“Few Men Would Believe this Creature”: Margery Kempe and the Reliability of the Narrative Voice

The Book of Margery Kempe is widely considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Unlike previous texts, in which a presumably truthful narrator voiced the story of the characters, Kempe is the author of her own story. As readers from an age in which autobiography and fiction are long-established literary forms, we may not find this at all strange. However, this would have posed a problem for readers of the time period, who were used to one specific form of literature, if indeed they had been exposed to books at all. Kempe’s voice differs from that of the traditional narrator not only in the basic structure of her work, but also in that readers are directly presented with a less than flattering view of her as a character—she sins, cries excessively, and is widely despised. Although an older Kempe may be voicing the story, the portrayal of her younger self as a widely decried sinner could easily jeopardize her credibility for readers regardless of how much time has passed. Specifically, during the passage in which she gives birth to her first child and soon enters a state of hysteria, convinced for six months that she is hearing demons that want her to kill herself, one might reasonably have doubts about her mental stability and trustworthiness as a narrator. However, her moments of moral redemption depicted in the text, both after this period of madness and when she first discovers God, could potentially serve as a reason to disregard these other factors to a certain extent. Suffice to say, there are many competing reasons to trust or distrust Kempe’s story. How do we as readers reconcile them and determine to what degree these factors cast doubt on her account of her life. Moreover, is such an assessment fair in the first place? After all, to what degree is Kempe, trustworthy or no, actually telling her own story?

The dual nature of an autobiographical narrator as simultaneously author and subject (or ventriloquist and dummy) may be completely familiar to modern readers, but the style of Margery Kempe indicates at least some degree of anxiety about it on the author’s part. There may be major differences, both temporally and personally, between Kempe the narrator and Kempe the character, but several stylistic choices actively work to separate the two further. The primary one is the use of the third-person point of view throughout the text. Although the intimate knowledge of her own prior thoughts and actions makes it clear that Kempe is narrating, she is careful to avoid the “I” statements we expect from today’s autobiographies, and makes no reference to her narrator self. In this superficial way, the work reads more like a novel with a typical omnipotent narrator. One choice that does hint towards a separate authorial persona is the consistent referral to Margery Kempe as a “creature,” which reflects a definite and opinionated point of view on the author’s part. Although effective at distancing the narrator from her younger self and youthful indiscretions, this choice also jeopardizes the erasure of the narrator achieved by the book’s third-person point of view. Kempe the narrator cannot satisfactorily distance herself from Kempe the character without also bringing herself squarely back into being in the world of the book and the minds of its readers. This obviously creates a certain amount of tension—we as readers don’t know whether to accept her as an invisible narrator or a new self almost paradoxically lent credibility through recognition of her own folly. Further complicating the issue of whether or not Kempe is a reliable narrator is the book’s authorship. Rather than the book being conceptualized and written by her alone, it is dictated by her and written with the help of three different scribes. The first drafts the work in an unreadable mix of English and German, the second has difficulty with the first’s handwriting, and the third finds himself unable to read the draft. Even once it is completed, Kempe’s inability to read and write means that she can’t edit her story and correct inaccuracies. The result of this complex creative process is a work narrated not necessarily by her alone, but a compound persona. This poses another obstacle to judging the accuracy of the book’s account of her life. It’s certainly more probable that an account ghost-written by three other people is flawed to a degree, but how do we determine to what degree? On the other hand, does the addition of multiple authors remedy the potential fallibility of Kempe’s narration, or distort her story further? Furthermore, to whom should the text’s potential inaccuracies be ascribed? After all, Kempe may have the ability to pray and cause another person to write her story, but she lacks the capacity to give herself that same power. This suggests a limited control of the final product, and by extension, a limited responsibility for any inaccuracies it contains.

