene to purchase her pardon on the day that was the "principal day of pardon." On Lammas Day, August 1, which was also one of the quarter days for rent-paying, loaves made from the new wheat were consecrated in English churches as signs of the congregation's thankfulness for harvest. On that day, which commemorated the settling of secular and spiritual debts, Margery goes as a devout daughter of the Church to purchase her own pardon. Kempe, however, neglects to detail this particular act of exchange, instead describing two events that focus our attention upon Margery's own assumption of authority: Margery's spiritual direction of a young man who observes her devotions in the church at Shene, and her successful negotiation of the final obstacle standing in her way back to Lynn. While she is in church to "purchase" this pardon, she sees the hermit who had led her and her daughter-in-law out of Lynn to Ipswich. She approaches him about leading her home and learns that her confessor has "forsaken" her because she went to Germany without telling him of her plans. Margery, the renegade penitent, nonetheless manages not only to persuade the hermit to accompany her back to Lynn but also to make peace again with her confessor. The end of the Book is worthy of Chaucer:

Whan sche was come hom to Lynne, sche obeyd hir to hir confessowr. He Зaf hir ful scharp wordys, for sche was hys obediencer & had tekyn vp-on hir swech a jurne wyth-owtyn hys wetyng. þerfor he was meuyd þe mor a-geyn hir, but owr Lord halpe hir so þat sche had as good loue of hym & of oþer frendys aftyr as sche had be-forn, worschepyd be God. Amen.


What Kempe describes is a female victory. Though she twice refers to obedience, even calling Margery her confessor's obediencer, denoting someone who has vowed obedience to a rule, such as a novice, the nature of that obedience is ambiguous.4 Now that Margery has returned from her journey, every step of which she determined herself, and from a life as a sort of holy vagabond, preacher, and mystic, she obeys her confessor. Furthermore, as the passage suggests, her confessor is most annoyed because she went without his permission; in other words, because Margery contravened the terms of a relationship based upon hierarchy. Margery, like many an Eve before her, endures his wrath and soothes his ruffled pride. As Chaucer's Merchant gives May Persephone's help when old Januarie confronts her with marital infidelity, so Kempe gives Margery, who has broken her vows, the Lord's help, "so þat sche had as good loue of hym & oþer frendys as sche had be-forn." The "amen," repeated in red at the end of the chapter, helps to muffle the resonating irony of a scene that only appears to validate the authority vested in priests by women who feel compelled to go well beyond the boundaries those men have established for them.

The intercessory prayers with which the Book ends likewise image Margery as an obedient daughter of Holy Church, but they also suggest that her special relationship with Christ somehow allows her to transcend gender categories. Thus, along with sentences attesting to her charity and piety, there are those that hint at a new understanding of the nature of spiritual authority. Requests like "Lord, make my gostly fadirs for to dredyn þe in me" (249) or "for alle þo þat feithyn & trustyn er xul feithyn & trustyn in my prayerys in-to þe worldys ende, sweche grace as þei desiryn" (253-54) hint that Margery's power extends well beyond that of the churchmen who presume to direct her. What Kempe achieves through the conventional language of intercessory prayer is that same delicately poised ambiguity that characterizes her entire text. For Margery is at once a textbook exemplar of late medieval female piety and a reminder of the essential unruliness of the subjective, the feminine, and its fundamental urge to master those authorities who seek to contain what is, finally, uncontainable.

The comic irony inherent in the reversal of gender roles is, of course, designed to point up the folly of seeking to control the "feminine" with instruments inadequate to the task. If Jankyn will not, then his "book of wicked wives" cannot make order out of hierarchy, particularly when that hierarchy rests on foundations as shaky as the marriage of Jankyn and Alisoun. Through Margery and her comic insurrection, Kempe provides an image of the Church that underscores its inadequacies. Her point, however, is hardly satiric: through Margery she projects a community where harmony is a manifestation of true spiritual authority. Such authority rests on a literal and personal interpretation of the Gospel story, which Kempe presents to us through Margery whose visions and conversations with God mediate the central doctrines and events of Christianity.

