In the mid-1970s, casting about for a dissertation topic, I stumbled over Margery Kempe. In those days you had to stumble over her – she did not appear in the syllabus of any course in medieval studies, nor did she haunt the ether. (Not that we would have known if she had.) Students of medieval Christianity had probably heard of Margery, but very vaguely, with few specifics about her life or work. She was a mystic, sort of, but her book was not read along with Julian’s Revelations or The Cloud of Unknowing. It was not assigned.
Margery Kempe was an English woman of the late 14th, early 15th centuries who “wrote” a kind of memoir – dictated it, really, as she couldn’t read or write. It was the first autobiography in the English language, although Margery didn’t think of it that way. She called it “a short and comforting treatise for sinful wretches,” and her intention was to display divine activity in her life after she met God in person during a breakdown following the birth of her first child. I’ve called it a breakdown; Margery called it a “great bodily sickness, through which she lost her reason for a long time,” and commented later, more precisely, that “this creature went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits for half a year, eight weeks and odd days.” She always referred to herself as “this creature” – that is, part of the Creation.
Margery recovered after Jesus “in the likeness of a man” (a sweet, handsome, friendly man in a purple robe) sat on her bed and reassured her. After that she got well, got up, and resolved to serve God. There were a few setbacks: she couldn’t give up vanity and greed all at once and tried to make a lot of money, but business reverses taught her a sharp lesson. Then Margery tried again, and this time stuck to her resolve. She set forth on a career of extraordinary adventure and activity, including pilgrimages in Europe and the Holy Land, accusations of heresy (a burning offense in those times), thirteen more children, and a great many conversations with Jesus, Mary, and the saints. She indulged in an extraordinary amount of weeping and wailing: God gave her a great gift – the Gift of Tears! Margery enjoyed the gift so loudly and enthusiastically that she made herself unpopular in many places and was sometimes asked to leave church. “Sometimes,” in fact, “she cried very loudly and wept and sobbed very bitterly, as though she would have burst… And sometimes she was all of a sweat with the effort of the crying, it was so loud and violent, and many people wondered at her and cursed her roundly…” When this happened, Margery would often remind her critics that “the more shame and scorn I suffer, the merrier I may be in our Lord Jesus Christ.” She had a habit of criticizing others, even important people: she told the Archbishop of York he would never get to heaven unless his behavior improved. You have to admire her nerve.
You can read about all of this and much more in The Book of Margery Kempe, now available online and in print, most recently in a fine new translation into modern English by Anthony Bale. The Book was not so easily accessible back in the 1970s. I encountered it first in the Early English Text Society’s scholarly edition – the original text, in Chaucerian English, edited by Sanford Meech and Hope Emily Allen, with notes by Allen. It was the notes that drew me first. Hope Emily Allen was a very unusual scholar – not an academic, but a devoted student of English mysticism. She was an American, working in London in the summer of 1934 when Colonel William Butler-Bowdon found the manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe in his house in Lancashire. The Colonel took it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the museum called on Hope Allen to examine the manuscript. She identified it, with great excitement, as the lost book of Margery Kempe and announced the discovery in a letter to the Times – that’s how it was done then. Before 1934, although it had been known that someone named Margery Kempe, believed to be an anchoress (a religious recluse) had written a mystical treatise, only a few 16th-century excerpts from the Book were available, with no real information about the author. The Colonel’s own translation, without notes and in a somewhat old-fashioned style, was the only “modern” version available before 1985.
I was one of an early cohort of women-going-back-to-school, women with feminist sympathies and recently-recognized intellectual and professional aspirations. We had few role models in the academy and not many women to study; women in general – not only Margery – were barely visible on our reading lists. In Margery’s book and in Allen’s notes I found both, and was stunned. First, of course, the Book itself – a mystical treatise that mentioned such matters as domestic drudgery, sex, and unwelcome pregnancy, and whose author was a recognizable (and annoying) human being. Margery Kempe was neither nun, saint, nor anchoress, nor did she observe the norms of conventional etiquette for mystics (or for anyone). She had friends and admirers, but also enemies and detractors, and when you read the book, you’ll see why. In just one of many examples of her effect on other people: when she was on pilgrimage, her companions got so sick of her that they stole her sheets and cut off her skirt so that it barely covered her knees. Margery attributed their unkindness to the necessary and welcome persecution inflicted on holy people, which of course made her even more annoying.
Allen’s notes pointed to a world of women saints and visionaries who may have been, in varying degrees, aware of each other’s lives and spiritual adventures – in other words, to something that we might now call a network. She even suggested that there might have been something in their lives and works that we might (or might not) interpret as “feminine.” (Allen wrote in the 1930s and I read her in the 1970s, so please resist the temptation to ask, What do you mean by “feminine?”) Hope Allen was not able to finish her work: “Volume I” of the E.E.T.S. Book of Margery Kempe, which appeared in 1940, was never followed by the hoped-for Volume II. The Second World War separated Allen from resources and colleagues in England, and after the war, she was not well or strong enough to finish. She wrote to a friend that the Margery project as she envisioned it was “more suited to a beginning career than to one well on towards the end.” Indeed, as it has turned out, the project still occupies students and scholars (and now twitterstorians!), and has done so for the last eighty years.
Back in the 1970s, though, I had a great deal of trouble getting anyone in authority to share my enthusiasm. I took my idea to an eminent medievalist at Harvard who suggested, kindly but firmly, that I’d better find something else if I ever wanted to get a job. His expression, conveying a degree of distaste along with that judicious academic frown, became all too familiar. I learned to recognize it as the “Eeew” so often inspired by Margery in her day and our own. Over time I came to recognize this as the ick factor and even discussed it in my chapter on historiography, although in those days I called it “dislike and discomfort” instead of “the ick factor.”
It occurred to me then that people’s responses to Margery had not changed much from those of her neighbors and fellow-pilgrims; some liked her, some didn’t, but almost everyone found her peculiar. “If you want to write about a medieval woman mystic, why not Julian of Norwich?” was the question most often put to me. Julian stayed in one place after she received her revelations, unlike Margery, who was told by an irate monk of Canterbury that he wished she were shut up in a house of stone so that no one could speak with her – not an unusual response, then or now. When I did get a job, despite the topic of my dissertation, and assigned The Book of Margery Kempe to my students, they responded with the familiar range of love-hate reactions. Some were intrigued; some were revolted. As Anthony Bale has pointed out (“Woman in White” TLS Dec 2014 – paywall), these reactions are all over the Internet: Margery is constantly trolled by tweeters who call her whiny and neurotic and are outraged at her self-absorption. ICK!!!!
As for my career, if only “Kempe Studies” had existed in the 1980s! When the book based on the dissertation was reviewed by my tenure and promotion committee, one member of that distinguished body wrote that it “should have been published in Ms. Magazine.” That might have been just the Harvard history department at work again, but I think it was the ick factor. Well, now there are Kempe Studies, Kempe symposia, Margery’s Book has been digitized by the British Library, she has a website, a Facebook page, and all those tweets. My elder daughter badgered me for years to take up blogging and tweeting – and when I did, I found Margery there ahead of me. Margery’s Book – which, when you think about it, would have made a great blog! – is available online and in bookstores and libraries and Sparknotes.
Readers continue to react very strongly, one way or another – love her or hate her. For forty years, in my case, it’s been mostly love.
Comments welcome, add yours. Or join the conversation on Twitter, This Creature would be most pleased.