In one passage, “the creature” is about to give birth to her first child with her new husband, but begins to fear for her life during childbirth. To ensure that she’ll go to heaven, she tries to make confession right after her child is born, but the man serving as a witness stops her before she can reveal “a thing in conscience which she had never shown before that time in all her life,” and she is too afraid to finish her confession (7). Throughout her life, the devil has told her that doing penance alone would be sufficient. However, the creature now doubts this, and becomes so afraid of going to hell because she has failed to confess all of her sins that she goes out of her mind, and spends six months convinced that demons are tormenting her. Sure that all is lost, she slanders her new family, begins to sin again, and tries to commit suicide, tearing and biting at her own skin. The struggle she experiences in consistently expressing loyalty to God and not the demons is reminiscent of Steven Connor’s theory of the good and bad voices. His example links the “bad voice” to an infant’s screams, and the “good voice” to a mother’s voice, but the theory applies here as well. The bad voice/demons come to her angrily because of her feelings of guilt about not confessing to her sins fully. In Kempe’s immature and vulnerable state, she is unable to overcome this failure in any way other than self-destruction. The good voice/God cannot reach her again until six months of torment have passed. In Connor’s original conception, the good/bad voice dichotomy is experienced by a screaming baby, comforted by a soothing tone it can’t yet seem to replicate. Similarly, Kempe finds herself trapped in the “bad voice,” a cycle of self-perpetuated hurt and hatred, unable to soothe herself and forced to wait for God’s “good voice” to protect her once again. Although she appears to recover when Jesus tells her, “I forsook never you,” we as readers are left unsure whether or not the recovery is permanent (8). If such a quick descent into madness could occur once, who’s to say that Kempe the narrator is still recovered and not suffering from the same insanity that plagued Kempe the character? Moreover, who’s to say she ever truly recovered at all?

One theme in the work that may lend the narrative voice more credibility is that of self-invention or reinvention. Just as there exist temporal and personal distinctions between Kempe as character and narrator, significant moral changes also occur over the course of the text itself. Specifically in the passage describing her descent into madness after childbirth, she is able to recover from a period of time in which she “knew no virtue nor goodness; she desired all wickedness; just as the spirits tempted her to say and do, so she said and did” (7). After being visited by Jesus, she regains her previous faith and sense of morality, and once again “did all other occupations that fell to her to do wisely and soberly enough” (8). In terms of the narrator’s reliability, this represents a clear distancing of her new self from the unrepentant sinner she originally was. Regardless of any potential return to madness, this recognition of previous error and clear distinction between the morally right and the morally wrong lends the narrator a certain degree of ethos. Beyond increasing her trustworthiness in the eyes of readers, this focus on Kempe’s return to morality increases the legitimacy of the book itself.

The dual nature of Kempe as character, and at least partial narrator of The Book of Margery Kempe, creates major barriers to easily assessing the reliability of the work. Although there is a need to consider the effects of co-authors, madness, and moral redemption on readers’ willingness to trust her narrative self, determining a final answer to “Is Kempe a reliable narrator?” is much more difficult than it might seem at first. Furthermore, why does the accuracy of the story matter? What is the significance of this possible lack of narrative trustworthiness? Although to an audience not yet familiar with the concept of literary fiction and autobiography, this may have been problematic, modern age readers are much more comfortable with the possibility of an unreliable narrator. If we’re able to find meaning and purpose in reading or analyzing literature that is clearly stated to be fictional, couldn’t we do the same with an autobiography that falls somewhere between truth and fiction?

“Men may devyne and glosen up and doun:” How The Book of Margery Kempe and “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” Challenged Female Roles in the Medieval Institutional Church

In both the Book of Margery Kempe and the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in the Canterbury Tales, the female protagonists manipulate clerical discourse to challenge the male dominated institutional church and create new spaces for women in the late Middle Ages. Both texts take place in the Middle Ages, where religion was interpreted and distributed, and therefore controlled, by male authorities, or church fathers. As illustrated in the texts, religious texts were often manipulated by men to control and oppress women. However, both Margery and Wife of Bath resist this oppression by reversing religious discourse and using it to their respective advantages. Margery and Wife of Bath directly subvert male dominance with their own education of the religion, and their personal interpretations. The women’s use of religious teachings ultimately question the authority and reliability of interpretive structures. Both texts depict how male and female interpretation of the same text can stand in direct opposition, revealing the unreliability and instability of interpretation, as it depends on who is interpreting and to what end.

