Margery Kempe Answers Back

  • Carolyn Dinshaw


In a tense moment during her confrontation with the abbot, the dean, and the mayor of Leicester, an abrupt question is put to Margery Kempe. In front of a crowd so eager to gawk at her that they are standing up on stools, she has successfully confuted an accusation of Lollardy by demonstrating to the abbot and his men her knowledge of the articles of the faith and by rehearsing her orthodox belief in the Eucharist. Unconvinced and alleging hypocrisy, the mayor then takes over. His accusations that she is “a false strumpet, a false Lollard, and a false deceiver of the people” have provoked this trial to begin with, and at last he gets down to what seems to be the bottom line of his discomfort with her in his town: “I want to know why you go about in white clothes, for I believe you have come here to lure away our wives from us, and lead them off with you.”1 How are all of these accusations—of hypocrisy, sexual deviance, heresy, sociopolitical disruption—focused by the act of wearing white clothes? And why might Margery’s sartorial practice evoke the suspicion that she intends to lead wives away from their husbands and homes? I want to begin this meditation on queerness, community, and history with a consideration of Margery Kempe’s clothing, that constant issue in the Book that records a life at odds with most every everyday thing in late-medieval East Anglia.2


Academic Freedom Deviant Sexual Practice National Conversation Congressional Record Social Discomfort 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Modem English translation from The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. B. A. Windeatt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 149, 153. All parenthetical references in my text refer to this edition.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Important articles engaging the issue of Margery’s clothes include Dyan Elliott, “Dress as Mediator between Inner and Outer Self: The Pious Matron of the High and Later Middle Ages,” Mediaeval Studies 53 (1991): 279–308;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Mary Erler, “Margery Kempe’s White Clothes,” Medium Ævum 62 (1993): 78–83;Google Scholar
  4. and Gunnel Cleve, “Semantic Dimensions in Margery Kempe’s ‘Whyght Clothys,’” Mystics Quarterly 12 (1986): 162–70.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    The Tiber Celestis of St. Bridget of Sweden, ed. Roger Ellis, EETS 291 (Oxford, New York, Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 14.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Allen in The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen, EETS 212 (1940; rpt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), 314–315; cf. 311;Google Scholar
  7. Joyce Bazire and Eric Colledge, eds., The Chastising of God’s Children (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), 51. In a Lollard case that links procreation with desire, an accusation against William Ramsbury stresses procreation so strongly that (in conjunction with other accusations) we might hear the ideas of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, that contemporary sect “whose more extreme adherents used their asserted freedom from the possibility of sin to justify all forms of immorality,” asGoogle Scholar
  8. Anne Hudson puts it in “A Lollard Mass,” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 23 part 2 (1972): 407–19, at 409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. The idea, reputed to circulate among Lollards, that all women should be common, is scorned by Roger Dymmok as antisacramental and heretical. It is heard in the Norwich heresy trials later, for example in William Colyn’s accusation and confession (Norman P. Tanner, ed., Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428–31, Camden 4th ser. 20 [London: Royal Historical Society, 1977], 91). The Chastising of God’s Children, written between c. 1382 and 1408, is a devotional treatise drawing on various Continental treatises, heavily on Ruysbroek’s Spiritual Espousals; in chapter 11, for example, Ruysbroek’s denunciations of the Brethren of the Free Spirit are linked to some English Lollards (Bazire and Colledge 53–54, 141–42). For further suggestion of a link between Norwich, hotbed of Lollardy and the Low Countries,Google Scholar
  10. see Norman P. Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370–1532 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), 65–66; note that the Norwich lay beguinage-like communities of which Tanner speaks were never associated with heresy.Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    See Nancy F. Partner, “Reading The Book of Margery Kempe,” Exemplaria 3 (1991): 29–66, esp. 33, 39–40: Margery’s clothes mark her as different; she worries her ostentation at this time in her life might remind people of her earlier vain habits, when she tried to attract attention and signify her high social status as the daughter of the former mayor of Lynn instead of as the wife of her lower status husband.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 7.
    Ruth Nissé Shklar, “Cobham’s Daughter: The Book of Margery Kempe and the Power of Heterodox Thinking,” Modern Language Quarterly 56 (1995): 277–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 9.
