The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing

Like many works of literary criticism, this one begins with a fantasy of identification. In choosing to begin this project with a chapter on Margery Kempe's Book, I am conscious of the sense in which my narrative (mis)- recognizes itself in hers. For a feminist reader of the Middle Ages, this imaginary relation to the Book of Margery Kempe is perhaps inevitable. Margery's attempt to inscribe her own story into the patriarchal narrative of sacred history seems to prefigure the situation of the feminist medievalist, who must continually negotiate her/his way through the predominantly conservative and masculinist field of medieval studies.

Given this parallel, it is perhaps not surprising that feminist work in the field has taken its cue from Margery Book in several respects: most notably, in reading Christian theology with an emphasis on the feminine and the maternal. Works such as Caroline Bynum Jesus as Mother, published as recently as 1982,1 provided what I take to be the first paradigm for a feminist re-reading of the Middle Ages. Focusing on feminine imagery in the writings of medieval mystics and holy women, Bynum's book, like Margery's, turns the traditional understanding of medieval theology "up-so-down" by uncovering a maternal metalanguage outside the hegemonic and paternalist discourses of the institutional Church. For Margery as for the feminist reader, this inversion or reversal of gender hierarchies at the tropological level opens up a space within Christian ideology, a space within which the female authorial voice can potentially be heard.

In the pages that follow, I will be discussing this authorial strategy of inversion in more detail. Ultimately, I will argue that although Margery Kempe essentially "pioneered" this feminist answer to the phallocentrism of Christian theology, her Book strains the limits of Christian historicist reading, in that it challenges the very conditions of meaning within the Christian signifying system. Margery's autobiography transgresses the theological boundary between the Word and the Flesh, as well as the epistemological barrier between textual fantasy and historical reality. It is thus

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The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Introduction: the Psychic Life of the Past 1
  • 1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing 15
  • 2. Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana 43
  • 3 - Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics 62
  • 4. Originary Fantasies and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess 82
  • 5. Historicity, Femininity, and Chaucer's Troilus 100
  • 6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess 129
  • Afterword: the Medieval Thing 153
  • Appendix 163
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 211
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