>Calling Margery Kempe crazy — and why it matters

>I’ve taught The Book of Margery Kempe, in whole or in part, seven times now – as a TA discussion leader three times, as a professor to undergrads in the my Early English Lit class three times, and to MA students in a medieval women writers seminar once – and every time I’ve been concerned by the students who simply want to call Margery crazy, or who “explain” her behavior by medicalizing and pathologizing her, even if they are sympathetic. They speak gently of how she’s out of her wits; continuously suffering from her bout with post-partum depression; suffering from depression in general, etc. Or, they deride her as a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain, and so forth.

To all of these responses I have replied, kindly, that such responses don’t really help us analyze Kempe’s text or to understand Margery herself as a text, as “good communication” (her own words), as a performance of affective piety that’s not completely out there in the context of her own times. What I’ve really wanted to say to the students who say she’s “just a freak” is this: “Not at all helpful – anyone else want to say something more thoughtful?” Generally it’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes.

This last time I taught The Book of Margery Kempe, I didn’t get the “she’s a freak” responses until the last day of discussion. Part of what held them off, I think, was that we spent the first day talking about authority, auctoritas, authorship, the idea of the book, textuality and orality, scribes and amaneuses, the manuscript and its readerly marginalia (and what it tells us about The Book’s early reception), and the practice and meaning of writing, as well as Lynn Staley’s practice of referring to the author of The Book as Kempe and the protagonist of the text as Margery. I know some people might find this last bit a false distinction and an illusion, but it’s a really useful one for getting students to think of The Book as a constructed literary object and not simply a transparent record of a life. My students were so caught up in wrapping their heads around the different meanings of authority and the ways in which the scribes of Kempe’s text are necessary for her authority – no matter what the state of her literacy – that they didn’t have time to think about Margery’s behavior. And since I’ve been emphasizing the material culture of the book and also a little reception history for each text we’ve studied, they were curious to hear about the marginalia by The Book’s friar readers and what it said about how they saw the text. (In addition to reading medieval texts and learning about their manuscript contexts this semester, I’ve also had students do a kind of wacky miscellany project in which they create their own commonplace books and then write marginalia in each others’ books; so I think they’re very aware of what marginalia might tell you about a reader and what it doesn’t tell you. But that’s another post if you’re interested.) And they were fascinated, as well, by Kempe’s use of the third person and that one place in chapter 5 where someone (the scribe? Kempe herself?) slips up and refers to Margery and John Kempe in first person plural: we. My students wondered: did Kempe invent the scribes for the sake of her authority? Or did she write a rough draft herself which then the scribe copied, missing only one first person reference which he failed to convert to third person? They were intrigued by the idea that Margery’s illiteracy (whether real or exaggerated) might be a boon to her spiritual claims, rather than a check on her authority.

So all of this distracted them for at least a day and made them focus on the text as text. They might have started devolving into the “she’s crazy” routine on the second day, but I had laryngitis and the weather was nice, so I split them up into groups and sent them out into the courtyard with a list of discussion questions. I couldn’t hear everything every group said at every minute, but for the most part, they seemed to be discussing the issues of genre, gender, and authority and that I’d written out for them.