    Hope Phyllis Weissman, “Margery Kempe in Jerusalem: Hysterica Compassio in the Late Middle Ages,” in Acts of Interpretation: The Text in its Contexts, 700–1600, ed. Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1982): 201–217, esp. 215.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    For the Hieronymian tradition, see, for starters, Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum 1.26, trans. W. H. Fremantle in The Principal Works of Saint Jerome, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser. (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1893): 6: 366: “If, however, Jovinianus should obstinately contend that [the Apostle] John was not a virgin (whereas we have maintained that his virginity was the cause of the special love our Lord bore to him), let him explain, if he was not a virgin, why it was that he was loved more than the other Apostles.” For the Brigittine version, see Susan Dickman, “Margery Kempe and the Continental Tradition of the Pious Woman,” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984) 150–68 at 159: Christ says to Bridget, “Ordinary, honorable matrimony is pleasing to Me. Moses, who led My people out of the thraldom of Egypt, was married, Peter was called to be an apostle while his wife was still living. Judith found grace in my eyes by her widowhood. But John, who was a virgin, pleased Me most, and I gave My mother into his care.”Google Scholar
  15. For the question of how it feels to be “less perfect,” compare the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 99–101, referring to 2 Timothy 2:20. (And also compare David Aers, “The Making of Margery Kempe: Individual and Community,” Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360–1430 [London and New York: Routledge, 1988], 73–116, at 91: Margery’s Book “discloses at least something of the experiential reality, the human costs of such ideology and sexual arrangements, ones which theological abstractions occlude.”) The Wife of Bath, of course, makes it sound like fun to play the role of the wooden vessel. Such an attitude attends her project of mimesis, her taking up and occupying a derogated social position and turning it to her own benefit. Margery’s mimetic projects operate in different registers—her “answering back” and saintly imitatio—but in both the Wife’s and Margery’s cases, such projects are of very limited subversive effectiveness.Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    Dickman, “Margery Kempe,” 157, quoting Johannes Jørgensen, Saint Bridget of Sweden, trans. I. Lund, 2 vols. (New York: Longmans Green, 1954), 1: 45.Google Scholar
  17. See also Aron Andersson, Saint Bridget of Sweden (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1980), 15.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    Jean Gerson, Regulae mandatorum (1400–1415), 99 in Oeuvres complètes, ed. P. Glorieux (Paris: Desclée, 1960–73) 9: 118; trans. Thomas Tender, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 231, cited by Aers, “The Making of Margery Kempe,” 93; Jean Gerson, De probatione spirituum (1415), 11, in Oeuvres complètes, 9: 184.Google Scholar
  19. For brief discussion of the latter passage, see Barbara Obrist, “The Swedish Visionary: Saint Bridget,” in Medieval Women Writers, ed. Katharina M. Wilson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984): 227–39, esp. 236.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 17 and passim.Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), esp. 59.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Sarah Beckwith, Christ’s Body: Identity, Culture, and Society in Medieval Writing (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 84.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Sheila Delany, Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature, Medieval to Modern (New York: Schocken, 1983): 90; Aers, “The Making of Margery Kempe,” 93.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    For this description of queerness in an analysis of the Pardoner, see Carolyn Dinshaw, “Chaucer’s Queer Touches/A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7 (1995): 75–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 27.
    See H. Ansgar Kelly, “The Right to Remain Silent: Before and After Joan of Arc,” Speculum 68 (1993): 992–1026, esp. 995.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 28.
