Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations*

*I wrote this paper something like 15+ years ago in grad school, in one of my Middle English courses. My instructor was the amazing Dhira Mahoney, who recently passed away. I wanted to repost one of my newbie grad student papers that I wrote for her as a tribute to the mentoring she gave me and the lessons I learned, both from her and since then because of her. 

Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations

Margery Kempe is a woman of many titles. She is a wife, a mother, a mystic. Her contemporaries termed her a nuisance, a heretic, a saint. One scholar accurately calls her ‘the woman who would not go away.’1 But how does one woman fall under so many titles? Regardless of how people regard her, it is Margery’s use of language that defines her identity to various individuals. This paper will examine how Margery uses language and tone in her dialogues between earthly men and women in her Book to define her relationship with and authority to the people in her life.

Before beginning a discussion of Margery’s use of language itself, it is first necessary to take a brief look at the way pronouns were used in language in her time. The second person pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘you’ (singular and plural, respectively) are very important in the Book of Margery Kempe. While we may think of the two as interchangeable, ‘the distinction is broadly that þou is used between equals and to inferiors, whereas 3e is used in representations of polite speech in address to a superior.’2 This use opens a wide range of tones and implications within a text. The use of the second person singular can be a grave insult or a challenge, as it is when Gawain uses it to the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It can also indicate a lack of respect regardless of the rank of the person being addressed, as we shall see shortly. The use of the second person plural pronoun, however, can indicate respect on the part of the speaker, regardless of the rank of the addressee. The use of these pronouns can have a profound impact on the tone of a conversation as well, which we can see in the Book of Margery Kempe, to which I will now turn.

Margery Kempe's autobiography
A page of Margery’s Book. Image retrieved from Creative Commons

Margery Kempe is a forward, forceful woman, which is quite the opposite of the proper behaviour for a medieval lady. There are multiple reasons for her dissenting behaviour. Karma Lochrie tells of the ‘medieval antifeminist tradition [that] explicitly forbids women from teaching or preaching….’3 Margery’s Book can fall under the category of spiritual guidance, and thus be considered a didactic tool, expressly forbidden for a woman to have written in medieval society. Because of this, ‘Kempe is forced to seek an alternative authorization for her mystical treatise at the same time that she must justify her own voice.’4 Margery creates her voice through her tears and loud weeping, but she justifies it with her bold behaviour and outspokenness. With this outspokenness in mind, we can examine her interactions with the earthly men in her life and how that brazen use of language influences her relationships.

The obvious starting point in looking at Margery’s earthly relationships is to examine her relationship with her husband. The two apparently have a strong bond and John Kempe is rather unique in terms of the medieval husband. He allows Margery to go on pilgrimage, talk back to him, and ultimately lets her have her own way in her desire to live a chaste life, although he is not willing at first to do so and insists on having his way. This, of course, influences the interaction between Margery and himself. They do what many couples today would do—they argue. In chapter eleven of her Book, John Kempe asks his wife:

Margery, if her come a man with a swerd and wold smyte of myn hed les than I schulde commown kindly with you as I have do befor, seyth me trewth of yowr consciens—for ye say ye wyl not lye—whether wold ye suffyr myn hed to be smet of er ellys suffyr me to medele with yow agen as I dede sumtyme?5

Margery’s response is:

Forsothe I had levar se yow be slayn than we schuld turne agen to owyr unclennesse. …Good sere, I pray yow grawnt me that I scahl askyn, and I schal pray for yow that ye schul be savyd thorw the mercy of owyr Lord Jhesu Cryst, and ye schul have mor mede in hevyn than yyf ye weryd an hayr or an haburgon. I pray yow, suffer me to make a vow of chastyté in what bysshopys hand that God wele.6

Margery and John use the second person plural pronoun, ‘ye,’ with each other. This is interesting because, as stated above, the second person singular was typically used between equals. One would expect them to use ‘þu’ to each other, or at least for John to use it to Margery. The use of this pronoun indicates their mutual respect, but also it brings about a closeness in their dialogue that is somewhat paradoxical to its more formal meaning. It points to an intimacy in their marriage that may not be apparent to an outside observer who only is aware they are arguing.

