Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Slanderers and Saints: The Function of Slander in the Book of Margery Kempe

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Slanderers and Saints: The Function of Slander in the Book of Margery Kempe

Article excerpt

[F]or he hade pe wordes of euerlastynge life. And so pat was sklandre to pe bade, was vertuese to pe gode.

--Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Lire of Jesus Christ (1)

In chapter nine of Book Two of The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery arrives incognito in London after a physically and emotionally taxing trip to the Continent. During her brief sojourn in the city, she is invited to attend a feast that, as many of the gatherings and meals Margery takes part in, deteriorates quickly into a verbal match between Margery and her dinner companions. This time the altercation takes place because the guests, who are initially unaware of Margery's presence at their table, entertain themselves by rehearsing an amusing story which purports to expose the hypocrisy of Margery's practices of fasting and self-denial. According to the story's teller, once while dining as a guest on a Friday with a nameless "good man" (243), (2) Margery had refused to partake of a humble dish of red herring, choosing instead a much fancier dish of "good pike" (244), and sanctimoniously congratulating herself for the perverse lack of restraint she thus shows.

The verbal altercation between Margery and the tale's teller that ensues after the detractor completes his slanderous account is certainly one of the more memorable instances among the numerous confrontations between Margery and her slanderers which have recently been the focus of a number of critical studies. In her analysis of East Anglian devotional practices, Gail McMurray Gibson had suggested that Margery fashions the account of her piety into an account of her "martyrdom by slander" by modeling her devotional experiences on the legends of saints' lives. (3) In his turn, Edwin D. Craun examined instances of defamation and scolding in the Book within the context of late medieval penitential tradition, concentrating on those instances where Margery turns the tables on her detractors and boldly admonishes them for their sins. For Craun, Margery's rebuking of her detractors is representative of the practice of "fraternal correction," a speech practice which, unlike detraction, defamation or scolding, was sanctioned by the late medieval church and appeared in late medieval penitential manuals under the rubric of the obligatory seven works of spiritual mercy. (4)

Both Gibson and Craun have significantly contributed to our understanding of the strategic uses of speech in the Book of Margery Kempe. (5) However, they both do not account for the fact that the Book emphasizes Margery's specific victimization by slander, a term with a wide range of meanings in the late Middle Ages. In Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame, "[s]klaundre," a black clarion Fame commands, is synonymous with defamation. As Fame's mouthpiece, "[s]klaundre" trumpets wicked lies and destroys people's reputations. In Book Two of John Gower's Confessio Amantis, when an envious knight "sclaundre[s]" Constance, the term designates "a false accusation," whereas in Passus XII of William Langland's Piers Plowman, Ymaginatif uses "sclaundre" in the sense of "disgrace." In addition, for the late medieval mystical and pastoral writers, "slander" also denoted "blasphemy," one of the most iniquitous sins of the tongue. (6) In this paper I will further examine the role that slander plays in the Book by exploring anti-Margery speeches, such as the slanderous tale rehearsed at the feast Margery attends in London which I will examine in detail here, within the larger context of late medieval views on the sins of the tongue. Reading the feast episode in Margery's Book together with other contemporaneous mystical texts that engage in an analysis of sinful speech, I will demonstrate that persecution by slander is strategically evoked in the Book itself in order to signal Margery's membership within the saintly community of Christ's lovers. (7) Moreover, I believe that slander as blasphemy in fact functions as the profane counterpart of the mystical discourse in the Book, allowing Margery to replace Christ himself on the Cross and transfiguring the mundane squabbles between Margery and her detractors into an archetypal struggle between the servant of God and the Devil. …

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