Irina: Hello. You're listening to the LRB podcast, and welcome to the fourth episode in a series of Close Readings, looking at the lives and voices of women in medieval literature. I'm Irina Dumitrescu, a contributor to the LRB and I'm joined for the series by Mary Wellesley, also an LRB contributor whose book Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers discusses, among other things, our subject for today. Hello Mary. This week's episode takes us to late 15th-century Norfolk and the poor town of Bishop’s Lynn, where a proud woman from a well-connected family begins an unusual career. She becomes a wife, an entrepreneur, a mother, a pilgrim, a visionary and an author. To some of her contemporaries she's a hypocrite, pretending to a holiness not hers. To others she's a teacher with the gift of prophecy. We are of course talking about Margery Kempe. Mary, just to start us off, tell us a little bit about who Margery Kempe was and how we know about her life in the first place.
Mary: Well, I always like to start a discussion of Margery by telling the story of the discovery of the only known manuscript of the text of the Book of Margery Kempe, because it's just one of those really glorious stories. So in 1934 a family called the Butler-Bowden family, who were a Catholic family, had a house in Derbyshire called Southgate House, and the family were playing ping-pong one day. And one of the ping-pong players trod on a ping-pong ball. And so they went to a nearby cupboard to try and look for more ping-pong balls. And out of the cupboard fell what was described as ‘an entirely undisciplined clutter’ of smallish leather-bound books. And Lieutenant-Colonel Butler-Bowden was exasperated by this undisciplined clutter and said, I'm going to put this whole lot on the bonfire tomorrow. Mercifully, however, it was decided that the books shouldn't be put on the bonfire, and that first of all they should be looked at, they should have a look and see if there was anything interesting. And one of the books had this rather unprepossessing cover. It had been eaten away, seemingly by a mouse, as they said. But inside it contained the only known manuscript of the lost Book of Margery Kempe. Previously the only known version of the text was some heavily abbreviated extracts of the text, which were printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. (Wynkyn de Worde was the inheritor of William Caxton’s printing press.) But the point was that in 1934 there was no other known version of the text. Now the reason the manuscript is so important is that if we had only known about Margery Kempe from these abbreviated extracts, we would have a much poorer sense of who she was. And I always say about her, the extraordinariness of Margery lies in her ordinariness because she was from this prosperous urban mercantile family from Bishop's Lynn, she was the daughter of the mayor. She was what we might call a middle-class woman. She was born some time around 1373.We don't know when she died, it was probably after about 1439. She married John Kempe in around 1393, and she had 14 children with him. And she runs various businesses. She works variously as a brewer and a horse mill operator. And crucially, she goes on several pilgrimages. She travels to Jerusalem, to Rome, to Santiago de Compostela, to Norway, to Germany. And she also travels extensively in England. And the reason that Kempe's story is so unusual, the reason we're so lucky to have this manuscript is that it's so rare to find the voices of people like Margery Kempe from the Middle Ages. It's so often the voices of a regal or ecclesiastical elite that come down to us. And that's because most often people who were not attached to those classes, especially women, were not literate.
Irina: Maybe we could pause there for just a moment and ask what does it actually mean to be illiterate in this time, and how would somebody who's technically illiterate, who can't write themselves, get something written down for them.
Mary: So Margery may have been able to partially read. There are a couple of references within the book that suggest that possibly she was able to maybe make out some words or to read some sections of text, even if she didn't read it with great fluency, but it seems very likely that she wasn't able to write. And so therefore she had to resort to the use of what's called an amanuensis, a scribe who heard her words and wrote them down for her. In fact she made four different attempts to get the work written down, using three different amanuenses over quite an extended period of time. And I find that moving, because it testifies to her determination to get her story recorded.
Irina: And maybe it's also important to say that the fact that someone might not be able to read very much doesn't mean that they wouldn't have a familiarity with texts of their time. That it's quite normal in this time even among people who can read to hear texts read out loud, so that she does seem to have a familiarity with theological literature of her time, even if she is not someone we would think of as highly literate. Maybe you could talk a little bit about her amanuenses, because there's something a little bit odd that happens... it's almost like the miracles begin even with the writing of the book. What was the story of these different scribes who were helping her get her tale down?
Mary: So the first is a man who's described just as an Englishman, but it seems from other details in the book that this may have been her son who had been living in Germany. And he works on the text, but he dies when it's incomplete. Then she goes to a priest and brings the text that has been written by the man who might possibly be her son, and he discovers that it was so ill written that he could make little sense of it, for it was ‘neither good English nor German’, and the letters were not written as they should be. It's not only that it made no sense, but also that the letters themselves were completely back to front and upside down. I'd love to have seen it! Anyway, this priest is then discouraged by malicious rumours, and he gives up the work of the text. And then Margery takes the text to a correspondent of the first amanuensis, the Englishman who may be her son, but he's not able to understand the text. And then the original priest who'd been working on it before is plagued by guilt, and he then decides that he should try to work on the book again, and he prays to God to be given the ability to understand this much mangled text. And miraculously he is able to, and thus the book gets written.
Irina: So you get a little bit of a sense already in the story that begins the book, that's the preface of the book, that she is in this multilingual space, she's connected to German-speaking lands, and that she really has a great force of will to get the story down. She's waited a very long time. People have asked her to write her life beforehand and she's decided to wait, but now she's quite intentional about it. And even though the book itself always refers to her as ‘the creature’, always refers to her in the third person, it is her life. And I do think it's the way that she sees it, but it refers to her in a humble way. Let's talk a little bit about what actually happens in her life to take her out of the ordinary existence that she used to lead, because on the one hand she's a normal middle-class woman, as you put it. She tries out different businesses. She tries her hand at brewing and milling, and it doesn't go well for her. She's very proud and likes to dress very well, so reminiscent of the Wife of Bath in certain ways. But what is the event, what actually takes her out of her ordinary life and puts her on a completely different track?
Mary: So the book opens with this very disturbing description. She is only twenty years old and she has married John Kempe, and she's pregnant and she gives birth to her first child. We don't know anything about the birth and whether that child survived, but soon after she describes how she went out of her mind. And it's a very disturbing description. She doesn't know who anyone is. She scratches at the skin of her chest with her nails. She causes permanent scarring. She says that had she had access to other instruments she would have ‘fordone herself’, she would have tried to kill herself. She's kept chained up because John simply doesn't know what to do with her. And in this terrible state about six months passes, and she is all alone. It says her ‘keepers were far from her’. So we have this sense that she had to have round the clock care, seemingly, because she was in such a desperate state. And she is all alone. And this is an important point, because often in the book she has these important experiences when she's on her own. She's alone, and suddenly she has this vision of Christ, and he comes and sits on the end of her bed. And she describes him as being ‘very beautiful’. He's very handsome. She uses this Middle English word that you might directly translate as ‘affable’, but we’re meant to get the sense that he is so friendly, he's kind of hunky, and he has this beautiful robe on. And he sits at the end of her bed and he says to her, why have you forsaken me? I never forsook you. And this is the beginning. After this vision she then is restored to her wits. And this is the first in a long series of visions of Christ and the Virgin and various saints that happen repeatedly throughout her life. But what I find very moving about this episode is just the sense that in this moment of desperation she suddenly has this vision that brings her back to some semblance of sanity. And then in this marvellously Margery kind of way, the first thing she does is ask her husband for the keys to the buttery. And you have this great sense that she just sits down to a nice hearty meal after a mystical experience! And that just seems very Margery, as you'll see as we go through the text a bit more.
Irina: It's a remarkable passage also because it gives us a sense of a small glimpse into motherhood in the Middle Ages. We do know that childbirth was a dangerous time for women, as it was really up until the modern period, that women, if they could afford to meet all kinds of preparations to ease childbirth and to make survival more likely, whether that was setting up a chamber in which to give birth or having protective amulets or garters and so on, to gather every kind of protection possible for this dangerous ordeal. But in this case we have an interesting insight into a woman having what I think many scholars have thought of as a postpartum psychosis after the birth of a child. As you said, we don't know if the child lives or dies, so we don't know if she's also mourning, but she seems to be really incapacitated by it for six months and never the same again. Could we talk a little bit about what role motherhood seems to play in her life. The central event that really gets her into a different kind of relationship with Jesus and with God is connected to her motherhood. But it's a funny story after that.
Mary: So I think motherhood is to some degree the defining feature of the text in some ways, because so many of her visions focus on the person of the Christ child, and she often experiences the pain of the Virgin and feels very strongly the maternal pain of the mother of God. And she has these visions. She has a vision of attending the Nativity and it's a very particular vision, which we can talk about in a moment. But in a curious way we know very little about Margery’s motherhood. There's one moment in the text where she refers to 14 children. But other than that, children are not mentioned throughout the text. And it's this great absence in the text, it's the thing that is the engine, the energy of the book, but also is not mentioned. And it's very hard to know what we should make of that. I personally think that a lot of her children died and that's why they're not mentioned, but maybe she just didn't care for them. Seems unlikely!