What can be described as Kempe's "Passion sequence" (187-99) owes, as Gibson has pointed out, a genuine debt to Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.5 Both sequences heighten the pathos of the Gospel accounts of the Passion by dramatizing scenes of primarily human interest. Thus, the intricate courtroom scenes on which the medieval dramatists expended so much care are not included. Instead of depicting the ironies of law and empire that undergird such public scenes in the mystery plays, both Kempe and the Mirror describe extratextual scenes like Jesus' parting from his mother, Mary's terrible grief, the exhaustion and bewilderment of Holy Saturday, and Jesus' appearance to his mother very early on Easter morning. By concluding Margery's experience of the Passion with her apprehension of the Purification, Kempe suggests her awareness that, in privileging the affective piety of Mary and the early followers of Christ in her treatment of the Passion, she foregrounds the feminine. The feast of the Purification, or Candlemas, is, of course, a woman's feast, for it celebrates Mary's offering in the Temple as her thanksgiving for the safe delivery of a male child (see Luke 2:22-35).6 Rather than the pair of doves required by the law and that Luke recounts Mary and Joseph as offering, Kempe describes Mary as offering only her son, thereby suggesting Mary's awareness that the baby in her arms needs no symbolic pair of doves; he himself will satisfy the law of sacrifice. Kempe then describes Margery as responding to a moment of female ritual: "Sche thowt in hir sowle þat sche saw owr Lady ben purifijd & had hy contemplacyon in þe beheldyng of þe women wheche comyn to offeryn wyth þe women þat weryn purifijd" (198; emphasis added). Margery weeps because the Passion sequence she has just seen is the denouement of that joyful presentation. Like Mary, she understands the significance of the one act in the light of the other.7

However, though Kempe appears at times simply to imitate the affective emphasis of works like the Mirror, she, like Julian of Norwich before her, subtly alters a reader's response to these scenes by locating authority in the female beholder.8 The reader of the Mirror is directed by an authoritative male voice to imagine or "behold" these scenes, and is implicitly urged to use the Virgin as her point of reference. In empathizing and identifying with Mary, she participates in the Passion. In contrast to such a prescriptive narrative technique, Julian of Norwich presents herself as the visionary, telling the reader what she saw—how, for example, Christ's body appeared dried out after much time on the Cross in the "dry sharp wynd, wonder colde," of the day of the Crucifixion.9 Julian thereby focuses our attention on the sight itself, on the pictures she passes on to us, that then demand the sort of highly intellectual analysis she provides for each of her visions. Thus, the picture she evokes of Christ's dried-up flesh is used as a means of understanding his words from the Cross, "I thirst," which as she comes to understand signify both a physical and a spiritual thirst. Julian offers the reader not only the images and scenes she has been privileged to behold, but also the picture of a mind thinking and guiding our understanding of those visions upon which she has spent so many years' efforts. In her presentation of the same scene of sacrifice, Kempe betrays her awareness that she who directs the reader's line of sight governs the reader's response to the act of viewing. The "scribe" describes for us what Margery "sees," using Margery herself as a key participant in the drama of the Passion. Instead of Mary, Margery becomes our focal point. Mary is Margery's point of reference; she empathizes with the Virgin's grief and love in the way the Mirror directs its female reader to respond to the pictures the narrator composes for her. But for the reader, the viewer, Margery is the active participant, our spiritual directress. Kempe uses the voice of the scribe in a particularly sophisticated way in such scenes: it appears to function as the narrator of the Mirror functions. In fact, however, that voice focuses the reader on Margery herself, whose authority is verified by the reality of vision.

Kempe also suggests the nature of Margery's authority by dramatizing her literal application of the Gospel to her own life. She seeks to imitate Christ's poverty, meekness, self-sacrifice, and charity. Moreover, when the Archbishop of York tries to order her not to "teach" or "challenge" (reprove) people in his diocese, she firmly replies,

And also þe Gospel makyth mencyon þat, whan þe woman had herd owr Lord prechyd, sche cam be-forn hym wyth a lowde voys & seyd, "Blyssed be þe wombe þat þe bar & þe tetys þat Зaf þe sowkyn." þan owr Lord seyd a-Зen to hir, "Forsoþe so ar þei blissed þat heryn þe word of God and kepyn it." "And þerfor, sir, me thynkyth þat þe Gospel Зeuyth me leue to spekyn of God."


