Margery Kempe was a woman who was determined to achieve what she desired irrespective of the stern opposition she faced during the middle ages. She was also among the greatest women writers that have ever existed on earth. Kempe was brought up in a society where male chauvinism was highly prevalent. Decisions from female beings were always ignored. Kempe was a clever woman who grew up in a rich environment full of male clerics. Kempe’s talent for being an innovative writer was influenced by several sources. Most of her writings focused on religious beliefs. Margery’s talent was appreciated by people from all walks of life. Kempe was the first woman to stand up against the face of criticism from male clerics. Even though Margery was a woman, she wanted to have an appropriate leadership position in the church and set up her autonomy as a spiritual woman. This paper seeks to examine the evolution of the lady, Margery Kempe, from a married laywoman to being a celibate spiritualist against a backdrop of a chauvinistic, male-dominated society and at the same time grappling with the fact that she was the first woman to attempt to question the authority of men in the church.
Margery Kempe was born at King’s Lynn, Norfolk in 1373. Margery was the daughter of John Brunham who was a wealthy merchant in King’s Lynn. He took part in political matters and managed to be a major as well as a member of parliament. This is a clear indication that Margery was born in a very wealthy environment. Her father was a major five times in Lynn. Margery was never taught to read. This was due to the illiteracy of society in the middle ages. In addition to that, Margery could not speak. She however learned from those individuals who read to her. This is widely dictated in her memoirs.
In 1393, she married John Kempe at the age of twenty who was a young merchant of the town. He was also in the Corpus Christi guild group where her father was. Margery took a lot of pleasure in her husband who was not only understanding but also kind. This was the time when the traditional church was going through many hurdles in administering sacraments effectively. Women faced severe criticism and their bodies had also been attested as unclean. The women were denied the freedom that they needed and their ideas were neglected in society. Shaw observes that “most women also died in the course of childbirth while others went mad” (213). This was however not considered as a problem. Therefore Margery developed that quest to try and change the perception of the conventional church on women’s flesh even though she knew that this was going to be an intricate task. There wasn’t a lady during those times that dared to take such a drastic step.
Margery was determined to take her responsibility when she decided, whilst in her twenties, to move from being a married laywoman to a celibate spiritualist. Margery developed a quest to achieve a better position in the church. She did this irrespective of the traditional view of the church regarding women’s bodies. For Margery to achieve her quest, she needed to break all the traditional stands regarding women. Some of the things that excluded Margery from taking part in the leadership positions in the traditional church were her femininity and her social obligation as a woman. She was therefore forced to come up with her spiritual position by overturning the norms that were accepted within the society. Based on this, Margery could overcome clerical chauvinism physically, to prove herself spiritually.
Margery’s great effort to gain her spiritual independence and acceptance was influenced by several people. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar exposed a lot of Margery’s concerns and worries in their book ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’. The book focused on the woman who lived during the middle ages. In this book, Sandra and Susan argue out that womanliness is divided into double poles: women can only be either “angels” or “monsters”. Being angels, women are not only domestic but also reliant on authority from male beings. On the other side, they are monsters in that they are not only independent but also a threat to male authority. In the book, the monster woman is seen as a threat and therefore neglected in society. The angel woman is seen as a true woman within society.
Margery, coupled with other spiritual women, was deprived of their rights by the Catholic Church. They were expelled from being part of the leadership echelon in the fifteenth century. The reason behind this was that they were controlled by the flesh thereby lacking the reckoning as well as raison d’être of men and thus considered not worthy of the positions. They were thus identified as angels in the house. This meant they were granted the obligation to be good women in their homes, obedient to their husbands, and subjected to domestic chores. Sandra and Susan argue, “The angel-woman should become her husband’s holy refuge” (Gilbert and Gubar 24).
The first God’s call to Margery was considered as an incident of insanity. Amt stated, “This was in 1374 after the delivery of her first child” (119). Parsons and Wheeler also observed that twenty years later when Margery had fourteen children, she received the second call (128). The call was in the form of a sound of melody. This was when she dedicated her entire life to be a spiritual woman. She then desired to leave her role as a woman and concentrate on her realm of spirituality. In 1403, as Salisbury elucidated, “She vowed with her husband before the Bishop of Lincoln as individuals who have dedicated their whole life to Christ although married” (Salisbury 113).
Her challenge was based upon the concept of angels and monsters. Margery never wanted to be a threat to men’s authority. She wanted to be a spiritual woman who would be accepted the way she was by the church. Therefore she wanted to grant herself her position in the spiritual world.
In the process, Kempe suffered a lot of anxieties. The anxieties were argued and portrayed in three different versions. The first one was physicality, then getting a religious foremother, and finally fighting against the anxiety of being an author. All the anxieties and challenges faced by Margery attested to her quest for spiritual superiority. The challenges that Margery faced were of positive contribution to her life as she had the opportunity to get her spiritual identity and go through the boundaries that were created by the traditional church upon her.
Kempe wanted to achieve a quest that had defeated most women during the middle ages. This was however due to fear. Her challenge has been explained by Gilbert and Gubar in their book stating, “Women in patriarchal societies have historically been reduced to mere properties by male expectations and designs. Female figures have incarnated men’s ambivalence not only towards female sexuality but also towards their own (male) sexuality” (12). Margery had to neglect the idea to achieve her religious quest.
