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The First Autobiographies of Women in English 'The Book of Margery Kempe'

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‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ is thought to be one of the first autobiographies of women in English. It is about a middle-class woman called Margery Kempe, who lived from around 1373 and 1440, and her journey dedicating her life to God. Throughout her transition to a visionary, she experiences several hurdles being a woman in the Middle Ages. A visionary is a devout person who has religious experiences which may include seeing a holy event or holy person which cannot be scientifically explained. Although it was written through a male scribe, it offers access to how her gender affected her religious commitments. What makes this book interesting is how being a woman forces Kempe’s sexual, maternal, and domestic aspects to play a crucial element in her transition. A medieval scholar described her autobiography as a ‘precious work for anyone interested in the history of gender, subjectivities, and English culture.’ Not only does her gender undermine her credibility as she is subjected to accusations of madness, but it also draws attention to what female mystics found important in their attempts at being close with God. This essay will argue that Kempe being a woman is fundamental in her conversion as it attracts domestic and sexual aspects in her relationship with God and Jesus whilst also making her more perceptible to accusations of heresy.

Sex becomes a persistent feature throughout Kempe’s autobiography as she attempts to remove herself from her identity as a mother and wife. Her sexual complexity has been emphasized by scholars. Although in medieval writings, sexual imagery is often prominent as it was an expression of spiritual lust, it is generally agreed amongst critics that Kempe’s employment of sex is literal. Sexual qualities are prevalent in her perceptions of herself as a holy figure and her relationships with Christ.

Sexuality is important in how Kempe perceives herself as her conversion to a spiritual and devout life began too late for her to be a holy virgin, preventing her desire to enhance herself in the likeness of the Virgin Mary. This prompts an obsession within her to have a chaste marriage with her husband, John. Chastity often takes up an intense role in spiritual women’s life due to medieval theologians viewing female sin to be inherently bodily, sexuality from within. This contrasts the portrayals of the core male saint sin: external temptation. A concept drawn from Donal Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell’s study of saints sums these gender conventions up: ‘spirit is to flesh as male is to female.’ This stimulates a requirement for female devotion to be bodily-centered, typically abstinence. This was often achieved with food imagery, specifically fasting to require agency over one’s body. Like many medieval women, Kempe took to fasting to repress aspects of her physicality. The symbolic power of being in a state of hunger and denial was exploited for different reasons, Kempe used it to control sexual desire. The link between eating and sexual domination over one’s body is prevalent within the history of Christian tradition. Being a woman meant her journey to becoming a holy woman involved punishing and disciplining her own flesh to achieve chastity. This has been connected to contemporary eating disorders.

This pursuit for abstinence was prompted more specifically from her first visionary experience and she dictates that ‘after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband.’ This did not mean that chastity came easy to her. When Christ announces to her in a vision that she is pregnant once again, she falls into anguish. This revulsion from sexual relations can also be attributed to her several pregnancies and the severe mental psychosis she fell under after the birth of her first child. Moreover, she was unable to attempt her husband to abstain from sex, drawing focus on how her physicality was fundamental to her transition but ownership over her own body was not given. Kempe was very aware that being a wife was an anomaly in the religious claims she expresses, distancing herself from the holy women in the background of her book. This is particular with the Virgin Mary. Being the most honored woman during the Middle Ages, it is unsurprising Kempe sought to imitate her. She focuses on Mary as the deific example of someone who experienced a transformation from physical motherhood to a spiritual one (a shift Kempe seeks). As part of her determination to become chaste, she begins to wear a hair shirt however her husband continued to have sex with her. John had a naturalistic empathy of God’s desire saying, ‘it was good to chaste’ but would only commit to doing so ‘when God wished it.’

The importance of chastity can be evidenced when Margery and her husband were talking together and he asked if ‘a man with a sword’ who ‘would slice of my head unless I should have sex with you ‘whether you would allow my head to be sliced off or allow me to be intimate with you, like in the past?’ This scenario John puts forward is markedly a sign of personal humiliation not only at the deprivation of sex but because this conversation occurred on Midsummer Eve in 1413, a night that was correlated with carefree sexuality in the Middle Ages. To this, Margery responded with ‘would rather see you slain than that we should turn again to the impurity of sexual activity.’ This harsh rejection is ironic as although Margery looks to build on her spousal status in relation to regarding, she is paradoxically pursuing to remove herself from her domestic role of earthly wife. Moreover, this rejection is emphasized when the reader learns that despite her desire to be chaste, her sexual desire for men besides her husband remained for many years afterward. She describes how ‘she was tempted with the sin of lechery despite her efforts to avoid it.’