But by day three, the “crazy” comments started. In part, that’s because they’d had a weekend in between class meeting and my class seems particularly prone to forgetting everything we talked about from Thursdays to Tuesday. I swear these kids must be heavy drinkers or else some other kind of trauma is killing their brain cells and memory, because otherwise they’re a bright and curious group. Anyway, the same students who thought the third person was a fascinating and clever ploy on Kempe’s part now thought that calling herself a “creature” made her “sound like a freak.” And the litany of “crazy” and “insane” and “unstable” began. I tried my usual tactics of quelling the name-calling. And then finally, it hit me. Or rather, something one of my graduate students had written in his response paper on the very first day of Kempe discussion came bubbling up to the surface of my own memory. I asked him to read aloud the sentence (we have “slash” courses – graduate students take classes with undergrads) which said something along the lines of ‘Perhaps I’m reacting just like the bastards who tormented Margery herself and made her justified in seeing herself as a martyr.’ All of a sudden I realized that students’ seemingly less than helpful name-calling and judgments of Margery’s sanity were actually not only helpful, but possibly exactly what Kempe and the text wanted. Margery may not have been pleased by reader calling her crazy – and had she been around to overhear them, she would have chastised them for their sinfulness and idle talk – but Kempe and her text actually require such a response. To be the saint she so wanted to be, Margery needed persecutors. She prayed to be relieved of such persecution, but in those prayers, Jesus came to her and told her that they only made her more beloved to him. And so, in narrating these experiences – the outlandish behavior that provokes Margery’s attackers (the loud crying, wearing white, constantly traveling on pilgrimage, etc.); the persecutions she claims to have experienced, including numerous encounters with ecclesiastical law; and the mystical, private “dalliance” with Christ that authorizes both the behavior and the worldly criticism for it – Kempe is looking for two responses, both of them embedded in her text. Either a reader will find Margery holy and see her words and experiences as appropriate models – as do many people within her text – or a reader will think she’s annoying, crazy, and freakish, as do many other people in the narrative, but in so doing, will only reinforce her holiness by showing her to be persecuted and yet steadfast.

Of course, I didn’t say all this to my students. It was nearing the end of class, so I time only to say a few words. After my graduate student read that bit of his response paper aloud, I said something like this: “So, if you find Margery annoying and weird, you give her authority as a martyr. If you find her holy and sincere, you give her authority. Either way, the text constructs the readers it wants and that authorize its existence and meaning. Only if you are utterly indifferent are you misreading the text.” And I left it at that. We’ve been talking a lot this semester about how text can assume and anticipate and work for various reading positions – naïve readers, accomplished readers, and so forth – and so maybe my students made that connection to The Book of Margery Kempe anticipating, expecting, and wanting multiple kinds of readers.

At any rate, I feel I’m now freed from worrying that my students are dismissing the text if they call Margery “crazy.” Instead, I can tell them that they are playing right into her hands, that because of them, Kempe’s authority as quasi-saint and holy woman is even greater.

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22 thoughts on “>Calling Margery Kempe crazy — and why it matters

  1. >What an awesome (and for a non-medievalist especially useful) post, Dr. V., on everyone’s favorite crazy person/visionary.I know that you don’t use the Norton Anthology, but this is the one true depredation that I’ve discovered in Greenblatt’s new edition: the selections from MK are totally different from those in the old edition. There’s nothing about MK’s pride, her attempts to start a business. . . and the entire scene with the Archbishop is cut! It’s all about her visions. And I LOVE your miscellany project–I’d love to do something similar with a class in my own period one of these days. (What are your students using for paper/books?)

  2. >Thank you for this post. As a fellow teacher of Kempe’s The Book, I am consoled by your conclusions. Have you looked at Sarah Salih’s chapter in the recently published Companion? Last month I asked my students to read it and I think it made them aware of some of the issues you bring up in your post. Thanks again! Fabulous post!

  3. >Lecturess: For the miscellanies (as I call them — we talk a lot about the “miscellaneous” manuscript as perhaps being less miscellaneous to medieval readers) I have them buy those black-covered composition notebooks. They’re cheap, but they’re sewn like manuscript and the the ruling is a lot like manuscript ruling. Plus their hard cardboard covers suggest the wood covers of manuscripts, even if they’re much lighter.As for the Norton’s new selections — you’re right, I hadn’t noticed that. (I had them reading from the Norton Critical edition.) But that’s interesting because it’s those kind of passages that the Carthusian friars annotated in the manuscript — so maybe it’s not a totally un-medieval way of reading her, though it is definitely containing and taming her. I suggest bringing in photocopies of other parts of the texts, if you can.Laustic: Yes, I know Salih’s article and in my grad seminar, students read that. In the current class, though, since we were using the Norton critical edition, I had them read various articles in it. They found Gail McMurray Gibson’s “St. Margery” especially informative. Since we’d done some saints lives, they could see how Kempe was constructing her life and book on saintly models pretty readily. I also pointed out a lot of the text that reveals *other* people’s devotional practices and sent them to the Mapping Margery Kempe website to see pictures of East Anglian devotional art. And I have pictures and guidebooks from Norwich that give them a sense of the fervor of devotion in the 15th century.