Margery’s tone in this conversation is also one of respect mingled with genuine affection and concern for her husband. She says to him that he should make amends for their sexual activities lest his soul be condemned, a possibility that obviously worries Margery. She calls intercourse ‘unclennesse,’ and wants to remedy such a state with a perpetually clean state of chastity, a solution that will be of benefit to her and John’s souls. Their conversation continues when John asks Margery to eat again with him on Fridays and he will allow her to take a vow of chastity. She initially refuses and John tells her he will insist on having sex with her otherwise. Margery prays and then says:

Sere, yf it like yow, ye schal grawnt me my desyr, and ye schal have yowr desyr. …[M]akyth my body fre to God so that ye nevyr make no chalengyng in me to askynno dett of matrimony aftyr this day whyl ye levyn, and I schal etyn and drynkyn on the Fryday at yowr byddyng.7

In response, John says, ‘As fre mot yowr body ben to God as it hath ben to me.’8 As the only conversation between John and Margery of any length in the Book, readers must make their decisions about John and Margery’s relationship based on these few lines. We can conclude from their interactions and dialogue, then, that they are two people who are intimately familiar and comfortable with one another, who truly care for each other and want to do what makes the other person happy. Even though John’s tone toward Margery when telling her that he will have sex with her if she will not eat again with him on Fridays is one of superior authority, Margery subverts that authority when she shows she is ready, although no longer willing, to continue to have sex with him in order not to break her promise to Jesus not to eat on Fridays. This issue of authority also colours her dialogues with men of the church, as we shall see.

Margery has a problem with authority and we can see this in her exchanges with various clergymen throughout her work. One example of this is her confrontation with two monks in Canterbury who do not believe she has any true knowledge of the Bible. One asks her, ‘What kanst thow seyn of God?’ and another said, ‘I wold thow wer closyd in an hows of ston that ther schuld no man speke with the.’ Margery responds, ‘A ser,…[y]e schuld meynteyn Goddys servawntys, and ye arn the first that heldyn agens hem. Owyr Lord amend yow.’9 The monks use ‘thu’ or ‘thow’ to her, the second person singular pronoun, indicating their intense disrespect for her. The use of this pronoun places Margery in a subordinate position, the monks in a superior position. Margery realizes this and undermines their artificial authority over her with her own use of an exaggerated second person plural pronoun ‘ye,’ as well as through the tale she tells them. Both the overstated politeness of her language and the tone of her tale serve to destabilize the monks’ authority. She tells of a man who pays men to reprove him for his sins and one day he is laughing and smiling at the chiding of his townspeople. He says he is happy because he has long paid for people to ridicule him, but today he may keep his money.10 The townspeople and monks want to charge Margery with heresy, but, as Lochrie states, by ‘[u]sing a mock reverence for the “gret men” and “maystyrs” among her accusers, Kempe turns their serious charges into her sport.’11 Her laughing, ridiculing tone completely takes the authority from the monks and places it at her command. Margery’s laughter at the monks ‘explodes the economy underlying the man’s payment and the Church’s commerce in sins because it returns something without value in exchange for something which seems to be without value but in fact is not. … It confounds the Canterbury monks, but, more importantly, it undermines their authority.’12 Margery knows that her tone is insubordinate and that the monks do not know what to make of her behaviour, and that very insecurity she creates in them takes away their control of the situation.

Another example of Margery’s authority conflict occurs during her meeting with the Archbishop of York. Once again, the townspeople want to try her for heresy and the Archbishop says to her, ‘I her seyn thu art a ryth wikked woman.’ Margery, although frightened, retorts, ‘Ser, so I her seyn that ye arn a wikkyd man.’13 And later, when the charges of heresy have once again been dropped, the Archbishop commands, ‘thow schalt sweryn that thu shcalt ne techyn ne chalengyn the pepil in my diocyse.’ She flatly refuses to accommodate his request, saying she will reprove anyone who swears and that she will speak about God because God himself does not say she cannot speak of him.14 The Archbishop also uses the second person singular pronoun, but his tone is not quite as scathing as the Canterbury monks’ had been. He has an undertone of approval for Margery’s bold attitude, and she seems to amuse him immensely, but he is still ultimately disapproving because she threatens his control. This is corroborated when Margery tells her humorous tale of the priest and the bear to illustrate priestly corruption in some areas, which the Archbishop liked well.15 When dealing with clergymen, Margery

uses her humorous stories to establish a position for her own voice…separate from Church dominion. … This is comically illustrated by the fact that the archbishop of York, in spite of his approval of her story, offers payment to the man who will escort her out of his diocese. … [H]e is anxious to be rid of her because her “bold speech” is incompatible with his authority.16

Once again, although Margery uses the polite pronoun ‘ye’ when talking to the Archbishop, there is also an undercurrent of insubordination in her tone. She is more genuinely respectful to the Archbishop than to the Canterbury monks, but neither does she allow the Archbishop’s position to intimidate her into agreeing to do something against her conscience, namely, swearing not to talk about God to the people of the diocese. When she refuses to agree to the Archbishop’s request, Margery ‘makes a case for her right to speak which is key to her authorization of herself as a mystic and her book as a whole.’17 This ties in to the medieval antifeminist attitude that Margery struggles against. By not allowing herself to be coerced into an agreement, even if the Archbishop of York is the one to initiate the arrangements, Margery undermines that patriarchal authority and empowers herself as a woman, a mystic and an author. She ‘often negotiates her authority with higher powers…’18 which we have seen with her use of language and tone. The example with the Archbishop of York is but one example of Margery’s redefinition of her own authority.

While Margery has troubles with clerics of the church, she seems to have more respect for her primary confessor, an anchorite at a Dominican priory in Lynn.19 Why she speaks of him more highly than other religious men is open to interpretation, but I would argue that it is the marginality of both their lifestyles that allows her to be more at ease with him than with other clerics. He, too, is far more civil to Margery than his counterparts in the unenclosed world. He tells her, ‘Dowtyr, ye sowkyn evyn on Crysts brest, and ye han an ernest peny of hevyn. I charge yow receyveth swech thowtys whan God wyl geve hem as meekly and as devowtly as ye kan and comyth to me and tellyth me what thei be….’20 This anchorite is one of the only male clerics to address Margery with the second person plural pronoun ‘ye,’ an indication of his esteem for her abilities as a true visionary. His tone also implies that he is impressed with her, for he offers his services as her confessor, and possibly as her amanuensis, although the text does not state this with any certainty. Margery describes the anchorite speaking to her ‘wyth gret reverens and wepyng, thankyng God…’21 after she describes her visions to him. His tone is one of admiration, and even awe, at her abilities and blessing of such potent visions.   

This man is not Margery’s only interaction with anchorites. She also talks with the anchoress Julian of Norwich. The dialogue seems less forced than it does with the Archbishop and the monks, and somewhat less cautious as with all the men, including the anchorite from Lynn. It would seem that Margery is more at ease with Julian, another woman living on the edge of society like she is herself. Julian says,

Holy Wryt seyth that the sowle of a rytful man is the sete of God, and so I trust, syster, that ye ben. I prey God grawnt yow perseverawns. Settyth al yowr trust in God and feryth not the langage of the world, for the mor despite, schame, and repref that ye have in the world the mor is yowr meryte in the sygth of God.22

Julian uses the second person plural pronoun to Margery. Between these two women, the use of this pronoun indicates Julian’s respect for Margery. It also includes the additional elements of Julian’s support of and equality with another female mystic. By using the more intimate pronoun ‘ye,’ Julian shows the connection between herself and Margery that exists through their marginality in society as women mystics and visionaries. The use of the second person plural by a recognised female mystic also helps Margery’s own visionary experiences become authorised. Implicit in both conversations with Julian and with the anchorite of Lynn, it would seem that Margery is able to connect with those who live on the margins of society far more easily than she can with those who are solidly in the world.