    See Shklar, “Cobham’s Daughter,” 296–97, for a correlation of this passage with the Twelve Conclusions and further incisive comments on the interchange between the mayor and Margery. For an analysis of female same-sex homo-eroticism in the Book that notes this passage, see Kathryn Lavezzo, “Sobs and Sighs between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York: Routledge, 1996), 175–98.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    The Cloud of Unknowing 52, ed. Phyllis Hodgson, EETS o.s. 218 (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), 96–97.Google Scholar
  28. Trans. James Walsh, The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 220. See, further, chapter 53: For some people are so burdened with quaint and unseemly posturing in their behaviour, that when they have to listen to anything, they waggle their heads from side to side and up and down most oddly. They gape with open mouths, as though they are listening with them and not with their ears. Others, when they have to speak, use their fingers, either poking on their own fingers or their chests, or the chests of those to whom they are speaking. (223) And this list of “disordered and unseemly gestures” (222) goes on. Thanks to Martha Rust for this reference.Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    For Bynum’s treatment of Margery, see Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), passim, and Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), esp. 167–69, 179. Despite Bynum’s use of the term “queer” at one point to describe Margery’s white clothes, my view of Margery’s life and relation to saintly behaviors differs markedly from her emphasis: Bynum seems to absorb Margery’s experiences into a general framework of devout women’s beliefs and understandings in which gender finally drops out as a category (the crucial difference was not finally between male and female, Bynum argues, but between humanity and divinity [179]). But I am concerned about the sometimes very drastic effects of gendered and sexualized power dynamics on Margery’s life; these social phenomena Bynum of course recognizes, but her concern lies more in analyzing women’s and men’s beliefs. In my reading, gender and sexuality always weigh heavily, always make a difference in Margery’s life in her community: Margery goes crazy (she says in the first chapter of her Book) because she fears damnation and is reproved by her (male) confessor before she finishes her full confession at a moment of great physical danger that is unique to women (childbirth). It may well be that Margery’s experience with her flesh contributes to her desire to identify with Christ, the divine Word made flesh, as Bynum might argue, but this episode also highlights the ways in which women are particularly subjected to the harshness of institutional practices on which they are nonetheless completely dependent. For a mention of gender dynamics of this episode, see Barrie Ruth Strauss, “Freedom through Renunciation? Women’s Voices, Women’s Bodies, and the Phallic Order,” in Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, ed. Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 256–57. And for a general account of the shifting power relations between Margery and her confessors,Google Scholar
  30. see Janette Dillon, “Holy Women and Their Confessors or Confessors and their Holy Woman? Margery Kempe and Continental Tradition,” in Prophets Abroad: The Reception of Continental Holy Women in Late-Medieval England, ed. Rosalynn Voaden (Cambridge, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1996), 115–40.Google Scholar
  31. 36.
    Sarah Beckwith, “A Very Material Mysticism: The Medieval Mysticism of Margery Kempe,” in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 34–57, has analyzed the alienating phenomenon of positive mysticism, with its use of imagery and analogy, and its deployment of a desired but ever-only-approximated mimesis of the incarnated Christ. This ideology finally perpetuates the mystic’s (usually, the woman’s) social subjection. Beckwith highlights the ideological effects of ideals of wholeness and unity that cannot be imitated, but that the mystic will nonetheless ever desire to imitate. In its structural disjunctiveness, then, such mysticism could well be seen as a self-queering process, as it sets up a model for approximation that will never be reached. I add my analysis to Beckwith’s finely tuned study of the social implications of this supposedly transcendent practice of mysticism.Google Scholar
  32. 38.
    Gunnel/Cleve, “Margery Kempe: A Scandinavian Influence in Medieval England?” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, ed. Marion Glascoe (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1992), 171, notes this narrative shift.Google Scholar
  33. 45.
    Nicholas Love, Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ed. Michael G. Sargent (New York and London: Garland, 1992), 200–1. Note that Love’s translation was approved and commended by Arundel in about 1410 “for the edification of the faithful and the confutation of heretics or lollards”; in his work Love made major additions against Lollard beliefs (see Sargent’s introduction, xliv–lviii).Google Scholar
  34. See also Meditations on the Life of Christ, ed. Isa Ragusa and Rosalie B. Green, trans. Isa Ragusa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 363.Google Scholar
  35. 47.
    Life and Works of Saint Bernard, ed. John Mabillon, trans. Samuel J. Eales (London: John Hodges, 1896), 4: 182.Google Scholar
  36. 49.
    The term is Biddy Martin’s, in “Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias,” Diacritics 24.2–3 (1994): 104–121, quotation on 119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 50.
    For a current perspective on queerness and traditional kinship relations, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), on the violence of the very term, “family”: “Tales of the Avunculate,” esp. 71–72; see chapter eight, “The Politics of Gay Families” (195–213),CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. of Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), for discussion of the politics of contemporary gay families.Google Scholar
  39. 53.
