Write on the representation of the body and/or female sexuality, and/or sexual violence in at least two texts on the course.

In the course of this essay I shall be concentrating on the singular Book of Margery Kempe, its position within secular and religious medieval society, her 'cryings' as the bodily manifestation and confirmation of her faith, and the conflicting relationship such a personal female account has with instructional texts such as Hali Meidhad & Ancrene Wisse, which seek to dominate women's bodily expression and sexuality. Their arguments of "Our flesh is our foe"[1] and "Bliss is not bought by comfort and pleasure."[2] were, I present, especially emphasised to women because of a deeply ingrained tradition of misogyny reinforced and justified by the biblical account of expulsion from Eden, and incidentally by later Grecian medical texts proclaiming the superiority of the male of the human species over the female. 'Charitably' these views allowed the body of virgins virtue, which translated into spiritual status, but this was conditional upon an absence of pride and a meek way of living; the effective utter sublimation of the personality, above and beyond what was expected of men.

Margery's account, whether knowingly or otherwise, speaks out against the level of control male religious writers often wished to exercise over women. Where the teachings state that "a recluse has no right to ask for something in order to give it away"[3] (and in the wider context of a recluse as a religious woman, all women were supposed to be so humble) Margery specifically breaks this implied prohibition on her travels, when she borrows money which she subsequently distributes most of to the poor and her fellow travellers. Another example is that Margery's comment "whoever is thinking well may not sin during that time"[4] runs contrary to the priestly advice that the Devil thinks it a waste of time to approach those who keep an actively menial life. I do, however, agree with other critics insofar as they judge "Margery's spirituality is shaped by masculine definitions of femininity"[5], and shall be further concentrating on this theme presently. But, whilst it has been widely noted that Margery's account has been ordered by her male scribe, and this implicitly raises the question of how much of the account may be directly attributed to her, as she could not read it back herself[6], I would posit the counter argument that such a determined soul was certainly more than capable of finding someone to read it back to her.

Since very few women were educated (Margery herself despite her wealth being illiterate), their primary means of communication with each other and the wider world was the spoken word. As Wendy Harding notes, "the Bible itself claims to be the subsequent record of oral communication between God and his creatures"[7], so a spoken tradition is not entirely uncomplimentary to a written one—it is simply that in a written tradition, knowledge may more easily be jealously guarded from sections of society. Thus from a male-dominated bastion such as the clergy, a bodily-transmitted form of communication such as women used was judged inferior, but paradoxically more dangerous and worthy of special scrutiny because of its wide audience and universalist aspect. The withholding of information is always laden with risk, because it creates a vacuum others naturally attempt to fill; in this case, I am presenting Margery Kempe as a religious woman of strongly held views as actively seeking to address the widespread public popularity of visionary writings. This popularity is evident in the survival of Wynken de Worde's printed instructional pamphlet, but so is the level to which the texts could be reduced, censoring all but the most orthodox sections of a weighty manuscript.

Margery even explicitly at one stage sets her personal oral discourse with God above many highly respected religious texts, such as Incendium Amoris[8], since she argues that its raw emotion is more deeply affecting than any pious reading could hope to be. Something that I have noticed about Margery's text is the way in which similarly themed anecdotes run fluidly into each other, which serves powerfully to reinforce her messages through repetition[9]. Having a personal conduit to the Lord represents the ultimate validation of what a mystic has to say; it raises the stakes as high as one could ever hope to. It is also simultaneously somewhat questionable validation, since anyone could argue that a mystic's visions sprang from the Evil One rather than the Greater Good, but it does present the possibility that women could play an influential role in formulating church policies and politics without necessarily needing recourse to an earthly masculine authority. Hence the traditionally female oral medium, grounded in the body, was actively suppressed—especially when it strayed onto religious topics—because of the populist reaction it could engender.

Male recognition of affective piety seems to have been very limited in scope: A visiting friar like many others sees Margery's fits as evidence of a bodily ailment rather than spiritual ecstasy[10]. Arguably, it is his standpoint as a 'rational' man and his lack of experience of any similar personal intensity of emotion that prevent him from understanding and empathising with her method of expression—men could not (and cannot) achieve mystical union with God by envisaging themselves in Mary's place giving birth to Christ, for example. We know that Margery gave birth fourteen times, and that unless that number included twins or triplets she spent cumulatively over a decade pregnant. This is fairly extreme even by medieval anecdotal evidence, unless the tally includes several still-births. She also sees the Incarnation through an experienced mother's eyes, focusing on the attendant practicalities: kerchiefs, bedding and food[11], but not actually dwelling upon the birth. Either this was so spectacularly unexciting to her as to be excluded, or she had formed a mental block so that whilst she focuses on this event because she was a mother, she could not bring herself to visualise the actual delivery. I would tend to argue the latter; the sheer brevity of this vision in the Book—a paragraph in this edition—suggests that this is not something on which she wishes to dwell. (She does, however, implicitly succeed in granting herself greater status than Joseph by managing to find lodging in Bethlehem where in the Biblical account all attempts failed.)

