"Why Gost Thu in White?": A Non-Question Reconsidered as a Genuine Request for Information

By Nelson, Marie | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

"Why Gost Thu in White?": A Non-Question Reconsidered as a Genuine Request for Information


Nelson, Marie, Papers on Language & Literature


Margery Kempe was often asked why she traveled dressed in white, but this seems never to have been a genuine request for information. Reading her late fourteenth-century story of pilgrimage from a perspective introduced by J.L. Austin in a 1953 series of lectures later published under the title How To Do Things with Words, I argued in an essay titled "The Trials and Triumphs of a Homeward Journey" (1) that, since it was immediately followed by "'Art thu a mayden?'" the Archbishop of York's "'Why gost thu in white?'" (Book 2923) (2) could hardly have been a genuine question. At this point in her life story Margery Kempe was over sixty years old.

Considering the Archbishop of York's second "question" in relation to his frst and the Middle English Dictionary defnition of "maiden" as "a young unmarried woman," along with the facts that he could see that Margery was not young and could have known she was the wife of John Kempe, it seemed apparent to me that he already had an "answer" he intended to extract from the woman who stood before him. But now I propose to give attention to the Archbishop's two "questions" as genuine attempts to gain information. This will involve giving attention to Margery's reported exchanges with Christ Himself with reference to the conditions John R. Searle spelled out in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, his further development of Austin's interpretive perspective. Searle's requirements read as follows:

1. The Speaker does not know "the answer," i.e., does not know if the proposition is true.

2. It is not obvious to both Speaker and Hearer that the Hearer will provide the information without being asked.

3. The Speaker wants this information.

4. And his "question" counts as an attempt to elicit this information from the Hearer. (66)

And this is the context in which the Archbishop of York plays the role of Speaker. As Louise Collis notes in Memoirs of a Medieval Woman, members of the archbishop's household amuse themselves before he begins his interrogation by calling out "'loller'" and "'heretyke'" and expressing their anticipation of seeing Margery burned at the stake (203). Collis also points out that the Archbishop was extremely anti-Lollard and that at this time the Council of Constance was dealing with "a certain beastly sect which went about dressed in white" (203), providing reason enough, I think, since Margery does travel dressed in white, to read the archbishop's question as close to being an accusation of heresy. But, as Margery tells her story, it is clear that she is no heretic.3 She is instead a woman devoted to the service of Christ, whose voice she first hears as she emerges from a state of madness after the very difficult birth of her first child.

These are the words she hears: "'Dowtyr [Daughter], why hast thow forsakyn me, and I forsoke nevyr the?'" (173). The speech has the form of a question, but it can be read as a gentle correction. And then the sky turns as bright as lightning, and Margery sees that Christ rises beautifully and gradually and remains visible until the "eyr" closes again. Healed by this experience, she is able to return to her household duties

Margery's second communication with Christ comes after a period of sexual temptation followed by her self-fagellation and surreptitious wearing of a hair shirt. Christ appears to her on a Friday before Christmas day as she kneels in a chapel at the church of St. Margaret, comforts her, tells her she must give up the hair shirt she has been wearing, and promises her His continued support with these words:

... thow schalt have the vyctory of al thin enmys. I schal geve the grace inow [enough] to answer every clerke [learned man] in the love of God. I swer to the be my mageste that I schal nevyr forsakyn the in wel ne in wo [in good times or in bad]. I schal helpyn the and kepyn the, that ther schal nevyr devyl in helle parte the fro me, ne awngel [angel] in hevyn, ne man in erthe, for develys in helle mow not [can not], ne awngelys in hevyn wyl not [wish not], ne man in erthe schal not. …

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