Less Holy Than Thou

Margery Kempe was a bloody-minded woman, living in a time when England was still Catholic. Bishops, priests and friars held worldly and spiritual power.

bloody-minded: Chiefly Brit. Perverse, contrary; cantankerous; stubbornly intransigent or obstructive. Cf. bloody adj. OED

She came from the provinces, had no education and bore 14 children to a husband socially beneath her. I feel for the poor man—read on and see.

After the first birth, she suffered what’s now called postpartum psychosis, complete with hallucinations. As she writes—or rather dictates—in her famous Book of Margery Kempe*, she saw

devils opening their mouths all alight with burning flames of fire as if they would have swallowed her in, sometimes pawing at her, sometimes threatening her, sometimes pulling her about … both night and day.

She felt it must be the result of some sin. There was one in particular she’d withheld from her confessor, finding him too hasty and censorious. What it was is never revealed to the reader. She resolves to defend herself against divine retribution by an extreme of Christian devotion, starting with a vow of chastity. Her husband is not keen on this. He agrees in principle—but “not yet”. She dutifully submits to his lust through thirteen more pregnancies, after which he fulfils his promise and they solemnize their vow before a bishop. He goes on to support her in all her outrageous endeavours except for the few occasions she embarrasses him so much he has to walk away.

She becomes super-sensitive to the suffering of Our Lord. It takes little to set her off: a crucifix, a story from the Gospels, any sins or pains—her own and others’. Page after page is devoted to tales of her “plenteous tears and violent sobbing”—always in public : in church, and on the long challenging voyage to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims. This alone is enough to set her apart from everyone else, but she also forswears meat and wine. She insists on wearing white at all times, preaches strict doctrine to everyone, quotes Scripture—till they can’t stand her any more and refuse to eat or even travel with her. Then she always finds someone who believes in her special qualities and hotline to the Lord, for example:

And then the priest received her very meekly and reverently, as if she were his mother and his sister, and said he would support her against her enemies. And so he did, as long as she was in Rome, and endured much evil talk and much tribulation. And also he gave up his office, because he wanted to support her in her sobbing and in her crying when all her countrymen had abandoned her; for they were always her greatest enemies, and caused her much unhappiness in every place they went, because they wanted her never to sob or cry. And she was quite unable to choose; but that they would not believe. They were always against her, and against the good man who supported her.

There’s nothing they can do, though. She thrives on humiliation and ill-treatment as a form of martyrdom. Her prophecies come uncannily true. She receives messages of encouragement direct from the Lord Jesus. When you meet Margery Kempe, God help you! Either you revere her, quaking at your own unworthiness, or you shun her like a plague-carrier. Or you might suggest she be burnt as a heretic.

One gets to suspect that every chapter is written to show Margery Kempe triumphant. In fake humility, she calls herself “this creature” and is ever at pains to give God the glory. To us, she appears as “holier than thou”. When granted an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury, she chides him for harbouring “traitors” in his household who stay uncorrected despite their habit of “swearing great oaths”:

In the most meek and kindly way he allowed her to say what was on her mind and gave her a handsome answer, she supposing that things would then be better. And so their conversation continued until stars appeared in the sky. Then she took her leave, and her husband too.

One of the strongest weapons in her armoury is to remain undeterred by rejection and despisal. Thus she claims to share the treatment meted to Our Lord, when this happened to him. Her entire spiritual career may be characterised as one of travail. Literally, this means the labour and pain of childbirth. There are other instances of this holy crying and sobbing among women of those days. And today? I was curious, did a quick search and found a site which offers this:

Through travailing prayer we can powerfully intercede for the unsaved, for Christians, for government leaders, or even for entire nations. Such intercession involves spiritual warfare and the birthing of miracles. Self-travail, the travailing for one’s own rejection, hurts, sins or other needs, is the key to rapid, life-transforming inner healing and deliverance—the work of inner sanctification. Such travail is not a cry of self-pity, but an opening of inner wounds to let the poisons of abuse, bitterness and rejection out so that we can be set free and be healed.

It’s not for every woman, obviously, but there are some whose strength comes from having “a preternaturally high threshold for humiliation”: a phrase I find embedded in an article about the travails of Mrs May, still our Prime Minister at the moment of posting this.