  4. >No time to say much, and speaking as someone who’s read next to nothing on MK (apart from the Staley in Staley and Aers, and that was ages ago) except I like this reading. Another approach, which I think harmonizes with yours, is to dissuade students from thinking of MK’s behavior as unwilled. She’s performing piety (way to suggest that is to find other pious people exhibiting–and I choose this verb deliberately–similar behaviors), which doesn’t mean, of course, that she “authentic,” or “inauthentic,” or “faking it,” except in the sense that any rhetoric is faking it. That’s the condition of expression, you know?Thinking of her behavior rhetorically also gets us to your absolutely salutory conclusions.But good lord maybe I’m doing something similar to JJ Cohen in Med. Identity Machines: I think I read his chapter on MK in that, but for the life of me I can’t consciously remember it. Who knows? Back to work!

  5. >You know I really need to read that particular JJC book. (If you’re read, Jeffrey, I have relied greatly on the masculinities volume! Just haven’t gotten around to Identity Machines…yet.)And as for MK’s rhetoric and performance, I think I’m going to emphasize that more next time — though we did spend some time talking about her imitation of genres, especially the saint’s life.

  6. >Wonderful post! Timely too, since I’m re-reading Collins’ book on her at the moment. When I first read Kempe I thought she was a fascinating woman with a hell of self-confidence. She might be a ‘freak’, but she’s a interesting one. If she’s crazy, she crazy like a fox. Whether or not she had her visions due to mental illness, a imaginative mind, or true visions from God, she seems to have believed in them. She was also smart enough to know what she had to do, ie cultivate the right friendships, not cross certain lines, to keep from being burned as a heretic. Consciously or unconsciously she probably knew she needed to persecuted to be a saint. I think she rather liked it too.Again wonderful post.

  7. >Interesting post, Dr. V.! I’m right there with you on the eye-rolling when people start calling Kempe “crazy.” It’s just such a boring, unimaginative, unsympathetic response. And it’s odd that many people who have that reaction don’t seem to notice, as you’ve so aptly pointed out, that they’re mirroring her persecutors’ behavior.Quoting HG:If she’s crazy, she’s crazy like a fox. Whether or not she had her visions due to mental illness, a imaginative mind, or true visions from God, she seems to have believed in them. She was also smart enough to know what she had to do, ie cultivate the right friendships, not cross certain lines, to keep from being burned as a heretic.Damn straight. And, in the bargain, with all the odds against her, she outwitted one learned man after another, traveled the world on her own, negotiated herself into a position of autonomy over her own body and its reproductive capacities, and managed to get her story written down. If that’s crazy, it’s a kind of crazy I sure wouldn’t mind being.

  8. >Coming to this late, but this is a great post, and I’m going to have to keep it in mind for the next time I teach MK. (Which will be next fall, in my Medieval Women course, for which I’m supposed to have turned in a book order…yesterday. Yeah. Didn’t happen. But MK will figure in the reading somehow, for sure.) I just love the ways in which Margery is able to use religion/piety to reframe her life in ways that are more acceptable to her (I think especially of taking care of her disabled husband here). Teaching her from a historical context, one of the things I emphasize is that she gives us a chance to see how an ordinary, secular, sexual (14 kids!), lay woman copes with medieval Christianity and translates it into something strangely mundane and compatible with the ordinary (for instance, Margery as handmaid to St Anne, bustling around at the hearth at the time of the Virgin’s birth. I love the way she rewrites that into a completely ordinary lay medieval context, and at the same time, writes herself into the Holy Family). As much as students respond to Margery as nuts, there’s something about the way she makes Christianity her own that I find really appealing. (No, students don’t usually agree with me!)