In the Middle Ages, Christianity was dominated by male authority figures, for example God, Jesus, Priests, Bishops, and religious scholars, also known as church fathers. As a result of this structure, women fit into the religion insofar as men dictated. The male interpretive structures of religious texts allowed them to police women’s choices and oppress them in society. For example in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” the Wife of Bath is told that she should have only been married once, because “That sith that Crist ne wente never but onis/To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,/That by the same ensample taughte he me” (Chaucer 10-12). She is reprimanded with Jesus’s words that he used to scold the Samaritan: “‘Thou hast y-had fyve housbondes,’ quod he,/‘And thilke man, the which that hath now thee,/Is noght thyn housbond’” (17-19). In this example, the amount of men women are allowed to marry is being dictated by a biblical story of this one instance where Jesus, a male figure, disapproves of it. At the end of Wife of Bath’s prologue, she talks about her fifth husband Janken: “He spak more harm than herte may bithinke./And ther-with-al, he knew of mo proverbes/Than in this world ther growen gras or herbes” (772-774). Janken would constantly regurgitate stories of women in the Bible or legends of women who cheated on their husbands, or killed their husbands. He would use these as an excuse to berate and abuse Wife of Bath, telling her that: “‘A fair womman, but she be chaast also,/Is lyk a gold ring in a sowes nose’” (784-785). The female ideal of the Middle Ages is a virgin, modelled after Virgin Mary, the woman who gave birth to the Jesus, the head of the religion. Men used her as an example to ensure their wives’ fidelity, and police women’s sexuality. Wife of Bath points out: “…it is an impossible/That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,/But-if it be of holy seintes lyves,/Ne of noon other womman never the mo” (687-691). Men only praise women who are “Saints,” or in other words, women who abide by the standards they created using the Virgin Mary as a model. They have taken the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman and created a code of behaviour with which to hold women accountable to, and use to criticize women who deviate from it. For example, in The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery expresses her devotion to God in a very physical and visceral way that differs from the institutional church’s definition of how a woman should behave. While the church uses scripture to dictate proper behaviour, Margery uses her body as a locus of knowledge that God directly uses to communicate with her. As discussed in class, men are associated with the spirit and women are associated with the physical body. Because the female body has more open orifices that are susceptible to sin, there is a need to contain the body in an enclosed physical space as to prevent a violation of the openings, like nuns in a convent, or Anchoresses who take a vow of enclosure to stay in cells attached to churches. Margery does not abide by this, and instead travels often and goes on several pilgrimages. She is not contained, making public spectacle of her physical experiences of God, using her body as a vehicle of expression rather than something to be hidden and put away. As a result, she is frequently accused of Lollardy and or heresy. She does is not accordance with the male ideal of a religious woman, and is almost condemned several times and nearly burned at the stake for it. Even the clothes she wears are policed by the institutional church. Margery claims she is commanded by God to wear white, but white clothing is only appropriate for virgins. The Archbishop asks her: “Why gost thu in white? Art thu a mayden?” (Kempe 2923). When Margery responds that she is a wife, the Archbishop orders: “to fettyn a peyr of feterys and seyd sche schulde ben feteryd, for sche was a fals heretyke” (2925). The Archbishop arrests Margery because she does not follow his interpretation of religion, but rather her own through her relationship with God; he polices her using male interpretative structures.