Irina: Well, we do later meet her son who lives in Germany and he comes to England with his wife and so on, so it's clear that at least one of them survives. But it is an interesting question, what we do with these situations of women not talking about their children. It's not really shocking when men don't talk about their children, but when a female figure, especially one who has been married or who has a sexual life, doesn't mention her children it seems to stand out. We had this problem with the Wife of Bath, who we talked about in our last episode. She has five marriages. She never mentions any kids. She also doesn't say that she doesn't have any, but there's always been this question mark next to her. Why doesn't she talk about the children? Does it mean she didn't have any, or does she simply not feel that it's necessary to mention them at that point? I don't need to talk about my kids at work all the time either, or when I'm on vacation. So with Margery it's a little more interesting, because she also really seems to have powerful connections to other mothers. You talked about her visions of St. Anne and of the Virgin Mary, but she also has these interests in other maternal figures or situations where people are caring for kids. At one point she sees a poor woman with a baby boy, and it reminds her of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. She seems fond of kids. And she seems fascinated by this relationship between the mother and child, but the way she expresses that is through Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Mary: Yes. So she says that... there’s this episode in Rome when she sees this woman breastfeeding and it then brings to mind the pain of the Virgin. and it makes her think instantly of Christ. And so every time she mentions motherhood or mentions children she's always saying that this is a devotional springboard that makes her meditate on the Passion.
Irina: Maybe it would be worth saying a few words at this point on this form of meditation, this late medieval spirituality that Margery is participating in, because in that sense she's not that odd for her time, even though she can strike the modern reader as a little bit strange.
Mary: So in this period there was a form of devotion that we now call affective piety. And the idea of this was that devotees should try to imagine themselves as physically present at the events of Christ's life. And there were several texts produced in this period that Margery composed the Book that were incredibly popular, that helped devotees to imagine themselves attending the Nativity or being at the foot of the cross with Christ. It was a way of experiencing the pain of God's humanity. Margery is in that sense not unusual, but her particular brand of it is very Margery. So there's this extraordinary moment when she is present at the nativity of Christ, and she imagines herself there just attending in this incredibly practical, helpful, and in my opinion very maternal way. She gets swaddling clothes and what are described as white kerchiefs and she swaddles Christ. She’s essentially changing Christ’s nappy. And there's something so glorious about the fact that she wants to be very practical, that she's not having some kind of magical mystical experience here. It is a mystical experience, but it's a very practical response to the concerns and needs of motherhood.
Irina: She's participatory, right? She doesn't just watch and feel the emotions. Most of the examples of affective piety I can think of are about perceiving, but Margery serves and she serves Mary. She wants to be in service. She wants to be doing something, making a soup, getting something. After the Nativity she makes accommodations, she arranges for the accommodations. So she's the one who’s making the hotel reservations and arranging for the nappies and for the food. There's a sense in which she wants to help the holy family rather than just sit by and watch them. You've mentioned the visions, and maybe we could talk about how her life changes after the visions begin. What does she start doing after this really key event where Christ comes to her and rescues her from her mental illness, as we would now call it? How does that change her life?
Mary: So a period of time passes during which time she has these two businesses, one, as you mentioned, as a brewer and another as a horse mill operator. Both of those businesses fail, and she sees this as a sign of God's displeasure. It also describes how she has a period of wearing very fine clothes. And she talks about her own pride. But slowly she begins to come closer and closer to a path of devotion, as it were. And she begins to abstain from eating meat and drinking wine. And at a certain point she takes up wearing white. This is clearly very troubling to a lot of the people that she meets because she's taking on the outward display of religiosity, of seemingly having taken religious vows. She becomes what's called a vowess, somebody who takes religious vows but isn't actually attached to a religious institution. And this is clearly very troubling to a lot of the people that she meets because she's not conforming to expectations about the kind of devotion that's appropriate. And we talked a little bit in the Julian of Norwich episode about how concerned theological writers were in this period that women having mystical experiences might in fact be being tempted by the devil. They might be having false visions. And this is something that the text returns to repeatedly. It's almost a refrain in the prose, her real concern that these visions are not real.
Irina: And it's important to say that it's not just other people who doubt her, although they do quite a bit. She has this incredible desire and almost powerful urge to keep checking. She's always going to people and telling her story and asking them, is this legitimate? Is this orthodox? Is this from God?
Mary: Yes. She’s constantly seeking validation, and she consults a number of different authorities, many anchorites, including in fact Julian of Norwich who she visits in 1413, and Julian assures her. They spend what the text describes as ‘many days together’. And Julian assures her of the validity of her visions. It's one of the few documents we have that tell us anything about Julian's life that we get from outside of her text. But the key point about Margery is that she is scorned wherever she goes. She seems to just annoy people! And that's partially because one of the main things about Margery is that she expressed her devotion in this very visceral way by weeping and roaring – the text often uses this Middle English word roryng – and wailing, and she's often overcome with sadness at the idea of the Passion. And she cries in the church and she cries in the street, and she also tells people how they should be living a good life. And she really rubs people up the wrong way.
