Illiterate Memory and Spiritual Experience: Margery Kempe, The Liturgy, and the “Woman in the Crowd”

  • Arnold Sanders
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


When Archbishop Bowet’s monks interrogated Margery Kempe in 1417, her Book tells us she placed her public religious testimony under the pope’s control and compared herself with Luke’s mulier de turba, the “woman in the crowd” with a boisterous voice.1 This passage has been examined frequently for evidence of medieval constructions of gender and the Church’s enforcement of orthodoxy against the threat of Lollardy.2 As one of Margery’s longest examples of her debating style, it may help us understand the tension between a literate elite and the illiterate English populace shortly before the introduction of mass-produced printed books and vastly increased vernacular literacy. Margery’s specific use of that Lukan passage also could help us understand how her spiritual consciousness affected the mnemonic process by which she retrieved the passage, whether to resist accusers or to construct the Book.


Spiritual Experience Public Speech Latin Text Religious Woman Mnemonic Process 
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    The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), p. 126. Hereafter, references to the Book are cited parenthetically. I preserve Lynn Staley’s distinction between “Margery,” a narrative persona, and Kempe, a historical source of the events the Book describes; see Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). Because “fiction” seems an anachronistic concept for Kempe’s era, I treat all events described in the Book not as fiction but rather as artifacts collaboratively constructed by Kempe and the scribes, artifacts that retain detectable evidence of their different narrative styles. SeeGoogle Scholar
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© Bonnie Wheeler 2006

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  • Arnold Sanders

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