Both Wife of Bath and Margery resist this oppression in their own ways to meet their own respective ends by claiming knowledge. Wife of Bath justifies her knowledge through her life experiences: “‘Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world, were right y-nough to me/To speke of wo that is in mariage” (Chaucer 1-3). Margery claims knowledge through physical experience of God, and her visions. Both Margery and Wife of Bath use this knowledge to manipulate clerical discourse to oppose male dominance. For example, Wife of Bath’s claim to knowledge through life experience gives her the agency to speak about sexuality. She dismisses the institutional church’s value of chastity, arguing that: “Men may devyne and glosen up and doun./But wel I woot expres, with-oute lye,/God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;/That gentil text can I wel understonde” (26-29). Wife of Bath takes the scripture and interprets it for herself, in direct opposition to the institutional church and in defiance of men’s desire for their women to be chaste; she manipulates the scripture in a way that justifies and even celebrates her actions. In response to the claim that she should only marry once, Wife of Bath once again turns to her knowledge of the Bible and brings up several examples of men who had multiple wives:

“Lo, here the wyse king, dan Salomon;

I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon” (35-36)

“I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,

And Iacob eek, as ferforth as I can;

And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two;

And many another holy man also.

Whan saugh ye ever, in any maner age,

That hye God defended mariage

By expres word? I pray you, telleth me;

Or wher comanded he virginitee?” (55-62).

Wife of Bath makes a strong statement by using authoritative male figures to prove her points. By referencing Abraham, Jacob, two of the patriarchs of the religion, and King Salomon, the wise king, as people in the religion who had multiple marriages, she topples the arguments counter to hers completely, using their own methods against them. Margery Kempe also uses clerical discourse to prove her knowledge and defend herself against claims of heresy and Lollardy. After the Archbishop arrests her for wearing white and not being a virgin, she is examined by clerics while she prays and weeps at the back of the chapel. The Archbishop “ful boystowsly” (Kempe 2942) asks her: “Why wepist thu so, woman?” (2942) and she answers: “Syr, ye schal welyn sum day that ye had wept as sor as I” (2943). He proceeds to “put to hir the Articles of owr Feyth…[Margery] answeryn wel and trewly and redily wythowtyn any gret stody so that he myth not blamyn hir” (2944-2946). The Archbishop and the clerics conclude that: “Sche knowith hir feyth wel anow. What schal I don wyth hir?” (2946-2947). They are unsure of what to do with a woman who is not in line with what they expect from a woman of faith, but is nonetheless a woman of faith. Margery answers the Articles of Faith confidently, and challenges the Archbishop by explaining that her tears are an expression of faith after he rebukes her for them. In fact, she is often rebuked for crying so loudly and bitterly, with one priest saying to her: “Damsel, Jhesu is ded long sithyn” (3496). When Margery stops crying she responds:

“Sir, hys deth is as fresch to me as he had deyd this same day, and so me thynkyth it awt to be to yow and to alle Cristen pepil. We awt evyr to han mende of hys kendnes and evyr thynkyn of the dolful deth that he deyd for us” (3497-3500).

Margery turns the priest’s question around and changes the issue from being about her seemingly inappropriate crying to the fact that he does not think of Jesus’s sacrifice as often as he should. She cries because she is constantly, eternally mourning Jesus and how he died for the Christian people. Instead of being shamed for her crying, she succeeds in actually shaming the priest for claiming to be a lover of Jesus, but appearing to forget about the gravity of his sacrifice and not expressing his gratitude and love as deeply or severely as Margery. Following this, a “good lady, heryng her communicacyon, seyd, “Ser, it is a good exampyl to me, and to other men also, the grace that God werkyth in hir sowle” (3500-3501). Margery recruits the support of another woman in the crowd, empowering her in a way. This immediate reaction shows how Margery is successful in creating a new space for women to engage in clerical discourse. Furthermore as pointed out in the question, Margery uses a parable, a traditionally religious form, and tells a tale that deeply touches the Archbishop and the clerics. After she tells her story, one of the clerics that opposed her earlier comes to her and “preyid hir of forgefnes that he had so ben ageyn hir. Also he preyid hir specyaly to prey for hym” (3017-3018). Using clerical discourse, Margery not only vindicates herself but also places herself in a position of authority, so much so that clerics who originally oppose her are now asking for her to pray for them. By manipulating the discourse, she reverses the power balance and destabilizes the authority, creating a space for herself amongst the Archbishop and the clerics within the institutional church. Margery and Wife of Bath appear to be using what theorist Stuart Hall would call a transcoding strategy, which is to take a previously existing meaning and reassign it a new meaning. Margery and Wife of Bath contest the meaning of something from within it, taking the original interpretive strategy and challenging it from within itself. By doing this, they successfully create new spaces in Christian society where women have autonomy over their own bodies, whether they be used sexually or as a vehicle through which God can communicate, and agency over their choices without being berated and rebuked. Just as the cleric begs for Margery’s forgiveness and prayer, Margery’s husband Janken gives her autonomy, as well:

“And whan that I hadde geten unto me,

By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,

And that he seyde, ‘myn owene trewe wyf,

Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf,

Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat’—

After that day we hadden never debaat” (Chaucer 817-822).

The female protagonists successfully use a transcoding strategy and manipulate clerical discourse to voice their own interpretations and question the singular male interpretation. The two women challenge the authority of male interpretation, and the interpretive structures that exist in their time. It is apparent that who is interpreting is more important than what is being interpreted.

In both texts, the female protagonists subvert male dominance by using their own interpretations of religious texts. In doing so, they successfully destabilize the male interpretive structure that already exists in the Middle Ages, creating a space for women within a Christian society that is not dictated by church fathers. Their manipulation of clerical discourse makes one question the reliability of preexisting interpretive structures, revealing how the people who are interpreting abuse the source to fulfill their own needs. Margery Kempe and the Wife of Bath’s access to the Bible by claiming knowledge through different physical experiences. Their success in their endeavours forces one to question all interpretive structures, and think critically about the ones that exist presently. Does one readily accept what already exists? Or should one constantly be questioning the reliability of these structures, breaking them down and revealing the possibility of hidden agendas? Margery and Wife of Bath appear to prove the latter, imploring both a Medieval audience and a contemporary audience to doubt and debate preexisting widely accepted interpretations.

Humility, Hysteria and the Female Body in the selected writings of Hildegard of Bingen and The Book of Margery Kempe

Like visions of God, the study of the role and importance of the female body stands at the forefront of lots of text written by mystical medieval women. As we discussed in class, Julian of Norwich’s sick body allowed her to have visions of God, which is what inspired Shewings, and Margery Kempe believed that chastising her body and abstaining from sex would bring her closer to God, which is why she tells her husband that she would let him be slain sooner than she would have sex with him when he asks. In each of their books, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Hildegard of Bingen each recount tales of men who oppressed them, attempted to control them, and doubted their Godliness. However, an overarching theme of these tales is that Medieval men did not have the ability or the desire to understand mystic women, so they were sometimes viewed as mad, ill, or foolish. These terms are synonymous with what would be described several centuries later as female hysteria, which is now believed to actually the manifestation of everything from panic disorders to drunkenness. Female hysteria has also become infamously known as a “dramatic medical metaphor for everything [about women] that men found mysterious or unmanageable” (Micale, 34). For women with mystical visions, there was seemingly only one way to discuss these visions without being perceived as hysterical: practicing lots of humility when discussing their Godliness. Margery Kempe was more than just a devout Medieval Christian: to many, she is viewed as a mystic with a closeness to God that is nearly incomprehensible, but her openness about her intimate relationship with God caused many to doubt and condemn her. Meanwhile, Hildegard of Bingen practiced humility and calmness in discussing her own mysticism, which may be one of the reasons that those around her perceived her as holy rather than hysterical. In this essay, I intend to explore the contradiction between Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen’s hysterical and humble bodies in relation to their mysticism.