  9. >I love the way she rewrites that into a completely ordinary lay medieval context, and at the same time, writes herself into the Holy Family.Oh I love that bit too! She makes the Virgin a nice cup of hot broth or something, doesn’t she? She’s like someone’s English grandmother: “Here, my dear, have a nice cuppa tea.”And you know, my students didn’t really have a problem with that, mainly because the religious ones are either Catholic or mega-church Christians, and they’re used to “relating Jesus to their own lives” either in the same tradition as Margery’s piety or in the new, high-tech stadium-seating mega-church way.

  10. >And History Geek (as well as Wiseass) — I agree totally (as I think many of my students did). I also commented over at your place, Geek.Oh, and an addendum to my last comment: I meant my religious *Christian* students. Other students are so outside of it all that they just find MK either fascinating or weird or both.

  11. >This is an awesome post, particularly since I like Kempe a lot. A question, though, from a non-medievalist: where can I learn about the marginalia on The Book of Margery Kempe?

  12. >Brandon, Lynn Staley talks about most of the marginalia in her introduction to the TEAMS edition, which you can access online here.

  13. >Any student who holds religious beliefs cannot call Kempe mad. Religious belief is the acceptance of something without proof, and their beliefs are neither more nor less justifiable under those terms than Kempe’s. They can believe her to be right or wrong against their own beliefs, but not mad. They set their own level to their playing field, and must abide by the rules.Any student who doesn’t hold religious beliefs can analyse her psyche as much as they can analyse any religious person’s but should do it with an understanding of the chronological context. In the middle ages, religious belief and more general superstitions would have filled in gaps in knowledge for things as basic as harvest fluctuations and mammatus clouds-far more than for today, and consequently had a much more pervasive default function, in addition to the differing social and cultural hierarchies of the time. Consequently, prodding religious orthodoxy with a pointy stick then was a much bigger issue than it is today.If you want them to connect, do a parallel with a modern figure who divides opinion, such as Michael Jackson.

  14. >Any student who holds religious beliefs cannot call Kempe mad.Since people who encounter Kempe in person also perceived her mad (or so her text claims) I don’t think this is true (especially since some of those people were pilgrims and people in religious orders). Not only that, but some of my self-proclaimed religious students were the ones calling her mad. It simply wasn’t how they expressed faith. The same can be said of Kempe’s contemporaries. 15th century England was in no way monolithic in its expression or understanding of faith.But aside from all that, one actually could say she’s mad, both in and outside of a religious point of view. She very clearly relates experience with post-partum depression/psychosis as the instigating moment for her deeper experience of and commitment to her faith. What I’m arguing is that that “diagnosis” isn’t necessarily a dismissal of her work, but rather exactly what she wants. To be called mad and to be reviled only strengthens Kempe’s “imitatio christi” and imitation of the saints.

  15. >AYB (Ah, yes, but) we now live in a society where a vast number of different religions all jostle with each other, and are accepted as being equal, just different. Thats very different from Kempe’s world, so its not a fair analogy. Almost anyone holding unorthodox views in the middle ages would (if they had any sense) choose to be regarded as stark raving bonkers, rather than the alternative, which was to risk being labelled a dangerous heretic and punished by the insertion of hot pointy things in various parts of their body as a prelude to being toasted as a heretic or drowned as a witch. If you strayed from the path of orthodoxy then, you really needed to do ‘mad’ well enough to get you off the hook, even though it still might not save you.Today people can believe anything they want from a top brand christian religion to Jedi lore, and they just get shelved under ‘religious’. What I’m suggesting is that anyone who holds a religous belief, cannot in all conscience call anyone else who holds a religious belief ‘mad’: they hold *different* beliefs, and may express them *differently* and religious folk might think they are *wrong*, but its all just religiously held belief, so calling them ‘mad’ for this reason is not an option in today’s society if you are yourself, religious.The obvious question to ask a religious person when they are calling someone else’s beliefs ‘mad’, is precisely how those beliefs differ so much from their own, the distinction being typically one of flavour and presentation, not of intrinsic nature.Of course in the US education system that might get you into trouble, but its a valid point. A religious person cannot call another religious person mad, simply because their religosity differs.