Irina: That reminds me, there's this great passage later in her story where a famous preacher has come, and is giving a sermon. And Margery, of course, is someone who like the Wife of Bath really likes to go and hear people preach. You get a sense that this is a star occasion, this is a great entertainment as well as a spiritual devotion. And she starts having one of her fits in the middle of the sermon, and essentially it takes the attention away from the famous travelling preacher. So there's this way that she's disruptive. It's not just that she's weeping on her own in private, but she's copiously crying and falling to the ground and moving around in public places. And that I think in a way naturally causes people to wonder, is she faking it? Is she putting on a show of holiness? Because it's so over the top. And there's also one scene where people go and watch her in private to see if she also weeps in private, which she does. What I love about this is that you get a sense also of medieval people really wanting proof for holiness. They're not going to accept any person who comes along and lays a claim to it with a certain kind of behaviour. They're watching, they're sceptical. Some people believe right away that she’s a special person with certain kinds of gifts, but not everybody does. What else changes in her life as she begins to feel closer to God and to have a more profound and emotional experience of religion?
Mary: So during that very difficult opening episode of the book when Margery is extremely ill after the birth of her first child, she fears she will die, so she calls for her confessor in order to confess her sins. She has a particular transgression that has been troubling her, and she begins to tell the priest about this particular sin. And he is a little too hasty and he doesn't give her time to fully explain what she's done. Whatever the sin is, we never find out. And she therefore holds on to the pain of this transgression and never overcomes it. It's unclear whether this is some kind of sexual sin, because clearly she is tormented by the idea that she is not a virgin and that therefore she can't live some kind of holy life. And she enters into this protracted negotiation with John her husband about whether they will continue to have sex or not. And at a certain point she does eventually convince him, they enter into a deal and she convinces him that they should cease their conjugal relations. But she's troubled throughout the text with the fact that she isn't a virgin and she often asks Christ whether she can still be loved by him, despite the fact that she's not a virgin.
Irina: I think we need to stop for a moment there and dwell on the relationship between Margery and John, because it's such a fascinating relationship between these two married people. You get the sense that they've had a lot of pleasure in each other. Margery talks about the pleasure she's had in his body several times. This is not someone who's saying no to a life of sex because she's never liked it and it's been forced on her by the marriage contract. She's saying no to something she's really enjoyed in the past, though I'm sure that's complicated by the 14 pregnancies, as one might imagine! And when she basically tells him she wants a chaste marriage he's distraught, because from his perspective she's the only person he can have sex with without sinning. So she is basically committing him to a life of chastity as well if she takes on a life of chastity, and of course they stay married. And he says to her, if you had the choice between my head being cut off or having sex with me, which would you choose? And she says, oh, I'd rather you die than ever have sex with you again. But this is what I find so great. At this point, she has been fasting on Fridays and he asks her to make a deal. He says, OK, how about you pay my debts before you go to Jerusalem, we continue sleeping in the same bed and we eat together on Fridays? And she's upset because it's God who has told her to fast and she doesn't want to go against God's command. So she goes and prays on it and God says to her, you know what? This was actually a really good setup, because the reason I wanted you to fast on Fridays was so that you could have something to give up in this negotiation. So it's OK for you to stop fasting on Fridays and to do all the rest of it if you win your chastity. And so she goes and she agrees to these things with John, and he says, OK, may your body be as free to God as it was to me beforehand. These are the moments I have to confess, Mary, where I wonder a little bit about whether it's God telling Margery what to do – forgive me for not taking her 100% seriously in these moments – but it just seems so handy that she had something that God told her to do exactly what was most convenient for her to do. And it's not the only time when God tells her to do precisely what she had in mind to do. It happens a few times during the narrative. So we get the sense of a quite complicated relationship, because she has enjoyed sex with him, there's an intimacy there that's beyond sex, but also she really wants to be done with it at this point. What else would you say about her relationship to sex and to sexuality? It's a little bit different than the figures we've encountered before and certainly different to the Wife of Bath, who so gloried in her eroticism.
Mary: Yes. I think we should pause and just say a little bit more about her marriage with John, because I think it's one of the most compelling parts of the book, this portrait of the marriage which is very human and very charming in many places. And there are moments when she talks about her mystical marriage with Christ, but the way she talks about it, it's as though she's taking the model of her own marriage. And there's a moment when Christ addresses her and says, we shall sleep in a bed together and have joy and peace as we sleep side by side. And you have the sense that she was talking about an experience that she'd had with John. And as you say, there's a moment where he says to her, OK, even if we cease conjugal relations, please can we still sleep in the same bed?
Irina: He still wants the cuddles. John still wants the cuddles!