    This discourse of contamination was loudly voiced during the national arts controversies of 1989–90 (especially about Robert Mapplethorpe) and reiterated more recently—July 1995—in Congress in a senator’s denunciation of queer performance art and his claim that both Endowments sponsor projects that “infect” American culture. See the documents collected in Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts, ed. Richard Bolton (NY: New Press, 1992) for examples of this discourse of poison, pollution, and contamination in the debates over the NEA in 1989–1990. A 1995 memo by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) outlines his proposal to privatize the Endowments; he claims that “the NEH’s projects may well have a longer lasting impact than the NEA’s, because they infect American education rather than only its art museums and theaters.” See the Congressional Record, 17 July 1995, S10150–53.Google Scholar
  40. 66.
    Lynne Cheney, resignation letter to her staff after the 1992 elections: the NEH should be “emphasizing traditional scholarship, and traditional approaches to traditional scholarship” (qtd. by John K. Wilson in The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education [Durham, NC: Duck University Press, 1995], 62).Google Scholar
  41. 70.
    John K. Wilson, “Razing the National History Standards,” Democratic Culture 4.1 (Spring 1995): 5–9, at 5. Frank Rich, “Cheney Dumbs Down,” New York Times, 26 February 1995, E15, notes Cheney’s about-face on the standards, from “favorite grant” to condemnation.Google Scholar
  42. 74.
    M.I.T. historian John W. Dower, quoted in Anthony Flint, “What of Our Past? Historians Disagree,” The Boston Globe, 25 July 1995, A1, 14 (qtd. in “Academic Freedom: A TDC Special Report,” Democratic Culture 4.2 [Fall 1995]: 8–11, quotation on 9). Flint summarizes the controversy: “The curators were accused of blame-America-first revisionism; the critics were charged with trying to sanitize history, and scolded for being ‘patriotically correct’ “ (A1). Sean Wilentz’s review of History on Trial, an account of the controversy by several of the historians responsible for developing the standards (Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past [New York: Knopf, 1997]), makes the point that “[c]ollege and university historians perhaps have the most to learn from ‘History on Trial.’ Unless they work closely with schoolteachers and education officials, history teaching is likely to suffer enormously. At best, schoolteachers will proceed oblivious of current historical research and at worst, in the words of one California educator, ‘history will soon be as dead as Latin in the schools.’ “ NewYork Times Book Review, 30 November 1997, 28, 31, at 31. Note that new NEH Chairman William R. Ferris’s initiative for 1999 includes a program, “My History Is America’s History,” more safely concentrating attention on individual families and their relations to larger historical currents in the United States.Google Scholar
  43. 75.
    John K. Wilson, “The Academy Speaks Back,” review of PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy, ed. Jeffrey Williams; Higher Education under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities, ed. Michael Bérubé and Cary Nelson; and After Political Correctness : The Humanities and Society in the 1990s, ed. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland in Democratic Culture 4.1 (Spring 1995): 29; Jeffrey Williams, ed., PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy (New York: Routledge, 1995), as quoted by Wilson, “The Academy,” 29.Google Scholar
  44. 81.
    Tim Miller and David Roman, “‘Preaching to the Converted,’” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 169–88. Note that the NEA Four ultimately lost in NEA v. Karen Finley (see note 59).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 83.
    Heather Findlay, “Queer Dora: Hysteria, Sexual Politics, and Lacan’s ‘Intervention on Transference,’” GLO 1 (1994): 323–47, esp. 337, adapts Laclau and Mouffe in her invigorating discussion of queer coalition politics. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantai Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, trans. Winston Moore and Paul Cammack (London: Verso, 1985), esp. 104–05. On overdetermination of a social field, see 98: “The symbolic—i.e., overdetermined—character of social relations therefore implies that they lack an ultimate literality which would reduce them to necessary moments of an immanent law.” “Articulation” is “any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice” (105).Google Scholar
  46. See also Joshua Gamson, “Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma,” Social Problems 42 (1995): 390–407, for a discussion of the innovations in understanding social movements that queer activism and theory can suggest.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carolyn Dinshaw

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations