Women in Christianity: Margery Kempe
This post is part of a recurring series on women in Christianity. My goal in this series is not to highlight exceptional women but instead to discuss the many contributions of women that frequently go unremarked or overlooked. Search the tag women in christianity for more entries in this series.
During the season of Advent, I wrote about how the Incarnation is good news for women as it overturns the assumption that the mind (typically figured as masculine) is superior to the body (associated with the feminine). As I considered what woman to choose for a post on women in theology, I wanted to write about someone very aware of her ties to her physical body. While many women theologians could fit this criteria, Margery Kempe immediately sprang to mind.
Margery Kempe lived in England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She wrote (or more precisely, she dictated) the first autobiography in English — and one of the first autobiographies in western literature. Margery was a devout Christian, but not from early childhood (as Catherine of Siena was). Instead, Margery became devout after what seems like a period of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child.1
Margery went on to have thirteen more children before convincing her husband to join her in a vow of chastity (understandably enough). But through these childbearing years, Margery engages in multiple forms of devotion from frequent prayers to pilgrimages to wearing a hair shirt (which her husband apparently never notices).
Her devotion is not unique for this period of history; the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe saw a flourishing of lay piety — that is, devotion practiced by ordinary people beyond the structures of the priesthood or monasticism. As the middle class grew in the late middle ages and became literate at least in their own vernaculars (even if not literate in Latin), the demand for devotional texts increased and loose communities of the devout formed. These Christians did not want to formally enter the church (as priests, monks or nuns) for a variety of reasons, but they did want to grow spiritually.
The institutional church had an uneasy relationship with these communities. Most people remained orthodox, some like Catherine of Siena affiliating themselves with monastic orders, but groups like the Beguines faced accusations of heresy. Most significantly, in Margery Kempe’s England a group of people called Lollards had begun following the teachings of John Wycliffe. The Lollards were declared heretical because of their views on the priesthood and the sacraments; they were also persecuted because of their political views.2
While the Lollards are a large and fascinating topic in their own right, most relevant to Margery is the fact that they encouraged itinerant preaching, even by women, to spread their beliefs. So when Margery began traveling and gaining a reputation as a holy women, her status as a middle-class (non-noble) woman outside the church meant that she faced considerable opposition from church authorities.
Margery faced resistance on two main fronts: her weeping and her teaching.
After the birth of her first child, Margery was afflicted or gifted (depending on your point of view) with weeping: when she contemplated the love of Christ and his suffering for her, she was unable to stop crying loudly. For Margery, this weeping was a gift from God, a sign of God’s presence in and favor on her life. Weeping was a physical manifestation of her inner experience, and in her autobiography she repeatedly thanks God for allowing her to show her devotion in this physical way.
However, since she was often overcome with weeping in public places and particularly in holy places, church officials frequently chastised her. They believed that she could control her weeping but refused, preferring instead to draw attention to herself. Margery maintained that this was not the case: God caused her to weep, and she had no desire to make herself a public spectacle. Weeping, in all its messy physicality, became a point of tension between Margery and church authority.
But no matter how annoying some found her weeping, it was seldom the main complaint against her. Margery consistently faced opposition, often in the form of imprisonment and examination by church officials, for her teaching. In her account of her examination by the Archbishop of York, Margery carefully positions herself as a messenger of the gospel. She acknowledges that women cannot preach, but asserts that she has occupied no pulpit; she does use “communication and good words” to proclaim the gospel and argue against corruption in the church, but she claims that Jesus' interactions with women in scripture set a precedent for her to communicate the gospel.
The Archbishop, in Margery’s account, can find no fault with this argument — but he still orders Margery to leave his diocese. This incident shows Margery as a participant in communities of lay people who gather to discuss the scripture and spur each other to live holy lives, communities in which women could and often did hold prominent positions as sources of advice and teaching. This incident with the Archbishop also shows the unease in the institutional church over the teachings and practices that may proliferate in such groups. Although Margery is not a Lollard, her willingness to criticize the church and teach her fellow lay Christians overlaps with heretical beliefs — and the existence of these heresies gives the church a reason to detain and question Margery.
But Margery persisted in her travels, her teaching and her weeping; she persisted through finding someone to write down her life;3 she persisted in telling her version of her spiritual life, no matter how unruly that life was in the eyes of the church. And above all, she persisted in asserting that she had received revelations from God.
Even today, it’s easy to dismiss Margery Kempe as an attention-seeker, a hysterical woman, even a heretic. But she was also a woman who experienced God tangibly through her tears, an experience that propelled her to a life of devotion amongst a community of others seeking new ways to follow Christ.
For an introduction to Margery Kempe’s writing, as well as the text itself in Middle English, click here.
It’s always dangerous to diagnose mental illness across cultures and at a distance of 600 years, but Margery’s vivid description of her mental breakdown after the birth of her first child seems to show a case of not just postpartum depression but the much rarer postpartum psychosis.↩
In short, the Lollards married Wycliffe’s view that priests are not necessary intermediaries between the laity and God to the political views that spurred the Peasant Revolts. The Lollards thus challenged the established social order by arguing that neither priests nor kings are so God-ordained as to be above criticism and indeed revolt.↩
Margery was herself unable to write, although not necessarily unable to read; in the middle ages, reading and writing were distinct skill sets. She thus needed to hire someone to write her narrative. Her first scribe apparently wrote so poorly and in such an idiosyncratic dialect that few could read what he wrote; her second scribe promised to write for her, then backed out because of her tenuous standing with church authorities. This second man, however, referred her to yet a third man, who was able to better understand the first version and, with Margery’s help, write the final version of her life.↩