Mary: Yes. And then there's a very moving bit towards the end of John's life. They've been living separately because they've reached this vow of chastity and they've decided not to have sex. And John falls down the stairs and is nearly killed by falling down and he then needs to be nursed. And all of his neighbours pour scorn on Margery and say that she should have been caring for him, and he shouldn't have been allowed to get into this terrible state. And she comes back to live with him and she nurses him, and he is like a child. He's become old and senile and incontinent. And she describes how she has much labour, 'labowr meche', for having to care for him in the way that she has to. But she sees this as a divine retribution for the delight that she's had in his body. Shall we read this bit? This is from Barry Windeatt’s edited edition:
And therfor was hir labowr meche the mor in waschyng and wryngyng and hir costage in fyryng and lettyd hir ful meche fro hir contemplacyon that many tymys sche schuld an yrkyd hir labowr saf sche bethowt hir how sche in hir yong age had ful many delectabyl thowtys, fleschly lustys, and inordinat lovys to hys persone. And therfor sche was glad to be ponischyd wyth the same persone and toke it mech the mor esily and servyd hym and helpyd hym, as hir thowt, as sche wolde a don Crist hymself.
And this is from the Anthony Bale translation:
And therefore her labour was much the greater for washing and wringing and the expenses of keeping a fire. And this impeded her very much from her contemplation, so that often she would have hated her labours, but she thought to herself how she had in her youth had many delectable thoughts, fleshly lusts, and excessive desire for his body. And therefore she was glad to be punished by the same body and took it all the more easily, and served him and helped him, so she thought, as she would have done Christ himself,
Irina: I'm so glad you read that out loud, Mary, because you see so much of what makes Margery’s story Margery story in this. That she's somebody who, because she's not in a monastery or she's not closed off in an anchorhold somewhere, has to balance housework and the work of everyday life, of keeping things going, and in this case what we would call elder care, with her desire for contemplation. And she resents it. And I think that's something that is so radical to see a woman actually saying that, she resents the fact that she has to care for this man, because she would really rather be thinking high thoughts of meditation about God. And the way she can make some sense of it is to think of this being a part of her punishment in her life and that it's a kind of service that you would render to Jesus himself. So it's exactly what you said, this kind of ordinariness, but you also get a sense of the split that she suffers, the difficulty of balancing just the duties of a normal life with something higher.
Mary: Absolutely. But I think also we have a really powerful sense of her fleshly corporeal desires, her delectable thoughts, her fleshy lusts and her inordinate loves. And this is a thing that's so wonderful about Kempe's text, is how fleshy it is. We have a sense of her sexual desire. We have a sense of the pains in her body when she's an older woman and she's unable to walk as fast as the other pilgrims that she goes on pilgrimage with. We have such a powerful sense of her body, and also of John's body and the delight that she's taken in it. And that's something that we just don't get with writers like, say, Julian of Norwich, who is so much of an intellectual voice.
Irina: The thing that I find so fascinating about Margery is that even though the book as a whole is a kind of application for a sainthood, she really wants to put herself in a good light. And we'll talk about the kinds of miracles she performs or that happen around her, the kinds of preaching that she does, even though she's not really supposed to, the teaching and so on. She's a really extraordinary figure in her own mind at any rate, but she also shows herself making mistakes. So very early on in the story there's a man who essentially asks her to have an affair with him, and she feels tempted and she is sure that God has given her up to the devil and that she might as well say yes. And she goes to him and then he rebuffs her twice. And she feels ashamed at the fact that she had fallen, that she had consented to sin in her mind. And obviously there's a social element to that, even once she'd consented to sin he wouldn't even sleep with her! So there's something about her, that she is still willing to show these moments of failure and of sinfulness, even though she spent so much energy in the Book trying to recover her status. So we talked in our previous episode about the way that virginity was the highest sexual status you could have. And she's obviously not a virgin, but there's this wonderful passage where God says to her, OK, virginity is the most perfect, and after that widows and wives, but know that I love you as much as any virgin. So she's clearly tormented by the fact that she is very much not a virgin after 14 children and this lusty husband. That ship has sailed, to Genova and Jerusalem and all of that! And still she has other desires. Even as she becomes holier and holier and preacher and preacher, and has visions and miracles happen around her, she still struggles with lust.
Mary: Yes. So I think if we are to see this text as some kind of application for sainthood, which perhaps we might interpret it as, what I love is the fact that unlike the stories of female saints from the early days of Roman Christianity who are subjected to these terrible tortures, they get boiled in vats of oil or put on a rack or have breasts cut off, Margery doesn't really have any of those tortures available to her. So her form of martyrdom is a uniquely domestic and ordinary one. Her form of martyrdom is the marriage that she has to suffer through, because she wants to live a chaste life and she's forced not to live a chaste life by her husband and her conjugal duty. And also the scorn of the people that she meets. And so sometimes you think that maybe she’s slightly exaggerating the way she's persecuted by others, because it's a way of communicating her suffering and her distinctive martyrdom. And so Margery is tormented. She's tormented by lust. There's a really extraordinary moment when she has 12 days of suffering, as she says. And the suffering is that she can think of nothing except men's penises. And the devil brings her visions of penises, just a long sequence of them that just come before her eyes for 12 days. And she feels completely forsaken by God.
Irina: Shall I read that, Mary?