Though Margery goes on to defend herself against the charge that she preaches, her use of the Gospel as precedent for her actions underlines her increasing reliance on her own, in opposition to ecclesiastical, authority. In fact, her "translation" of the passage (Luke 11:27-28) suggests her presumption of authority, for she does not translate word for word, but "sense for sense." First, she heightens the effect of verse 27 ("sum womman of the cumpany reysinge hir vois") by saying the woman who had heard Jesus preach spoke with a loud voice. Second, she recounts Jesus as agreeing with, rather than differing from, the woman's words. Where Luke reads, "Rathere blessid ben thei, that heeren Goddis word, and kepen it," Margery uses forsoþe so, which implies agreement and not distinction.10 Since Margery, like the Wife of Bath, seems to have no qualms about validating her own actions by quoting and (mis)translating Scripture, it seems fitting that one good wife should reply to one of Margery's prognostications by saying, "Now Gospel mote it ben in Зowr mowth" (202).11 Kempe's characterization of Margery as basing her actions upon a literalist reading of the Gospel would also have had Wycliffite associations for any astute fifteenth-century reader. She thus follows up Margery's audacious use of Scripture with the tale of the bear and the pear tree, a fable that it is unlikely any Lollard preacher would have used. Rather than tell tales, the Lollards, who described themselves as "Bible men," focused on Scripture; mendicants and other popular preachers were more likely to weave stories into their sermons. By inserting the fable into the scene with the Archbishop of York, Kempe contains the effect that Margery's words might well produce by focusing our attention on her faintly scatological tale about the bear whose defilement of a fair pear tree is intended to suggest the need for clerical purity. That the fable, as I have suggested, may have more than a surface relevance adds one more layer of irony to an already dense episode. Kempe could wish for no finer advocate for Margery than Henry Bowet, archbishop of York, whose zeal against the Lollards was well known; she therefore notes his liking of the tale as well as his judicious support for such a Bible-quoting woman. Kempe's strategy here follows a familiar pattern; she at once suggests Margery's own assumption of authority and her assimilation into the patriarchal hierarchy of the contemporary Church. Archbishop Bowet serves Kempe as an official stamp of approval for a protagonist whose words and actions actually indicate her break with all earthly fathers.

It is clear moreover that Margery's "Gospel" is not the Church's, that what Margery is, the Church is not. Margery, with her private visions of the life of Christ (which serve as a type of unauthorized translation), with her certainty that the Gospel provides a precedent for her own provocative life, and with her growing espousal of a literalist interpretation of that Gospel, presents a challenge to a Church whose authority rested on privilege, hierarchy, and the tradition of biblical exegesis and allegory that had defined patristic culture for a thousand years. Kempe characterizes the nature of that challenge by dramatizing the negative effect Margery's strictly regulated behavior has on contemporary churchmen. In particular, Margery's espousal of a doctrine of apostolic poverty would have been seen as a direct threat to a Church that, since the days of Richard II, had sought to defend its secular wealth and privilege from those who wished to see the Church divest itself of temporal goods that compromised its ability to function as a spiritual power.12 The subject of poverty was also linked to the ongoing controversy about (and within) the mendicant orders, which had long since abandoned a literalist interpretation of Christ's injunction to genuine poverty.13 It is therefore appropriate that Christ's command to become poor for his sake comes to Margery in Rome, the center of Christian power. Margery, now poor, must, like the original followers of Francis, depend upon the charity of others for her food, clothing, and shelter. As she discovers, not every churchman meets her poverty with goodwill. In losing the safety net her money gives her, Margery loses the nominal respect she is granted by virtue of her social status.

