Why Margery Kempe?
This essay originally appeared in Historical Fiction Connection: http://www.hf-connection.com/2013/06/giveaway-altarpiece-cross-and-crown.html
When I tell people that I am fascinated by the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, and that I have given a copy of her autobiography to my fictional nun, Catherine Havens, in The Altarpiece, one of the most common replies is, “Why?” Given the choice between loud, weepy Margery and her more subdued and dignified contemporary, Julian of Norwich, most readers will go for Julian. Even T. S. Eliot liked Julian, after all. Who wouldn’t prefer the quiet, thoughtful anchoress who assured us that “all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well”?
Well, in Henry VIII’s England, all was not well, and Margery Kempe was, for me, the mystic for the Tudor era. It didn’t hurt to discover that the historical monastery at Mount Grace, which is the village I used for my novel, actually did have a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe! My Catherine insists on the value of this early autobiography of a self-determined mother even in the face of ridicule by her friends and fellow nuns, and it’s a good thing that people like her existed, because we now recognize the Book of Margery Kempe as the one of the first biographies by an English woman—along with the spiritual autobiography of Julian of Norwich.
Margery’s story was actually recorded by scribes, and these were likely local monks who could read and write. Margery herself was apparently illiterate, though as the daughter of the mayor of Lynn (now King’s Lynn), she certainly would have had access to the pens, ink, and paper she needed. And it was quite a story. It begins when Margery has had her first child and falls into what we would now call post-partum depression. She is so blue that a priest is called to hear her confession, and when he fails to pardon her (we don’t know what the sin was or what exactly the priest said), she falls into such a state that she must be tied to her own bed to stop her from biting her own hand. She is in this condition when Jesus appears at the foot of the bed, saying, “Why hast thou forsaken me and I forsook never thee?” After this vision, Margery regains her composure and is able to resume her duties as a wife.
Life isn’t “normal” for Margery, though. She tries several businesses and fails; she chides herself for vanity in clothing; she has fourteen children. She tries to convince her husband to become celibate (I wonder why . . . ) but he refuses. She develops weeping fits whenever she encounters boy babies, seeing in them the face of Christ. She really irritates her friend and neighbors. She goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and her traveling companions try to ditch her several times along the way; her maid steals her money while they’re in Rome and disappears. On the way home, she meets up with an Irish hunchback named Richard, who kindly accompanies her home. Her husband has finally agreed to celibacy, if she will pay his debts and have dinner with him on Fridays, but he falls down the stairs of their home and cracks his skull open. The neighbors blame Margery. Oh, and she’s tried for heresy and dragged before the bishop of York to be tried.
Pretty exciting, isn’t it? So why don’t more readers love brash, independent Margery? She even stands up to the bishop and convinces him to turn her loose and appoint someone to walk her home! It’s the weeping bit, in part, I think. Margery had what were called “holy tears,” and while it may sound lovely, the condition was in fact a constant annoyance to people she met. Readers nowadays find it odd, too. More difficult for contemporary readers, though, is the way Margery Kempe talked about her relationship with the divine. She refers to Jesus as her “husband” and invites him into her bed. She describes how they will kiss each other and lie together as husband and wife. Students tend to get very squirmy when they read these passages, and some readers are downright offended. “She wants to sleep with Jesus!” they say.
It’s important to remember that, in the middle ages and early Renaissance, the notion of being a “bride of Christ” was the central European metaphor for humanity’s relationship to the divine. It wasn’t just nuns, either. All of humankind was seen either as a collective child to the parents of the Godhead (who the mother was shifted around some) or as the collective wife to the husband of God/Christ. This “feminized” men, in some ways, even as it laid the path for the decreased power of wives after the Reformation, when the position of men in families was enhanced to fill the role vacated by priests.
In Margery Kempe’s time, however, Christ was very commonly thought of as the husband of the church itself, and her writing reveals the literal meaning of this metaphor. It’s a little queasy-making for some readers, but it’s also bold thinking about her relationship to God. Margery may not be able to make beer, but she can be loved by God as passionately as any human being. And she maintains that her life is as worth recording as anyone’s, even down to the last days of her marriage, when she moves back in with her husband, now grown incontinent and feeble-minded, to wash his filthy laundry and feed him until his death. Margery Kempe knows she has lived a complete life, deeply connected to both the physical world and the divine, and she is unashamed of her ability to experience both.
These are the qualities that cause my nun Catherine, who is also strong-willed, to value Margery Kempe, despite the laughter and scorn that her book often produces. Was Margery crazy? Maybe. But if she was, her “insanity” was caused by a holiness so intense that the banal world could not contain it.