ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Women's Voices 1: Margery Kempe


REREAD NA 12-14 (on the Fifteenth Century) followed by NA 366-7 (headnote to Margery Kempe). Know the approximate life span of Margery Kempe; when (approximately) her "visions" began, and what first provoked them; when her text was composed and written down and by whom (dates given in Norton). Note: as Margery was illiterate, these questions are somewhat complex! Be aware of the historical relation to other works read this term. In what sort of language is the Book of Margery Kempe written? (Rhymed verse, alliterative verse, prose?) Read the introduction carefully, looking in particular for points of comparison with the Wife of Bath. Keep in mind the Wife of Bath's insistence on the "authority of experience" as you read about Margery's actual mystical experiences in a text of which she herself is the author (if not the scribe).

The Book of Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe is not a dream vision; it is the spiritual autobiography of a real woman which includes accounts of the dreams and visions of this female mystic. To what extent does gender effect Margery's spiritual experience? What kind of visions does she have? When does the first vision occur? (What causes it?) What imagery and language used seems particularly relevant to a woman's experience? (consider e.g. "home- making," child-bearing, love between parent and child, love between spouses). Note the emphasis on emotion: in imagining Christ's Passion (i.e. suffering), Margery feels compassion (literally, she suffers with Him). Her spirituality is a matter of FEELINGS she EXPERIENCES, not authoritative writings that she grasps intellectually.

Compare/contrast Margery with the Wife of Bath. While the real and fictional women are obviously very different (e.g. in their attitudes toward and enjoyment of sex), what do they have in common? Like Alison of Bath, Margery's status and (lack of) personal freedom are initially defined by her role as wife. Does she like sex? Does she have the right to refuse it? How and when is she successful in negotiating a pact of chastity with her husband (see NA 370-71)? Once she wins his agreement, Margery devotes herself to the life of the spirit rather than that of the flesh (symbolically choosing the role of "virgin" over that of "wife"). She visits Julian of Norwich, a recluse nun or Anchoress who wrote an autobiographical book of visions describing her own mystical experiences (NA 371-2; an excerpt from Julian's Book of Showings is found at NA 355-66). While the two are very different-- Margery is illiterate while Julian is learned; Margery is a wife and mother while Julian is presumably a virgin-- they seem to understand and respect each other despite these differences. Why? (What do they have in common that surpasses these differences?)

Later, Margery undertakes a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem where in a series of visions she experiences the events of Christ's passion (NA 372-4). Recall that the Wife of Bath also made this pilgrimage, according to her General Prologue portrait (WB 465-9, NA 226). Margery's mysticism is based not upon the intellect but on feelings: her visions are accompanied by fits of tears and crying, and she seems to want us to feel what Christ experienced during his Crucifixion and Passion. Can you see a connection between this "affective piety" (see NA 367) and the Wife of Bath's emphasis on experience over book learning? Do you see a possible connection between this sort of spirituality and the medieval reverence for the Virgin Mary discussed earlier this quarter?

Margery also resembles the Wife of Bath in her willingness to challenge the authority of the Church. Although she is illiterate (as the Wife of Bath may have been), Margery opposes the authority of her mystical experience to the authority of male Church figures like the Archbishop of York (see NA 374-7). What is the reaction of different forms of authority (Margery's husband, the church) to her mystical experiences? How does the learned anchoress Julian of Norwich treat her? What role does gender play in these reactions? In the second passage (NA 369), Margery accuses herself of pride, the first of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet she is not exactly humble when she stands up to the Archbishop. Why does she feel she can argue with the church authorities? The Wife of Bath similarly argued for the validity of experience over scripture as a source of authority in certain realms of human existence. Compare/contrast Margery's and Alison's conflict with Church Authority. (Who wrote down Margery's Book? In her case, are "author" and "authority" identical? Is Chaucer's role analogous to that of Margery's scribe?)

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2002

Click here for The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Study Questions

Click here for Christine de Pizan I Study Questions

Click here for Christine de Pizan II Study Questions

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