Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh

Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh

Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh

Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh

Synopsis

"This is the first full-length feminist treatment of Margery Kempe, the extraordinary and troubling fifteenth-century writer, pilgrim, and mystic. Beginning with a theory of the body in medieval theology, Karma Lochrie demonstrates that women were associated not with the body but rather with the flesh, that disruptive aspect of body and soul which Augustine claimed was fissured with the Fall of Man. It is within this framework that she reads The Book of Margery Kempe, demonstrating the ways in which Kempe exploited the gendered ideologies of flesh and text through her controversial practices of writing, her inappropriate-seeming laughter, and the most notorious aspect of her mysticism, her "hysterical" weeping expressions of religious desire. Lochrie challenges prevailing scholarly assumptions of Kempe's illiteracy, her role in the writing of her book, her misunderstanding of mystical concepts, and the failure of her book to influence a reading community. In her work and her life, Kempe consistently crossed the barriers of those cultural taboos designed to exclude and silence her. Instead of viewing Kempe as marginal to the great mystical and literary traditions of the late Middle Ages, this study takes her seriously as a woman responding to the cultural constraints and exclusions of her time. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh will be of interest to students and scholars of medieval studies, intellectual history, and feminist theory." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

There is hardly any other calamity more apt to do harm or that is more incurable [than the unbridled speech of women]. If its only consequence were the immense loss of time, this would already be sufficient for the devil. But you must know that there is something else to it: the insatiable itch to see and to speak, not to mention . . . the itch to touch.

In 1415, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote a treatise in response to the alarming claims of St. Bridget and other women to mystical revelation and prophecy. De probatione spirituum represents Gerson's attempt to provide guidelines for the Church by which it could identify true mystical inspiration and condemn false religious fervor. In this treatise, Gerson warns against the religious appetites of women and adolescents (whom he lumps together) which make them prone to unbridled speech and passions. In the quotation above, Gerson specifically addresses the problem of woman's speech in conjunction with the appetitive faculties, of sight and touch, in particular. The excessive quality of woman's speech is linked implicitly with that "insatiable itch to touch," and with bodiliness. Behind the visions and speech of women mystics, Gerson senses that "something else" which renders it calamitous, that is, the woman's body. The word he chooses to describe her mystical desire, "itch," is a telling one because it imparts some of Gerson's own horror and disgust at the insufficiently mortified female flesh.

This book begins with Gerson's insatiable itch not in order to draw attention to his misogyny or to make light of his point; rather, I take it as the starting point for my study of one of the most controversial of late medieval mystics, Margery Kempe, in order to highlight what is at stake in any discussion of her. The intersection of woman's body and her speech is a crucial problem in any analysis of late medieval piety. We cannot begin to discuss what Gerson means by his critique until we ask questions about medieval culture's understanding of the female body and about women's speech and writing. In turn, issues surrounding Margery Kempe's mystical practices, her autobiographical mystical treatise, and her methods as an author dictating her work to a scribe await a theoretical investigation of the . . .

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