I’m unable to reach a verdict on Margery Kempe. Was she being honest when she declared herself “quite unable to choose”? Was it fear of damnation that set her off on her trajectory in the first place, augmented by the seductive discovery of personal power that she’d never have known if she’d stayed as a wife and mother in King’s Lynn, Norfolk? I haven’t read the book all through, but it’s clearly not about her maternal and domestic life. We can understand her better when we know that her series of international pilgrimages started soon after her mother died and bequeathed her a sum of money enough to settle all debts and obligations. It left her free to do her thing.

Bloody-minded? The worst you could imagine. I wouldn’t want to meet her. A saint? Not to the Catholics, They’ve given her to the Anglicans, to commemorate as they please.

So I ask myself why I took the trouble to read and write about this extraordinary woman. The name was familiar but I never looked further until she was mentioned in a blog by Carmel Bendon. I find it refreshing to view the present from a far-off perspective. When I learned that Margery Kempe was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich§), and that the two had met, I was curious. After this, it was the immediacy of her writing (as dictated) which made it so compelling. In the end, the incidents she describes tend to be repetitive, you have to be real scholar to get through every page without skipping.


* The Book of Margery Kempe, translated with an Introduction by Barry Windeatt

Later: I mark her down as no better than anyone, arguably worse than most. As witness her self-serving pact with the Lord, declared in her own voice below.

For at first, they lived together after they had made their vow, and then people slandered them and said they enjoyed their lust and their pleasure as they did before the making of their vow. And when they went out on pilgrimage, or to see and speak with other spiritually-minded creatures, many evil folk whose tongues were their own hurt, lacking the fear and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, believed and said that they went rather to woods, groves or valleys, to enjoy the lust of their bodies, where people should not espy it or know it.
Knowing how prone people were to believe evil of them, and desiring to avoid all occasion as far as they properly could, by mutual good will and consent, they parted from each other as regards their board and lodging, and went to board in different places. And this was the reason that she was not with him, and also so that she should not be hindered from her contemplation.

But then her husband, being “of great age, over sixty years old”, slipped and fell down the stairs on to his head.

People said, if he died, it was proper that she should answer for his death. Then she prayed to our Lord that her husband might live a year, and she be delivered from slander, if it were his pleasure.

Our Lord said to her mind, ‘Daughter, you shall have your boon, for he shall live, and I have performed a great miracle for you that he was not dead. And I bid you take him home, and look after him for my love.’

Some devotee, some Lord! She goes on to say that she nursed him for the rest of his life, all through to the dementia which had him soiling himself daily.

She was glad to be punished by means of the same body … [for her past] delectable thoughts, physical lust and inordinate love for his body … she served him and helped him, she thought, as she would have done Christ himself.

“This Creature”: 40 Years of Margery Kempe
§Julian of Norwich“—an unsatisfactory piece as it stands, I may revise it some time.

Postscript on December 8th, 2018

When I wrote the above I was unaware of the BBC’s “In Our Time” programme with Melvin Bragg which discusses the life of Margery Kempe. I’m glad to say none of these scholars says anything that renders invalid any of my words above. There is one discrepancy. When the participants add some afterthoughts at the end, Katherine Lewis talks about the husband suffering brain damage after his fall—a plausible diagnosis—and becoming infantilised in consequence. I described it as “dementia”, because Margery says he lived for years afterwards but “in his last days he turned childish and lacked reason”.  What do I know? It might have been a combination of both.

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13 thoughts on “Less Holy Than Thou

  1. “…still our Prime Minister at the moment of posting this” lol.
    I wonder if Hillary Clinton & Theresa May will still be an embarrassment in 580 yrs, too.
    I do think Margery Kempe deserved tremendous respect for the baby’s survival of her severe mental illness. A part of me wants to blame the 14 kids on her husband, but obviously she was a manic. I doubt no amount of sex however submissive, would have satisfied her. I imagine she was a poorly treated brood sow and when she lost it everyone felt pity for him and nothing for her.
    Still tons of women throughout time have had it just as bad, but they stayed quiet as doves and bore their sorrow with class. It seems like all those kids should have kept her busy and out of sight. I doubt she was a good mother. Any woman who would spend her inheritance on pilgrimages, instead of her children is scum in my book.
    If there is a bright side to knowing about her now, it’s your fun post and the new appreciation I feel all over again for the songwriting of Patty Griffin. I wonder if she was channeling Kempe when she wrote this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Waking up in the small hours to read these replies, I feel a strange impulse to defend Margery. Failing to understand her myself, and seeing how her behaviour divided the people of her time, she being constantly beleaguered, torn by the great gulf between those who revered and those who execrated her, I see in her a metaphoric extension of torments I’m undergoing myself.