Being a woman in the Middle Ages induced an attack upon her apparent erotic tendencies through starvation which often prompted illness. Another major sexual aspect of her narrative is her relationships with Christ, rendering them distinctly intimate. This was not uncommon: numerous female figures such as Catherine of Siena envisioned themselves marrying Christ. Her first vision of Christ occurred in her bed, creating a strange sense of intimacy. Kempe also depicts erotic descriptions of her relationship with Christ. Typically, however, medieval texts employ sexual imagery within a metaphorical stance. Kempe does so in a literal avenue, further complicated by the maternal imagery she also associates with Christ. Although Kempe may not have known the female mystics who used images of Christ as a lover or nursing Christ as a child, it can be maintained that describing Christ as her lover was in an inevitable reaction of a sensual, previously proud woman who was forced to live a chaste life and suppress her sexual desires. She imagines him as a young man, either as a bridge and groom or her lover. This intimacy may cement or even prove her salvation even if it contains incestuous connotations. Throughout the autobiography, she also sees the image of Christ in the face of many handsome men, to the extent that it pains her to look upon them. Ultimately, it seems that Margery used Jesus as a multi-substitute for familial relationships she found unsatisfactory.

What separates Kempe from other female mystiques is that they lack physical experience. This means that she is imagining an erotic relationship with Christ based on her relationship with her husband rather than things she’s heard. This relationship with Christ may not only be a replication of her marriage with John but a depiction of an improved one. When she kisses Christ’s mouth, head, or feet, this isn’t molded around a spousal partnership she has never experienced which suggests she views her relationship with Christ as an alternative to her husband’s. In this way, her closeness with Christ is beyond what others can reach. It seems she prefers Christ and from this, we can draw that Kempe was refusing to abide by the distinction between sex and spiritual devotion within medieval manuscripts. Whilst sex was often viewed as negative and spiritual devotion as positive, Kempe manages to interlink these binaries and create an overwhelming, uncomfortable relationship with Christ. This can be further evidenced by her supposed status as ‘God’s wife’ in the spiritual aspect. Kempe even goes as far as to narrate the wedding ceremony in which ‘the Father took her by the hand (ghostly) in her soul, before the Son and the Holy Ghost and the Mother of Jesus and all the twelve apostles and St. Katherine and St. Margaret and many other saints and holy virgins’ saying to her soul, ‘I take thee, Margery, for my wedded wife.’ Here, Kempe extracts the figures that make up her mystical background and extends her private family classifications into the public. Although it’s difficult to assess the extent of the actuality of these visions, the book indicates that Margery believed in these religious experiences. Therefore, it can be asserted that in ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ devotion and sex are inherently linked.

Despite her relationship with Christ, throughout the book, she consistently refers to herself as a ‘creature’. Although this can be attributed to anonymity (which is quickly lost as the biographical narrative unfolds), it demonstrates an attempt to separate herself from her gender. Her sex and physicality played an inevitable position in her journey to becoming a mystique but referring to herself as a ‘creature’ can suggest an attempt to deemphasize gender. This implies how Kempe is aware that due to social conventions, her gender must play an overarching role in her spiritual journey. However, this has an opposite effect as every direct address identifies her as a woman, drawing focus to the importance of gender within the Middle Ages. This can be evidenced by the frequent amount of times she is asked about her marital status, her husband, and whom her husband is, denoting the inferiority of women due to their worth being placed on their husbands or lack thereof. During the Middle Ages and beyond, women did not have a separate identity from their husbands

Being a woman plays an overtly significant role in Margery’s transition to a mystic, particularly in relation to her sexual activity and her erotic desires. Chasity was considered with much regard, especially in the context of a holy woman: a construction that Margery strived to achieve. The inherent sexual nature of her body being a woman become of vital importance in proving her closeness and intimacy with Christ. This prompts an inherent link between sex and devotion throughout the autobiography which adds its own layer of complexity since during the Middle Ages society was viewed as inherently negative and earthly. This elicits a desire within Margery to submit to extreme means to avoid any form of sexual activity. Overall, due to the perceptions of women during the Middle Ages, Margery’s sexual activity plays a substantial role in her journey to becoming a visionary.

Margery’s status as a woman means that in her transition to becoming a visionary, she must move away from her domestic role as mother and wife. However, she expresses her maternity in a different avenue. She has 14 children and although the story is framed around her being a mother, her children are rarely mentioned. Rather than expressing her private motherly role, in ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ she insists on redirecting and focusing her domesticity in her relationship with Christ. This is unsettling as it generates incestuous undertones due to her relationships with Christ also being manifested in a spousal one. However, as much as she tries to escape her physical motherhood, she is unable to as evidenced by when she adopts a maternal character over John.

Throughout history and particularly during the Middle Ages, accusations of madness and insanity were typically associated with women. Due to her period of psychosis after the birth of her first child and the widespread belief between religious ecstasy and madness were formally compatible.

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The First Autobiographies of Women in English ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’. (2022, August 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
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