Mary: I think you must, Irina.
Sche sey as hir thowt veryly dyvers men of religyon, preystys, and many other, bothyn hethyn and Cristen comyn befor hir syght that sche myth not enchewyn hem ne puttyn hem owt of hir syght, schewyng her bar membrys unto hir. And therwyth the devyl bad hir in hir mende chesyn whom sche wolde han fyrst of hem alle and sche must be comown to hem alle. And he seyd sche lykyd bettyr summe on of hem than alle the other. Hir thowt that he seyd trewth; sche cowde not sey nay; and sche must nedys don hys byddyng, and yet wolde sche not a don it for alle this worlde.
And this is the Anthony Bale translation:
She saw as she truly thought various religious men, priests and many others, both heathen and Christian, coming before her eyes so that she could not avoid them or put them out of her view, showing their bare genitals to her. And with this the devil asked her in her mind to choose which she would have first of all. And she must offer herself in public to all of them. And he said that she liked some of them better than the others. She had thought that he spoke the truth. She could not say no.
Mary: I love that passage. It's so strange. And what's very interesting is in the manuscript the annotator has written these amazing annotations in red to help the devotional reader coming back and looking at the text and finding specific sections. And in fact, there are lots of layers of annotation, but there's one particular annotator. And beside this passage the annotator has just simply written ‘12 days’. There's no reference to the fact that what she's seeing is a sequence of penises. It's just that she’s suffered for 12 days. But I think that's also interesting because in the text she presents herself as being scorned by many people that she meets, although some people believe in the validity of her visions. But the manuscript itself is a really interesting piece of evidence to suggest that amongst a certain group of readers, who were most likely Carthusians because it looks like the manuscript was in the care of the Carthusians from a very early period, her visions did seem to be real and they did seem to be valid, and therefore several readers came back and annotated the text and afforded it a kind of reverence.
Irina: Well, maybe we could talk about the social dimension, because Margery has these dramas that go on in her soul, you could say, or in her head where God will allow her to be tempted, or God will have conversations with her. At one point God marries her. So there's a whole drama that is an internal story that she tells in this book. But so much happens on the outside, so much is about how she interacts with other people. What kind of reactions does she get from people? She behaves oddly. She's also a vegetarian, nobody much liked that! She wears white, she lectures at people all the time. She’s always telling them what they're doing wrong. She seems to lecture a lot at the dinner table. What do other people have to say about her and what do the men of the church specifically have to say about her? How do they react?
Mary: So people's reaction to her is very mixed. At the lower end of the spectrum, she goes on many of these pilgrimages and she's often travelling with different groups of people and they frequently find her so annoying that they abandon her and she's left to travel on her own. Or they might refuse to allow her to eat with them, presumably because she's just lecturing them all the time and it's too irritating. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, she's subjected to several ecclesiastical trials. She's threatened with being burnt in the street. There's a moment outside York Minster when a priest comes up to her and says, you're a wolf in sheep's clothing. Outside Canterbury a crowd ask her if she's a Lollard and they say that they have a cart full of thorns and a barrel ready to burn her. It's important to just explain a little bit of historical context here. Around the late 14th century a very muscular heretical movement began in Oxford centred around the master of Balliol, John Wycliffe, and Wycliffe was a philosopher who believed in wholescale ecclesiastical reform. He wanted a change to church hierarchy and he also wanted various kinds of theological reform. He had some rather unusual views on the Eucharist, and crucially he also advocated that people should have access to the scripture in the vernacular, and a group of people around John Wycliffe began translating the Bible into Middle English. This was at the end of the 14th century and the church did a lot to try to suppress this heresy. Wycliffe was initially protected by some powerful figures, but by the early 15th century, by which time Wycliffe is dead, it's clear to the church that they're not managing to suppress this heresy. And so they start to crack down on it quite aggressively. And so there's a real anxiety in the early decades of the 15th century about the potential of heresy, and at this point it becomes illegal to preach without a licence. Kempe is clearly going around and doing something that looks suspiciously like preaching, which if you were just an unlicensed preacher would be bad enough. But the fact that she's a woman who's wandering around doing this really makes people anxious. And so she's brought before several ecclesiastical courts and interrogated by groups of men. And as she describes it, she always seems to come out on top.