    In her day, the experts were confessors. They knew whether you were on a pathway to heaven or hell. They were ranked hierarchically, all the way up to the Pope. Her dilemma was to follow an urge which told her to bypass all that and take her guidance directly from a voice inside. The stakes could not have been higher. Being in mortal danger of death was nothing by comparison. The times she lived in, you could not escape the dilemma: eternal bliss or eternal torture. Her psychotic experience didn’t allow her to compromise like most everyone else, like those who would expiate their sins by going on a pilgrimage, thinking that would be enough. It was never enough for her. You had to go to the uttermost extreme, to make sure.

    I’ve just realized the parallel in my own current life, caught between my own intuition and the different opinions of today’s confessors, the medical profession.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. No, thank you instead for the power of your response and blessing of your keen intuition that keeps your heart alive and writing when medicine fails you.
    I got mad a few months ago and canceled my subscription to Telegraph News, so I could only read a couple paragraphs of that article. No big loss. I can still see all the disgusted and comical comments from men. Here’s another article that makes me laugh. They’re trying to #MeToo God now.
    https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=11607

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  4. Ian wrote:
    “I’ve just realized the parallel in my own current life, caught between my own intuition and the different opinions of today’s confessors, the medical profession.”
    I wrote this for a 2014 post (http://woeandjoy.blogspot.com/2014/06/milton-ololon.html)
    Question:
    The Bard’s Song in Milton presents the dilemma which faces the writer who intends to write prophetic poetry. How will he free himself from the patterns imposed upon him by history and culture; how will his vision find expression in ways which are accessible to the audience for whom it its intended; how will the wrath which he feels toward the oppressors be contained and directed?
    Answer:
    When God is discerned as the interior God who unifies all things in himself, it modifies perception so that everything that lives is holy and the doors of perception are cleansed revealing the infinite.

    You can trust your intuition to lead you through the options presented by external authorities.

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  5. Thanks, Ellie. Trusting intuition, for me at any rate, is not easy, for it leads to both heaven and hell, often at the same time, which is why Margery opted to go with the external authorities—and then some more, for safety’s sake. But i may see a way. It feels more solid. Will put my plan to confessor this morning. Not necessarily dependent on his blessing, but preferably his co-operation.

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  6. Thanks for this post, about someone who I previously knew nothing about. And thanks to all who have offered thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.

    I can understand your wish to defend Margery. I find myself holding a certain respect – sometimes grudgingly, but genuinely nevertheless – for people with the courage to go their own way, follow their own path. I may not like them, or agree with them (random example: Margery!), but acknowledge their courage, particularly those who lived at times when not following the crowd could easily have very serious consequences eg torture, premature death by terrible means.

    As for intuition: much could be said. One skill, which I have found not easy to develop, is separating the wisdom of the genuine still small voice from the suspect pleadings of those other voices that are based in personal fears, preferences and predilections, etc. It is only in recent years that I have come to recognise how much the shape of my life has been moulded by decisions based upon intellect. I grew up with the notion that reason is the only trustworthy basis for decision-making. My many years of Buddhist practice gave me no clues that this was faulty. But as I have come to accept the reality of intuition, so has it become more dependable.

    Good luck with the confessors. They can do good magic, but their vision is often all-too narrow.

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  7. Thanks, Ian. I had a free frank & open discussion with Brother Robin yesterday. It went well, as in the sense of mutual brotherhood and respect. We’ve agreed a path to start going down. There will be forks in the road, more decisions. And he’s agreed to get together with Brother Ricardo, who I’m seeing tomorrow, to share knowledge. I’ve only met Ricardo once before. He unknowingly sent me down a wrong route with disastrous results. This encounter will be a big one! All I can bring to the confessional is my knowledge of what’s been happening to this sinner since our last; and my sense of warm regard to the poor man.

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  8. Very good. And all the best with Brother Ricardo. I am confident that you have the means and the personality to deal with him far more successfully than the compulsively divisive Margery would have done!

    Liked by 1 person

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