Early in her writing, the German Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen sent a letter to a priest named Father Bernard of Clairvaux asking for permission to write about her visions, but in this letter she was very humble in the way presented herself, insisting that her education was minimal. In a contemporary setting, a woman wanting to write about her ideas may have more luck if she emphasizes her stellar formal education, but in the twelfth century, this would likely have the opposite effect. If Hildegard of Bingen were to tell Father Bernard that she was a skilled reader, writer, and philosopher, rather than telling him that she “only [knew] how to read for simple meaning, not for any textual analysis,” then she may have been perceived as a threat to the men in the clergy and other men who considered themselves close to God (4). The reality of this possibility is presented in The Book of Margery Kempe: although her constant crying and outbursts are likely frustrating and disturbing, they also indicate a closeness to God that clergymen, especially those who hate her, felt a woman could not have and did not deserve. This may contribute to their views of her as a madwoman rather than a mystic. Although both Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe lived and wrote several centuries before doctors began diagnosing women with “female hysteria,” the sentiment that women’s behavior is inherently caused by something that ails their weak bodies still stood. In The Book of Margery Kempe, when she is on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Margery Kempe’s fits of holiness are so odious that her husband becomes so embarrassed that he pretends not to know her and the clergymen grow to resent her. During these outbursts, she is displaying a mania that would likely have been grounds for diagnosing hysteria in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although crying, fainting, and anxious fits were caused by her overwhelming closeness to God, they were also considered symptoms of her madness that would have been labeled female hysteria several centuries later.

In addition to being an “abbess and mystic,” Hildegard of Bingen was also an early female doctor (Tasca). Her work as a doctor is recognized as the most significant early attempt to reconcile science with faith, is something that continues to be attempted today. Unfortunately, Hildegard of Bingen’s attempt to reconcile science and faith happened mostly at the expense of science and her research and assumptions seems to parallel the research and assumptions made about female hysteria, which occurred several centuries later. Her writing indicates the belief that “melancholy is a defect of the soul originated from Evil and the doctor must accept the incurability of this disease,” and that “melancholic men are ugly and perverse, women slender and minute, unable to fix a thought, infertile because of a weak and fragile uterus” (Tasca). Similarly, female hysteria was frequently believed to be caused by a “wandering womb” that was most likely in need of a child (or in need of more children), and melancholia was considered a major symptom of hysteria along with anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sporadic crying, and fainting spells. Although Hildegard of Bingen is not noted as an early researcher of female hysteria per se, her writing about medicine indicates that the misogynistic beliefs behind female hysteria were present even in the twelfth century.

One final symptom of female hysteria that Margery Kempe displays is a bit more subdued but is present in The Book of Margery Kempe nevertheless: her seemingly erotic fantasies about her love for God. In the text, she is presented at one point explaining to her husband that she cannot engage in sexual activity on earth because she needs to channel her sexual energy into her “marriage” with God, and she proceeds to intimately describe their love and their marriage bed. Although sexual fantasy is among the less discussed symptoms of hysteria, for ages doctors believed that women who became engaged with elaborate fantasies, especially sexual fantasies should be considered hysterical, even if there was no accompanying melancholia, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sporadic crying, and fainting spells (Devereux, 36).

It is not only Margery Kempe’s lack of humility in regards to her visions that causes people to disregard her as a mystic: although her sporadic weeping and rambling discussions of God may make her seem hysterical, her tendency to dress as a nun makes those around her to view her in even less favorable light. Hildegard of Bingen, too, dressed as a nun, but she actually was a nun, so her modest white garb was not unwarranted. The writing of medieval women touches on many issues, including religion, social inequality, and marital politics, but in indirectly addressing an issue that remained relevant for several centuries, these writers established long-term relevance and remain part of an ongoing historical discussion about female hysteria.

Works Cited

Devereux, Cecily. “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited: The Case of the Second Wave.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 40 no. 1, 2014, pp. 19-45. Project MUSE.

Micale, Mark S. “Hysteria and Its Historiography: The Future Perspective.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 1990, pp. 33–124. SAGE Journals.

Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women and hysteria in the history of mental health” Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH vol. 8 (2012): 110-9.