Irina: You get a sense of how tricky her position is, because at one point one of these groups does ask her if she can read, because how does she know scripture so well, and she has to defend herself against that and say, I just know things from hearing about them, and so on. So this is I think something that complicates again this question of women's illiteracy, and so on. Sometimes it's advantageous for women to play dumb. And it's not just a matter of modesty or humility, it's also a matter of life and death. She must not be seen to be preaching, but effectively she still does quite a bit of it! There's this fantastic story – I just love this so much, Mary, although it's the oddest thing and it comes out of nowhere – where she is in a group of men and, and she tells a moral story about a priest who comes across a beautiful garden with lots of flowers in it and a pear tree. And suddenly a bear comes out of nowhere and eats up the flowers and then turns around and defecates everywhere. And the priest is horrified. And then it's explained to him that he is like the pear tree in that he is among beautiful things. He's among the sacraments. He's in the church, he performs the mass and so on, but he doesn't really appreciate it. And he's not very attentive to what he does, he doesn't do it with his full soul and spirit. And so in doing that he becomes like the bear who essentially just leaves his droppings all over this beautiful garden, i.e. the church. And it's this fantastic story, and everybody really gets it. And it's also an exemplum of a kind. It's the way that Margery teaches. And I think in that moment one could imagine a male preacher using the same kind of story. But she does so quite boldly and then pulls away from any accusation of teaching. No, no, I'm just a humble woman. I'm always just asking for permission and asking for authentication of my visions, but I'm a nobody.
Mary: So how do you think she responds to this scorn that she appears to encounter everywhere, even if it's somewhat exaggerated in the text?
Irina: Well, it's interesting, because Margery is, from the very beginning of her book, clearly someone who cares a lot about what other people think, and even having a special relationship with God doesn't really change that. She's so deeply aware of the opprobrium of others, and it hurts her. And I think that's what I get when I read the book, that it truly bothers her that people don't take her at her word and that they question her. And there are these two fantastic scenes which feel like they're absolutely modern, but they're not, they’re from the 15th century, where twice someone is preaching, at one point a monk, at another point a friar. And she's not present, but they describe her in such detail, without naming her, that everybody knows they're talking about her. So she's essentially being subtweeted, and you get the sense that she's aware of this and it hurts. But what she does then is quite fascinating. God repeatedly says to her, this is your purgatory. Other people's mockery of you is the suffering I want for you, and it will mean that you will go directly to heaven. It's a joyful thing to be rebuked for God's love. It's the mockery that makes her more pleasing. So in a sense I think she's hinting at the ways that she resembles Christ, because he's also reviled at the end of his life, but she's boosting it up. In this case, it's Christians who revile her. And she's really keen to show that this is in fact what makes her even... it's a little bit like, the more you hurt me, the stronger I get. The more that people hate her and the more that they speak out against her, the closer her relationship to God is. And it's quite a close relationship at some points. She has him basically give her the status of a saint. He says that she will be able to intercede for people. He puts her above Mary Magdalene at one point because she gets to kiss his toe, and Mary Magdalene doesn't get to touch him. But the baseline of that is built on the hatred of people who don't understand her. She's been compared sometimes to Kim Kardashian and I think it really kind of works! She's someone who's going to take scorn and turn it to her own good and become more powerful with it. But maybe we could talk a little bit about what she seems to do or what seems to happen that actually might boost her holy reputation with others. The miracles, the special events, the way she behaves as she goes on in her life. It's not just scorn that makes her extraordinary, it's also that she starts living a kind of saintly life, right, Mary?
Mary: So throughout her life there are various events that seem semi-miraculous and that seem to be advertising her sanctity, or her quasi-sanctity. And some of these are little events that make us see her perhaps as experiencing something a little bit like Christ. So there's a moment when she's in Germany and she's trying to find lodging and she can't find lodging anywhere, and she's forced to sleep on a pile of bracken in a barn next door to a farmhouse. And we're meant to see this as like there was no room at the inn. And then there were moments where she seems to have some kind of divine knowledge of something. So there's a moment when she's in Rome and she’s staying with a particular woman and she loses her ring, the ring that symbolises her mystical marriage to Christ. And she then tells the landlady that she's lost the ring and they then look for the ring together, and amazingly the ring appears, whereupon the landlady begs her forgiveness. And it's implied that the landlady stole the ring and somehow Margery had knowledge of it. And then there are events that seem even more miraculous. There are events when she’s suddenly able amazingly to understand a person who speaks no English. This happens a lot when she's in Rome. And then there are these moments that seem really to be the key events as part of her application for sanctity. There's a moment when she's praying in church and a section of the church roof just falls on her head.
Irina: And she's fine! She just gets up and has nothing broken.
Mary: She's completely unharmed. And we have these episodes where she cares for others. There's a very moving section in chapter 75 when she’s in church and suddenly a man approaches her and says that his wife has lost her mind after the birth of a child. And that this woman doesn't know anyone, doesn't recognise anyone, that she roars and she bites and she's being kept basically in prison, shackled up in the furthest end of the town. And Margery goes to visit her and tells her that she's a right good woman and prays for her and visits her regularly. And the woman is restored to her wits. And it's hard to know what to make of this, but I think it's a very moving episode because it speaks of Margery seeming to understand what it's like to go through a very traumatic birth and the kind of scorn that you might experience when you lose your grip on reality for reasons that you can't control.