By examining the use of one small, simple pronoun and the tone that is implied in The Book of Margery Kempe, we can see the multiple layers which add dimension to this already dense text. Looking at the relationships Margery had with earthly men and women assists our understanding of her relationship with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the heavenly saints that make up the body of her mystical discourse. Without first understanding her earthly interactions, we cannot possibly hope to understand her divine communications.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennett, H.S. Six Medieval Men and Women. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), pp. 124-150.

Bremner, Eluned. ‘Margery Kempe and the Critics: Disempowerment and Deconstruction.’ Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays. Ed. Sandra J. McEntire. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, 117-138.

Brooten, Bernadette J. ‘Paul’s Views on the Nature of Women and Female Homoeroticism.’ Immaculate and Powerful: The Feamle in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Ed. Clarissa W. Atkinson, Constance H. Buchanan and Margaret R. Miles. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), pp. 61-87.

Burrow, J.A. and Thorlac Turville-Petre, eds. A Book of Middle English. 2nd edition. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

Bynum, Caroline. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Dillon, Janette. ‘Holy Women and their Confessors or Confessors and their Holy Women? Margery Kempe and Continental Tradition.’ Prophets Abroad: The Reception of Continental Holy Women in Late-Medieval England. Ed. Rosalynn Voaden. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996, 115-140.

Fanous, Samuel. ‘Measuring the Pilgrim’s Progress: Internal Emphasis in The Book of Margery Kempe.Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Ed. Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000, 157-176.

Johnson, Lynn Staley. ‘The Trope of the Scribe and Questions of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.’ Speculum 1991 Oct. 66 (4): 820-838.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. Lynn Staley. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.

Lavezzo, Kathy. ‘Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in the Book of Margery Kempe.’ Premodern Sensualities. Ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero. (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 175-198.

Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Mahoney, Dhira B. ‘Margery kempe’s Tears and the Power over Language.’ Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays. Ed. Sandra J. McEntire. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, 37-50.

McEntire, Sandra J. ‘The Journey into Selfhood: Margery Kempe and Feminine Spirituality.’ Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays. Ed. Sandra J. McEntire. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, 51-72.

Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. ‘Male Confessors and Female Penitents: Possibilities for Dialogue.’ Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 139-160.

Renevey, Denis. ‘Margery’s Performing Body: The Translation of Late Medieval Discursive Religious Practices.’ Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Ed. Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000, 197-216.

Ross, Ellen. ‘”She Wept and Cried Right Loud for Sorrow and Pain”: Suffering, the Spiritual Journey, and Women’s Experience in Late Medieval Mysticism.’ Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Ed. Ulrike Wiethaus. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993), pp. 45-59.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women’s Autobiographies: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987).

Voaden, Rosalynn. God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries. York: York Medieval Press, 1999.

Yoshikawa, Naoë Kukita. ‘Veneration of Virgin Martyrs in Margery Kempe’s Meditation: Influence of the Sarum Liturgy and Hagiography.’ Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Ed. Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000, 177-195.

Footnotes

1 Rosalynn Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries. (York: York Medieval Press, 1999).

2 Burrow, J.A. and Thorlac Turville-Petre, eds. A Book of Middle English. 2nd edition. (Oxford: Blackwell Publisher, 1996), p. 42.

3 Lochrie, K. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, p. 105.

4 Lochrie, p. 105.

5 All references are from The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. Lynn Staley. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996, p. 37. Hereafter cited as BMK.

6 BMK, p. 37.

7 BMK, p. 38.

8 BMK, p. 38.

9 BMK, p. 41.

10 BMK, p. 41.

11 Lochrie, p. 142.

12 Lochrie, p. 143.

13 BMK, p. 125.

14 BMK, p. 126.

15 BMK, p. 127

16 Lochrie, p. 151.

17 Lochrie, p. 109.

18 Voaden, p. 122.

19 BMK, p. 31.

20 BMK, p. 31-32.

21 BMK, p. 31.

22 BMK, p. 54.

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