Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Margery Kempe: Spectacle and Spiritual Governance

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Margery Kempe: Spectacle and Spiritual Governance

Article excerpt

One question that readers of the Book of Margery Kempe consistently take up is just what authorizes Margery's mystic utterance and her claims to saintly status.(1) Recently Sarah Beckwith has raised the underlying issues of the late medieval "crisis in authority" rooted in the debate on active versus contemplative lives.(2) For the English mystical writers referred to in the Book this larger question of what authorized the contemplative life, and its poor relation the "mixed life," regularly provokes a debate rooted in the medieval discourse of governance. Well before Margery's time an elaborate web of connections were spun between issues of spiritual self-governance and those of social governance. Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton in particular invoke these connections, and Margery's Book takes up this debate on the contemplative life along similar lines. Thus the Book redefines the relationship between governance and the social body of the pious laity in late medieval England not in terms of permeable womanly flesh, but in the paradoxical and dangerous terms of a martyr to the bourgeoisie of the spirit in the contemporary Christian mainstream.

Margery's undeniable presence within the mainstream of her society has been seen by some critics as testimony to her engagement with the "mixed life."(3) Yet the Book insists, through the declarations of Christ in Margery's visions, that as a contemplative she is martyr to and elevated above that mainstream.(4) At one point Christ proclaims Margery equivalent to four of the greatest martyrs (51); at another he assures Margery that he has ordained her to be a "mirror" for spiritual attainment among her contemporaries (186).(5) In terms of the debate I will trace here the Book stands close to Richard Rolle's ideas of the contemplative in the ideas of social and spiritual governance which authorize Margery's elevated status, and different from the "mixed life" as described by Walter Hilton. The Book's position on Margery as a spiritual aristocrat does not argue for the kind of "mixed life" that might be expected of a pious laywoman performing her Christian duties. Nor is this emphasis on the social body meant to function as an exemplum for a saint's charitable interaction with that community as its spiritual aristocrat.(6) The hierarchy of the social body itself, in the discourse of governance the Book adopts, is determined by a different form of spiritual ambition, a mystical work ethic whose social measure cannot be in stigmata, fasting, or ecstasies suffered in anchoritic privacy. This ethic is established by the Book's use of a martyrological gaze, and measured in terms of the spectacle produced in public arenas. No one can dispute the discomfiting fact of Margery's theatrical presence during her fits. Rather than psychoanalyze this insistent theatricality or displace it by focusing on Margery's mystical experience, I hope to account for the Book's focus on contemplation as the public performance of visionary martyrdom.

The gender associations of this performance are not as exclusively female as many critics using either gaze theory or the cultural authority of Margery's famous women predecessors would argue. Margery's experiences do not represent a gender-specific mysticism, but the entwined iconography of governance and spiritual attainment performed by a body for whom gender is only one of the boundaries of identity. In the texts I examine here action and contemplation are defined as kinds of social performance, both metaphorically and literally connected to worldly governance.(7) Such performance in this period was a predominantly masculine domain very different from the cloister, a theatrical object of public gaze in the many social rituals conditioned by contemporary iconography of governance. My purpose here (let me hasten to say) is to identify and acknowledge complications from masculine identify in Margery's performances, not to deny the crucial role female gender associations have in the Book. …

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