I’ve taught The Book of Margery Kempe, in whole or in part, seven times now – as a TA discussion leader three times, as a professor to undergrads in the my Early English Lit class three times, and to MA students in a medieval women writers seminar once – and every time I’ve been concerned by the students who simply want to call Margery crazy, or who “explain” her behavior by medicalizing and pathologizing her, even if they are sympathetic. They speak gently of how she’s out of her wits; continuously suffering from her bout with post-partum depression; suffering from depression in general, etc. Or, they deride her as a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain, and so forth.
To all of these responses I have replied, kindly, that such responses don’t really help us analyze Kempe’s text or to understand Margery herself as a text, as “good communication” (her own words), as a performance of affective piety that’s not completely out there in the context of her own times. What I’ve really wanted to say to the students who say she’s “just a freak” is this: “Not at all helpful – anyone else want to say something more thoughtful?” Generally it’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes.
This last time I taught The Book of Margery Kempe, I didn’t get the “she’s a freak” responses until the last day of discussion. Part of what held them off, I think, was that we spent the first day talking about authority, auctoritas, authorship, the idea of the book, textuality and orality, scribes and amaneuses, the manuscript and its readerly marginalia (and what it tells us about The Book’s early reception), and the practice and meaning of writing, as well as Lynn Staley’s practice of referring to the author of The Book as Kempe and the protagonist of the text as Margery. I know some people might find this last bit a false distinction and an illusion, but it’s a really useful one for getting students to think of The Book as a constructed literary object and not simply a transparent record of a life. My students were so caught up in wrapping their heads around the different meanings of authority and the ways in which the scribes of Kempe’s text are necessary for her authority – no matter what the state of her literacy – that they didn’t have time to think about Margery’s behavior. And since I’ve been emphasizing the material culture of the book and also a little reception history for each text we’ve studied, they were curious to hear about the marginalia by The Book’s friar readers and what it said about how they saw the text. (In addition to reading medieval texts and learning about their manuscript contexts this semester, I’ve also had students do a kind of wacky miscellany project in which they create their own commonplace books and then write marginalia in each others’ books; so I think they’re very aware of what marginalia might tell you about a reader and what it doesn’t tell you. But that’s another post if you’re interested.) And they were fascinated, as well, by Kempe’s use of the third person and that one place in chapter 5 where someone (the scribe? Kempe herself?) slips up and refers to Margery and John Kempe in first person plural: we. My students wondered: did Kempe invent the scribes for the sake of her authority? Or did she write a rough draft herself which then the scribe copied, missing only one first person reference which he failed to convert to third person? They were intrigued by the idea that Margery’s illiteracy (whether real or exaggerated) might be a boon to her spiritual claims, rather than a check on her authority.
So all of this distracted them for at least a day and made them focus on the text as text. They might have started devolving into the “she’s crazy” routine on the second day, but I had laryngitis and the weather was nice, so I split them up into groups and sent them out into the courtyard with a list of discussion questions. I couldn’t hear everything every group said at every minute, but for the most part, they seemed to be discussing the issues of genre, gender, and authority and that I’d written out for them.
But by day three, the “crazy” comments started. In part, that’s because they’d had a weekend in between class meeting and my class seems particularly prone to forgetting everything we talked about from Thursdays to Tuesday. I swear these kids must be heavy drinkers or else some other kind of trauma is killing their brain cells and memory, because otherwise they’re a bright and curious group. Anyway, the same students who thought the third person was a fascinating and clever ploy on Kempe’s part now thought that calling herself a “creature” made her “sound like a freak.” And the litany of “crazy” and “insane” and “unstable” began. I tried my usual tactics of quelling the name-calling. And then finally, it hit me. Or rather, something one of my graduate students had written in his response paper on the very first day of Kempe discussion came bubbling up to the surface of my own memory. I asked him to read aloud the sentence (we have “slash” courses – graduate students take classes with undergrads) which said something along the lines of ‘Perhaps I’m reacting just like the bastards who tormented Margery herself and made her justified in seeing herself as a martyr.’ All of a sudden I realized that students’ seemingly less than helpful name-calling and judgments of Margery’s sanity were actually not only helpful, but possibly exactly what Kempe and the text wanted. Margery may not have been pleased by reader calling her crazy – and had she been around to overhear them, she would have chastised them for their sinfulness and idle talk – but Kempe and her text actually require such a response. To be the saint she so wanted to be, Margery needed persecutors. She prayed to be relieved of such persecution, but in those prayers, Jesus came to her and told her that they only made her more beloved to him. And so, in narrating these experiences – the outlandish behavior that provokes Margery’s attackers (the loud crying, wearing white, constantly traveling on pilgrimage, etc.); the persecutions she claims to have experienced, including numerous encounters with ecclesiastical law; and the mystical, private “dalliance” with Christ that authorizes both the behavior and the worldly criticism for it – Kempe is looking for two responses, both of them embedded in her text. Either a reader will find Margery holy and see her words and experiences as appropriate models – as do many people within her text – or a reader will think she’s annoying, crazy, and freakish, as do many other people in the narrative, but in so doing, will only reinforce her holiness by showing her to be persecuted and yet steadfast.
Of course, I didn’t say all this to my students. It was nearing the end of class, so I time only to say a few words. After my graduate student read that bit of his response paper aloud, I said something like this: “So, if you find Margery annoying and weird, you give her authority as a martyr. If you find her holy and sincere, you give her authority. Either way, the text constructs the readers it wants and that authorize its existence and meaning. Only if you are utterly indifferent are you misreading the text.” And I left it at that. We’ve been talking a lot this semester about how text can assume and anticipate and work for various reading positions – naïve readers, accomplished readers, and so forth – and so maybe my students made that connection to The Book of Margery Kempe anticipating, expecting, and wanting multiple kinds of readers.
At any rate, I feel I’m now freed from worrying that my students are dismissing the text if they call Margery “crazy.” Instead, I can tell them that they are playing right into her hands, that because of them, Kempe’s authority as quasi-saint and holy woman is even greater.
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