In exchange, however, Margery gains a new community, organized according to a system of relations defined in familial language. Kempe not only suggests the ineffectuality and the harshness of a male priesthood and, in Margery's visions, the male violence visited upon the body of Christ; she also presents Margery as a figure who nurtures her converts in ways the male-dominated church does not. She therefore describes Margery's male converts as her sons, even when many of these supporters are priests and supposedly have care for her soul. An English priest she meets in Rome who offers to relieve her physical want displays filial piety toward Margery, "mekely he cleped hir modyr, preying hir for charite to receyuen hym as hir sone" (96). When Margery suddenly decides to accompany her daughter-in-law to Germany and is therefore without provisions, the master of her ship provides for her needs and "was as tendyr to hir as sche had ben hys modyr" (231). The young man she encounters in the church at Shene asks her to counsel him in the Christ-like life, saying, "Schewith modirly & goodly Зowr conceit vn-to me" (246).14

Kempe also offers a rather startling picture of the way in which that new community is constituted in a series of phrases intended to preface another incident. Kempe writes, "On þe Fryday aftyr, as þis creatur went to sportyn hir in þe felde & men of hir owyn nacyon wyth hir, þe whech sche informyd in þe lawys of God as wel as sche cowde—& scharply sche spak a-gayns hem for þei sworyn gret othys & brokyn þe comawndment of owr Lord God" (101). Kempe here images Margery as a Lollard preacher, poor for Christ's sake, speaking in the open air against swearing and the taking of oaths, as well as against breaking the laws of God. Thus one Wycliffite sermon notes that it is better to hear God's word and pray than to be encumbered by a wealthy and corrupt Church, going on "and þis is comunly beture doon in þe eyr vndur heuene; but often tyme, in reyny weder, chirchis don good on holy day."15 As it turns out, rainy weather chases Margery and her group home to shelter, but Kempe nonetheless provides a glimpse of a fellowship that has formed around Margery, a community that is not circumscribed by parochial boundaries. The authority Margery claims for herself and is granted by her listeners derives from her private relationship with God. But the very terms of that private relationship inevitably point up the inadequacies of a Church whose buildings, ecclesiastical households, worldly power and wealth, and frequently self-interested interpretation of Christ's literal commands suggest the need for a new understanding of the nature of spiritual authority.



At the time that this creature had revelations, our Lord said to her, 'Daughter, you are with child.'

She replied, 'Ah, Lord, what shall I do about looking after my child?'

Our Lord said, 'Daughter, don't be afraid, I shall arrange for it to be looked after.'

'Lord, I am not worthy to hear you speak, and still to make love with my husband, even though it is great pain and great distress to me.'

'Therefore it is no sin for you, daughter, because it is reward and merit instead for you, and you will not have any the less grace, for I wish you to bring me forth more fruit.'

Then the creature said, 'Lord Jesus, this manner of life belongs to your holy maidens.'

'Yes, daughter, but rest assured that I love wives also, and specially those wives who would live chaste if they might have their will, and do all they can to please me as you do. For though the state of maidenhood be more perfect and more holy than the state of widowhood, and the state of widowhood more perfect than the state of wedlock, yet I love you, daughter, as much as any maiden in the world. No man may prevent me from loving whom I wish and as much as I wish, for love, daughter, quenches all sin. And therefore ask of me the gifts of love. There is no gift so holy as is the gift of love, nor anything so much to be desired as love, for love may gain what it desires. And therefore, daughter, you may please God no better than to think continually on his love.'

Kempe, Margery. Excerpt from The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt, pp. 84-85. London: Penguin, 1985.

By using Margery as such a radical figure for charity and devotion, Kempe suggests the ways in which the Church might function as a transcendent (or transnational) community. Despite the fact that she speaks only English, Margery is able to communicate very well with a wide variety of people. Whereas her fellow English scorn her for her tears, the Saracens Margery encounters in theHoly Land make much of Margery and lead her where she wants to go (75). In Rome, a Dame Margaret Florentyn communicates with Margery by "syngnys er tokenys & in fewe comown wordys" (93). She is invited into a poor woman's house where the sight of a little boy reminds Margery of the love Mary had for her son. Although Kempe records no actual conversation on this visit, Margery nonetheless leaves with Jesus' words in her ear, "Thys place is holy" (94). This gift of tongues is likewise verified in her relations with those foreign priests and confessors she meets in Rome, whose virtue, meekness, and holiness render them capable of communicating with Margery. Finally, Margery herself serves as a figure for translation; she translates into contemporary terms the Christ-like life, just as her private visions translate "her gospel" for the reader. Furthermore, in her handling of the Passion, where the women of Jerusalem step forward to offer Mary their sympathy and to acknowledge that "owr pepil han don hym so meche despite" (195), Kempe implicitly draws a distinction between the "cruel Iewys" (192) who crucify Christ and the women who align themselves with those who follow him, mourn him, and take care of him. Similarly, it is frequently women who come to Margery's aid, offering her food (79), wine in a stone cup (94), compassion for her spiritual sorrow (99), aid in prison (130), or safety when she is on the road. By linking gender to such works of mercy, Kempe adumbrates the character of a new Church that ministers to those in need. Just as Margery is drawn to devotion of the Christ child when she sees the women of Rome carrying male children, so many of the women in the Book remind us of the ways in which the Church might minister to a world increasingly ruled by economic relationships.