Margery learned that what was highly valued during her time was virginity. This was a great obstacle that she had to break to achieve her quest. She had not only to overcome their view and belief of her body but also clarify on pregnancy and childbirth to validate the sanctity of the entire state. She had therefore to shed light on these two states. Her main obstacle was created when she read Gilbert and Gubar’s book. These two authors denote their concepts regarding procreation. They indicate,
“The female womb has certainly, always and everywhere, been a child’s first and most satisfying house, a source of food and dark security and therefore a mythic paradise imaged over and over again; The confinement of pregnancy replicates the confinement of society” (89).
Margery had to reverse the concept of pregnancy to a positive idea.
Margery viewed flesh as an object which liberated her. This was because she felt Christ and her spiritual awareness through her body. She, as a result, expelled the man from her concession. She based on women’s spirituality to attest to the idyllic of flesh as a tool for experiencing God. Her flesh, including pregnancy, enabled her to create her position in the spiritual world.
Margery tried to carve her position by seeking any other woman to model herself upon. In the process, she sought “the experiences of Bridget of Sweden, Julian of Norwich as well as St. Mary Magdalene” (Power 144). In 1414, Margery visited Jerusalem and a church of the Holy Sepulchre and returned to England on May 1415. Amongst these women, Margery compared herself to Mary Magdalene who “moved from being a repentant whore to a spiritual woman” (Warner 88). Margery thus moved from her sexual life to a celibate spiritualist. Therefore, these women were of great inspiration to Margery’s life. They helped her in making her goals real by seeing herself in their shoes.
In her endeavors to attain her quest of being not only an author but also getting her position in the spiritual world, Margery used these women as her “role models” (Barrat 133). As a serious reader of books, Margery could visit books talking about Julian and Bridget to get solace, optimism, and guidance. The real-life of Mary highly framed Margery’s character. Mary had to be lured into temptation before dedicating her life to serve God. Despite this, these role models to Margery did not authenticate her in society. In Gilbert and Gubar’s book, they did not grant her the position that she needed in the traditional church in the same way they did not gainsay the lady artist’s quest for authorship. Gilbert and Gubar denote in their book, she “only transcends her anxiety of authorship by revising male genres” (Gilbert and Gubar 73). Margery thus had an obligation to modify the system of rule in the church in the middle ages. Margery’s role models offered her insight but were short of the necessary power to give her leeway to a religious position that she needed.
The third way that Gilbert and Gubar influenced Margery’s quest was when they argued that “the woman writer possesses what we have called ‘an anxiety of authorship,’ an anxiety built from complex and often only barely conscious fears of that authority which seems to the female artist to be by definition inappropriate to her sex” (Gilbert and Gubar 51). In one way or another, Margery’s anxiety for authorship was also influenced. This was because Margery strived to create her literary ritual and life story; however, she feared exposing her talent. She also feared fighting off criticism from men through literary writing. This was to be done through the exposure and justification of her life story using writing.
In Gilbert and Gubar’s book, it is denoted that one can “strive for true literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards” (73). Margery’s quest for authorship was achieved after submitting herself to be under men. She preferred this rather than fighting or challenging them. Margery did this after the realization that her dictation may be distorted in the process. As a result, she knew and demonstrated how important she was to the progression of her account. The copying and editing practice of the scribe appeared on the surface, to authenticate Margery’s recitation as her distribution quietly stamped the book with her approval.
The lesson that Margery learned from the search for a role model was that she could not rely on anybody to achieve her quest of getting the right position that she desired in church. She required the right authority but was not able to get it because she allowed the man to be in position and to subdue her. This was because only men were granted the right position in the church (Wilson 155). Kempe realized the importance of the scribe in the writing of her narrative; she as a result highlighted and framed various episodes that presented her as holy and had her position in the church although she had been subdued by men. In the writing, she defined a central ground between angel and monster. Margery presented her character in the book as someone who was both independent and reliant on men and also had feminine traits.
Margery’s quest for authorship is presented in a way that is linked with her therapeutic sense of physicality. The reason that the quest for her exploration is based on Kempe’s sagacity of overturning the belief of the church regarding women’s bodies is similar to her quest to be an author. Since she used her body to feel and experience Christ, something which prophetic men did not feel, she used this and her book as her authority over men. In his book, Brooke observed that “Margery viewed her experience of being a woman as Christ’s “blessed spouse” and this made her exceptional and this distinguished her from other corporeal men” (168). Her cries as well as her simple body granted her true authorship over her entire life and its depiction. To be clear-cut, the preceding acknowledged reference to Margery Kempe was at King’s Lynn in 1438 even though the specific date of her death is not quite precisely known.
In the writing of her book, events that Margery encountered were seemingly indicative of a madwoman in Gilbert and Gubar’s book. From her madness, she experienced and felt Christ through the medium of her simple body that was considered unclean by the traditional scribes. Quite a several episodes that surprise the modern audience have been described by Margery in her book. However, it is specifically the madness that freed Margery from the traditional glacial responsibilities that the traditional church had enslaved them in. Acquiring the power over her sexual wellbeing transformed her into gaining the independence that she desired over her voice and authorship. Kempe’s spiritual position and all the resolutions that she desired lay in the emancipation of her monstrous body that could serve a better purpose as an intermediate to God.
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