Irina: I find those closing chapters of the first book quite fascinating, because she really does seem to move into a different phase. Early on she is someone who has these visions and she has maybe some miraculous things happen, she travels a lot. But as the first book, which is much longer than the second book, comes to a close, she seems to go into a phase where she serves other people as opposed to serving Mary and Jesus in her mind in these mystical visions. She actually moves outwards and starts helping those around her. And there's this fascinating passage where she basically says that the people at the town, when they were dying they wanted her by their side. So she's a little bit of a death doula, almost. At this point she is acknowledged by some to have prophetic knowledge. They ask her what the outcomes of things will be. All along they've been asking her to tell what sins they're guilty of, but at this point she becomes a kind of helpmeet. And it's quite interesting also because it's such a contrast to so many of the earlier chapters where people could not wait to get away from her. These are people who will go on another boat and try to take the boat across the sea just so they don't have to spend the time with Margery! What do you think, Mary? What would your reaction have been to her if you had lived in her time or if she lived in ours?
Mary: I think I would have found her very, very annoying! She's such a gloriously imperfect figure. This isn't a perfect image of sanctity. This is a woman who's clearly very annoying and who clearly is trying to live the best Christian life, but also fails at it frequently. There's this extraordinary moment in that section that you're talking about when she tells her confessor that she has this desire to kiss lepers. And he says, you mustn't kiss anyone, you certainly shouldn't kiss any men, but if you're going to kiss someone you can kiss women. And so she goes and finds some female lepers to kiss. And it's so strange and it's so gloriously imperfect that she has this desperate desire to minister to the sick, and yet it gets thrown off course in some strange way.
Irina: I think of her as someone who would be using the Instagram hashtag ‘so blessed’ all of the time! I think you could see that. But I think what she points to is a real problem that you see in the kinds of texts that she was reading too about the path to perfection, which is that the moment you're trying to be holy, you have a little bit of a problem because you might start becoming too proud or because there's a problem with hypocrisy. You don't really mean it. And so there's something funny about watching Margery in action, even her own story of her own life. She's trying really hard and it's not always convincing, and it's not always convincing to the people around her. And I find that fascinating, especially because there is I think still a little bit of a stereotype of the Middle Ages as being an irrational period, an age of belief in which people didn't really question miracles or holy figures. And you get the sense that the people around her are absolutely capable of rational analysis and very much want to test her. So even when that beam falls on her back, somebody comes along and measures it to see, was it really a heavy beam? Is it really a miracle that she survived? There's a sense of questioning all around her and in a way in which she's really trying hard to do all of the right saintly things. But maybe her problem is a little bit that the most extraordinary aspect of her experience, which is her spiritual marriage to God, is something that she has to be believed on. She can't ever really prove to anyone, it's all internal. So all of these external manifestations are subject to doubt. Ultimately I think the problem is, how do I show who I am to the outside world and how do I get them to believe that my vision of who I am is the right one?
Mary: Yes. There’s this very beautiful bit right at the very beginning of the text where she describes herself as like a reed-spur that is always moving in the wind. And the wind is like the temptation that she experiences throughout her life. And as you say, she's trying to be perfect, she's trying to be saintly, but also trying to be alive and negotiate what it's like to be a wife and to have ordinary troubles and ordinary trials and tribulations.
Irina: And not to take people's advice, too! She often gets advice from people and she ignores it.
Mary: And I think that's what's so important about the discovery of the manuscript, because if we hadn't had the manuscript version we would have only had the version of the text from Wynkyn de Worde’s heavily abbreviated extracts that were printed in 1501. In the opening of that text there's a short section in which Margery is saying that she desires to have her head cut off, because beheading was a traditional martyrdom that was meted out to saints. And so from the beginning we have the sense that this looks much more like an application for sanctity. But Margery's voice has been stripped out in this version. And all we have are a few moments when Margery speaks, maybe three or four, and then the rest is just moments in the text when Christ is speaking to Margery. And so she becomes this silent, passive, weeping woman. One of the only other times that she speaks is a moment that is lifted from the manuscript text, where she says she wished to be stripped naked and put on a hurdle, which is like a wooden panel that criminals were attached to before they were hung, drawn and quartered. So she's not even expressing the difficulties and pain of her devotion and her ordinary life and her boisterous movement through life. She's just desiring this terrible masochistic torture as part of her devotion. And so it's a reminder of the incredible importance of the manuscript, because without it we wouldn't have this powerful voice and the corporeality of Margery that is what has made her text so popular since its discovery in 1934.
Irina: Thank you, Mary.
Mary: Thank you, Irina. It's been great to be on this pilgrimage. I'm glad you didn't steal my money and abandon me.
Irina: Thank you for joining us as we have explored the voices of the desert saint Mary of Egypt, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, Chaucer's boisterous Wife of Bath and the visionary pilgrim Margery Kempe.