As the bride of Christ, Margery emerges as a figure for a new ecclesia, where love, vision, and purity of life are the criteria for authority. The multiplicity of roles that Kempe describes Christ as assigning to the private relations between himself and Margery early in her spiritual career, she elaborates on throughout the Book :

þerfor I preue þat þow art a very dowtyr to me & a modyr also, a syster, a wyfe, and a spowse, wytnessyng þe Gospel wher owyr Lord seyth to hys dyscyples, "He þat doth þe wyl of my Fadyr in Heuyn he is bothyn modyr, broþyr, & syster vn-to me." Whan þow stodyst to plese me, þan art þu a very dowtyr; whan þu wepyst & mornyst for my peyn & for my Passyon, þan art þow a very modyr to haue compassyon of hyr chyld; whan þow wepyst for oþer mennys synnes and for aduersytes, þan art þow a very syster; and, whan thow sorwyst for þow art so long fro þe blysse of Heuyn, þan art þu a very spowse & a wyfe, for it longyth to þe wyfe to be wyth hir husbond & no very joy to han tyl sche come to hys presens.


Kempe here glosses Christ's words about spiritual kinship (mother, brother, and sister) solely in terms of female roles—daughter, sister, mother, and wife—each of which she describes as directed by a special type of love. She goes even farther than some Lollard preachers, who made a point of underlining the centrality of women to the Gospel community. As one sermon notes in reference to this same scriptural passage, "And þus tellep Crist a sutylte þat is of gostly breþren in God: for be it man, or be it womman, þat seruep God trewly, he is on þes þre maners knyt to Crist in sybrede," going on to explain that we are Christ's brothers by soul, sisters by flesh, and mothers by both. The explanation ends with, "And þis is betture cosynage and more sotyl þan is of kynde."16

By describing Margery as substituting a network of spiritual kinship for a natural or fundamentally literal network, Kempe emphasizes the genuine freedom to be found in a fellowship of "gostly breþren." Where the kinship of "kynde" restricts Margery to roles and activities sanctioned by social hierarchies and expectations, her new and divinely ordained spiritual identity releases her into a new realm of meaning where those roles used to define the limits of womankind become signifiers of a different order. Thus the "mulier fortis" of Proverbs 31, whom the Wycliffite translator(s) renders as "strong woman," was conventionally identified with the Church.17 Her activities are those writ large of womankind: she is a figure of fruitfulness and nurture, upholding her husband's honor, providing food, clothing, and livelihood for her family, and charity for the poor, blessed, in turn, by her many children. As Theresa Coletti has suggested, the mulier fortis may well underlie Chaucer's portrait of the Wife of Bath, whose real and metaphoric barrenness, rampant sexuality, and selfish mercantilism set her in opposition to the common good.18 When translated, however, out of the realm of the actual, those very activities that delimit woman's sphere of activities in earthly relationships can be used to define the mission and thus the authority of the Church by reference to the feminine. The Wycliffite glosses upon the passage in Proverbs are especially illuminating:

Cristen doctours expownen comynly this lettre, til to the ende, of hooly chirche, which bi figuratif speche is seid a strong womman; hir hosebonde is Crist, hir sones and douЗtris ben Cristen men and wymmen; and this is the literal vndurstonding, as thei seyen; and this exposicioun is resonable and set opinly in the comyn glos. But Rabi Salomon seith, that bi a strong womman is vndurstondun hooli Scripture; the hosebonde of this womman, is a studiouse techere in hooly Scripture, bothe men and wymmen; for in Jeroms tyme summe wymmen weren ful studiouse in hooly Scripture.19