  16. >The obvious question to ask a religious person when they are calling someone else’s beliefs ‘mad’, is precisely how those beliefs differ so much from their own, the distinction being typically one of flavour and presentation, not of intrinsic nature.Oh, I *do* do that — as the beginning of my post suggested. But the point of this post was to reconsider whether that was necessary or productive in a literature classroom discussing this *particular* text. What I was arguing is that the text constructs its ideal readers, and those ideal reader aren’t simply those who take Margery seriously, for those who find her mad (or simply annoying, or more strongly heretical, or anything else negative, across the spectrum of accusations) are actually responding in the way the text wants. If my students identify with the people who attack Kempe, they’re still participating in the text, and, I think, being manipulated by it. I want to bring that manipulation to the fore next time I teach it.And that’s a more productive discussion, I think, for a *literature* classroom, where our mission is to analyze language and texts. It’s also in the spirit of Kempe’s text in particular, where any accusation against Kempe (and it’s not just about madness — notice some of my students and Kempe’s contemporaries find her simply irritating) only strengthens her construction of herself as a martyr and her book as hagiography.That said, when my students insult or simply dismiss medieval religious practices they get a gentle rebuke from me. In other words, I never let them get away with calling MK crazy (or any other such thing). But now I think I’ve found a useful way of harnessing their reactions.Btw, point of information, Margery Kempe is orthodox in her beliefs (and, according to her text, was found to be so by the Archbishop of York, among others). And even her expression of those beliefs is not *so* out of the ordinary — she doesn’t arise out of vacuum after all, and she has plenty of followers and supporters in the text. But for *some* people — both then and now — she’s a little over the top.

  17. >I was one of the people that thought she was crazy, and this is a view not fully expanded upon by my professor. Thank you for answering my personal questions.

  18. >A wonderful solution to a problem that does indeed tend to come up with Margery’s readers. I agree with the folks who criticize the new Norton, too. To judge by the changes both to Margery’s and Julian’s selections, it’s less hospitable to the religious point of view, and I must say the annotations to the later poetry–Donne, Herbert, Marvell, for instance–can be ploddingly unimaginative and even plain wrong.

  19. >Oh! Wow! I’d never thought of her writing like that! I’m afraid I’m one of those casual readers who followed Margery’s journey with eyebrows raised throughout. You’ve got me looking at the text differently now. It’s a few years now since I was at uni, but I’ve just had another of those rare “Oh yes, right!” Eureka moments. Thanks for the insight!

  20. >Hmm.. You might be right that this book invites the ‘crazy’ scorn undergrads heap; that its very purpose is to lead the reader to think that the ‘creatue’ is crazy. But, it seems more likely that this text comes from a pityful, undeducated lady that suffered a stroke and found an outlet and solice for her illness in the church. I find it an very interesting and valuable text (role of women and the church, mental illness, etc.) If you try too hard to apologize for her ‘crazy’ you may be looking at phantoms and not the text’s true value.

  21. >I'm gearing up for a seminar paper on Margery Kempe's sanity. I'm working with the Norton edition of the text right now, which has been "translated," and I haven't made the switch to Middle English. But I have made one interesting observation about the way Margery describes many of her "psychotic" experiences.Margery sometimes uses the word "token" to denote those experiences we might want to call psychotic. "This creature had divers tokens in her bodily hearing," she writes in Book 1 ch. 36, and then goes on to list several auditory hallucinations. In 44, she asks God for a "token of lightning" which He then delivers. "Token" in these contexts seems to be used differently than in modern English usage. If anyone can think of uses of this word in other medieval English texts, I'd appreciate the help!Facing the deadlock of "is-she-or-isn't-she-or-does-it-matter-crazy" conversation, one way out is to go further in and try to see how the author herself understood those moments in her life, which we would intuitively register as "symptomatic."

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