Academic journal article Magistra

Authoritative Noise: Margery Kempe's Appropriation of Unique Ritual and Authority

Academic journal article Magistra

Authoritative Noise: Margery Kempe's Appropriation of Unique Ritual and Authority

Article excerpt

Margery's Kempe's Book shows how a fourteenth century English woman went about the process of relinquishing a secular middle-class life to confess God and rise from sinner to spiritual authority. Questions of how she managed to do so are central to much scholarship about Kempe, since she had to work within the adamantly patriarchal system of the Western Christian Church.(1)

Maureen Fries explains how precarious Kempe's authority was, specifically because her reputation as mystic came to her so late in life, when she had no opportunity to take vows:

Her femaleness was a crucial circumstance.... Margery was a married woman when her mystic experience began, and this state of life was not only inferior to virginity but also to widowhood (no wonder she had so much trouble with widows); her state of life precluded the claims she made to direct revelation from God.(2)

A good share of Kempe's life was devoted to establishing her own significance in the minds of others. Several recent scholars have examined the ways in which Kempe did this.(3) One of the most successful of these is Lynn Staley Johnson, whose article "Trope of the Scribe" suggests that Kempe used the scribe as a necessary device both to confer and to deny or control authority as her story called for it.(4) As a woman, Margery Kempe could not communicate in the same hierarchical "style" acceptable for a man; she would have had to establish an alternative way to be heard.

Johnson asserts, "Since the question of authority would have been particularly pressing to a woman author, a figure such as a scribe or secretary could be used as a signifier of vocation" by Kempe.(5) Johnson's article and other considerations of the issue have been very thorough and well-considered, yet the genius of Kempe's strategies for establishing her authority is even more extensive than Johnson's description of her scribal invention.

It may be asserted that Kempe claims her authority as a religious figure as well as an author. This is not to say that the earning of religious authority was any easier for women than was the earning of literary authority. Indeed, many cultural restrictions on women stem from misogynist religious traditions and/or antifeminist theological positions. It would seem, however, that the difficulty of Kempe's achieving authority was primarily religious, and her approach to it involved both a creative use of ritualizing, and a particularly "female" strategy: an appeal to relationship, in this case, mystical relationship between herself and God.(6)

The solution to establishing her right to be heard lay in her claims to intimacy with God; her "mechanism" for accomplishing it lay in her uses of ritual. The term "ritual" will be used here to refer to specialized efforts at communication with the divine. These include the worship practices of the liturgy as well as the creative ritualizing Kempe practiced without clerical instruction.

Margery Kempe was doubtless aware of the potency of church ritual and of her official prohibition from using much of it. Because she was a woman, Margery had to acquire the authority to co-opt something of the ritual. Thus, her use of church rites was eclipsed by something more important to her, her establishment of her own right to rite, which had to come from her relationship with God.

As Nicholas Watson puts it, Margery Kempe's use of intimacy empowers her. Her authority lies within a specific and unique relationship:

The book of Margery Kempe provides numerous examples of an uneducated laywoman straggling to show that her intimacy with God makes her a figure of spiritual authority, both during her life and throughout the momentous process of the composition of her autobiographical saint's life itself.(7)

In claiming and illustrating her special privilege with deity, Kempe's mysticism appropriates both ritual and the authority to ritualize, taking over where the available liturgy ends. …

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