The first part of this gloss echoes the conventional explanation for the passage that can be found in the Glossa Ordinaria.20 The second part, which compares the woman to the sacred text, whose "housband" is its student and exegete subtly points up the Wycliffite challenge to conventional authority by stressing that this student may be either a man or a woman. For readers of Chaucer and Kempe, the passage resonates with additional ironies. Chaucer's Wife—the antitype of the mulier fortis—who defines herself as the physical text well and carnally "glossed" by Jankyn the clerk, or student, who is her fifth husband, situates herself in opposition to authorities like Saint Jerome, whom she sees as merely constricting the feminine. Kempe, perhaps echoing Chaucer and/or the gloss on Proverbs, likewise defines Margery as the text displayed for confessors and fellow townspeople, ultimately for the reader of her Book. 21 Kempe presents Margery as her own best exegete, even slyly using Saint Jerome, whose reputation for antifeminism was notorious in the Middle Ages, to authorize Margery's assumption of spiritual authority (see 99).

Throughout the Book, Kempe further extends the meaning and the range of female roles and thereby defines Ecclesia's role in contemporary life. Whereas Margery is constricted by her physical role as wife and mother, Kempe's emphasis upon her espousal to Christ and "mothering" of others is meant to underline Margery's translation into the freedom of the metaphoric. Her freedom of movement, her powers of communication and intercession, and her refusal to accept the limits of a hierarchical and conformist society proclaim the message of a radical gospel, a message the women who followed and ministered to Christ indeed bore to their skeptical and temporarily immobile brothers, who took the witness of women as madness (see Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20). As one Wycliffite exegete noted of John's account of the Resurrection, "While men gon awey, stronger loue haþ set þe womman in þe same place." He goes on to use a female figure, Mary Magdalene, as an example of the true preacher, "so must they that han office of preching, that if any sign of heuene is schewed to þem, bisily þey telle it to her neiЗboris."22 Through the transforming power of the Resurrection, female garrulity, or gossip, has become "busy telling," or the Gospel itself. Like other contemporary gospellers, Kempe develops a revolutionary rhetoric, imaging through Margery what she could, perhaps, only image through a woman. The challenge to existing hierarchies she dramatizes in Margery's life is based on cultural assumptions about gender categories, but gender is, finally, the means of expressing what are radical ideas about spiritual dominion.


  1. Bokenham, like Kempe an East Anglian, includes Saint Elizabeth in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen; see lines 9607-24 for her devotion to Saint John.
  2. English Wycliffite Sermons, ed. Hudson and Gradon, 3:362.
  3. For a detailed account of the history of this abbey, see F. R. Johnson, "Syon Abbey," in Cockburn et al., A History of the County of Middlesex, 182-91; Meech, The Book of Margery Kempe, 348-49.
  4. According to the Middle English Dictionary, Obediencer is a late medieval word.
  5. Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 49.
  6. In a paper delivered at the 1992 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, Gail McMurray Gibson elaborated upon the communal ritual of Candlemas. For a "fictional" account of Mary's Purification that became canonical, see The Golden Legend.
  7. The N-Town Purification pageant depicts Mary as first laying her son on the altar as a sign of her recognition of his role in human salvation history. It is a more literal-minded figure, the Chaplain, who reminds her that she still must make an offering, the pair of doves required by the Law. For a cogent discussion of the ways in which depictions of the experience of the Virgin are designed to link maternal joy with sorrow, see Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 155-66.
  8. For work on the "gender-implications" of the gaze, see Stanbury, "Feminist Film Theory: Seeing Chrétien's Enide "; idem, "The Virgin's Gaze."
  9. See Colledge and Walsh, eds., The Showings, the Long Text, chapter 8, 357-59. The quoted passage is on 358.
  10. I quote from the Wycliffite Bible, ed. Forshall and Madden. Carruthers (The Book of Memory, 61) has suggested that such "mistranslations" reflect the medieval way of memorizing sense for sense and that what appear to us as lapses may, instead, suggest the techniques of "memoria ad res." If this is the case in the above passage, it highlights Kempe's internalization of the text as well as the close connection between translation and interpretation. For a discussion of this issue, see pages 133-35; Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages, 91-95.
  11. The prologue to the Wycliffite glossed gospel known as "Short Mark" (London B.L. Additional ms. 41175) defines "gospel" as "good telling." For a discussion of these manuscripts, see Hargreaves, "Popularizing Biblical Scholarship."
  12. For a study of apostolic poverty as it relates to English ecclesiastical and political trends, see Aston, "Caim's Castles"; Hudson, The Premature Reformation, 114-15, 338-40. See also "The Clergy May Not Hold Property" in Matthews, ed., The English Works of Wyclif; "Of Mynystris in þe Chirche," in English Wycliffite Sermons, ed. Hudson and Gradon, 2:329-65.
  13. See Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, chapter 7; Little, Religious Poverty, 177-78.
  14. We can find a similar emphasis upon a differently configured "kinship" group in Wycliffite treatises, such as the sermon on Matthew 12 ("here is my mother and my brother") collected in English Wycliffite Sermons, ed. Hudson and Gradon, 2:280-81.
  15. Ibid., 2:101. Oath-taking was, of course, inimical to the Lollards; see pages 147-50.
  16. Ibid., 2:280-81. Atkinson (Mystic and Pilgrim, 133-34) also remarks on Kempe's wording, noting Saint Anselm's use of bisexual and multifunctional language.
  17. The mulier fortis deserves a special note, for she has been translated in ways that adumbrate a history of the feminine. Thus, while the heirs to Wyclif, with a certain stake in privileging the feminine, offer her as a "strong" woman, the Renaissance translators who prepared the Geneva Bible present her as a "virtuous" woman, focusing our attention upon her womanly activities and underlining her obedience rather than her strength or her force as an allegorical figure. The translators of the Douai Old Testament equivocate and use "valiant."
  18. Coletti, "Biblical Wisdom: Chaucer's Shipman's Tale and the Mulier Fortis," 180-81.
  19. Forshall and Madden, The Wycliffite Bible, v. Proverbs 31, p. 51.
  20. See PL 113:1114-16.
  21. For the fullest exposition of textual metaphors in relation to the Book, see Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh, especially chapter 3.
  22. This passage is taken from the Wycliffite glossed gospel, known as "Short John," ms. Bodley 243.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Bokenham, Osbern. Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Ed. Mary S. Serjeantson. EETS 206. London: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Colledge, Edmund, and James Walsh, eds. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Forshall, Josiah, and Sir Frederic Madden, eds. The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1850; repr., AMS Press, 1982.

Hudson, Anne, and Pamela Gradon, eds. English Wycliffite Sermons. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988-90.

Matthews, F. D., ed. The English Works of Wyclif hitherto unprinted. EETS 74. London: Oxford University Press, 1880.

Meech, Sanford Brown, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe. EETS 212. London: Oxford University Press, 1940; repr., 1961.

Secondary Studies

Aston, Margaret. "'Caim's Castles': Poverty, Politics, and Disendowment." In The Church, Politics, and Patronage in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Barrie Dobson. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. 45-81.

Atkinson, Clarissa. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Cockburn, J. S., H. P. F. King, and K. G. T. McDonnell. A History of the County of Middlesex. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Coletti, Theresa. "Biblical Wisdom: Chaucer's Shipman's Tale and the Mulier Fortis. "In Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984. 171-82.

Copeland, Rita. Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gibson, Gail McMurray. The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Hargreaves, Henry. "Popularizing Biblical Scholarship: The Role of the Wycliffite Glossed Gospels. "In The Bible and Medieval Culture, ed. W. Lourdaux and D. Verhelst. Louvain: Louvain University Press, 1979. 171-89.

Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Leff, Gordon. Heresy in the Later Middle Ages. 2 vols. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Little, Lester K. Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Stanbury, Sarah. "Feminist Film Theory: Seeing Chrétien's Enide." Literature and Psychology 36 (1990): 47-66.

——. "The Virgin's Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion." PMLA 106 (1991): 1083-93.


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Kempe, Margery: Title Commentary

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