When Margery loses the favour of God she punished by the Devil with sexual imagery, further evidence that she views sex above all else as a punishment[12]. Lustful thoughts have a powerful hold over her as in her nightmarish visions, priests expose themselves to her. The major cause of this seems to be the guilt she feels for loving her husband's body so greatly in their youth[13], so that her carnal deeds come back to haunt her in that she is reminded of her own sins by those of others. She feels that her guilt is redemptive, and that she is paying for her sins whilst still on earth, for God says to her:

I have promised you that you should have no other purgatory than the slanders of this world, for I have chastised you myself as I would, by many great fears and torments that you have had with evil spirits.[14]

Since purgatory was such a commonly accepted middle age concept, many people were keen to live essentially blameless lives and allow their bodies to suffer in the present in order to be rewarded in the afterlife and spared hellfire in-between. There is a range of evidence for this: Margery's commenting upon hair shirts and her vegetarianism (actually very rare in an age when people essentially ate whatever they could get, and meat was commonly believed to be required for one to have any physical strength at all, and to avoid illness.) Further evidence is present in the bodily prohibitions for anchoresses—that one ought not to flagellate oneself badly without permission[15], which implies that some were so taken by the urge, even if it seems that it was generally foreigners that did so[16]. Margery's physically self-inflicted tortures (which pale by comparison to her persistent mental torment) were therefore very restrained by these standards, when fasting and bouts of holy anorexia seem to have been common. Self-inflicted bodily scourges were especially acknowledged as a method by which women could display their piety in action, in fact one of the only, when they were forbidden by apostolic dictate to preach, and it was widely held amongst the male clergy that women were incapable of comprehending complex theological matters (a self-perpetuating belief, since it meant that they were rarely if ever exposed to such discourse.) Further to this, the web woven by instructional texts was of a highly polarised, all-or-nothing approach. They write: "Everyone should choose now which of these two things, earthly and heavenly comfort, she wants to settle for, as she must give up the other"[17], and attribute to God the sentiment "I would wish you ... to be entirely hot or entirely cold in your love for me. But because you are ... lukewarm between the two, neither hot nor cold, you sicken me"[18]. In this way women were backed into a corner in the religious way of life; it seems that only a small minority such as Margery persevered against such prejudice and intolerance, and they were either ridiculed, forced to skulk around in the shadows, or both.

Efforts to maintain a state of chastity after virginity had been lost were regarded as noble, but of lesser worth in the heavenly hierarchy, a half-effort. Nevertheless, the message had already been imprinted that chastity was important, and many women may have, like Margery, reached a stage at which they refused to let their husbands use their bodies any longer. Since it was forbidden to take a vow of chastity without the consent of both partners in marriage, a bargain had in many cases to be struck[19], further reinforcing to women internalised male views that sex and their bodies are commodities for use in exchange. Margery fears for her chastity greatly whilst she is bargaining with it, and also whilst on her pilgrimage, despite the fact that she is in her sixties, and unlikely to be so importuned[20] (even if violence of other sorts was a constant threat to the traveller), the lessons she has learned earlier in her life returning vividly to her mind. More generally, the female fear of sexual violence and intimidation was graphically borne out by the trials of pious (often allegorical) virgins in hagiographic writings such as Christina of Markgate and Sainte Margeret in the context of common law, under which the church was expected to approve as married any couple who had gained carnal knowledge of each other.

Margety's ostentatious piety and attitude of moral superiority made her unpopular with a large proportion of society, but compared to this, her occasional ability to 'see' inside others and uncover their sins must have terrified those to whom she so revealed themselves. Although strictly speaking she is not a telepath, the information being granted to her by the Holy Spirit, in practise it could easily be linked to witchcraft and evil spirits, and Margery seems to recognise this and display evidence of being very reluctant to give details[21]. Here and elsewhere, Margery's mind is preoccupied with sexual matters. She sees lust and sin as her 'spiritual enemy' and was:

always afraid of being raped or violated. She dared trust no man; whether she had reason or not, she was always afraid. She scarcely dared sleep any night[22]

How common Margery's particular neuroses were amongst women in the middle ages is difficult to say, because her work stands as a unique literary treasure in that it offers such a wealth of autobiographical detail. What I would surmise is that Margery either suffered some kind of horrific assault she felt unable to document, or that her youthful libidinous excesses became in later life greater a burden of guilt even than is represented here. Christianity has, in my opinion, a lot to answer for in its attempted sublimation or eradication of every vestige of desire—representing as it does in this respect a complete inversion of the fertility religions it supplanted—and the evidence is in lives and testimonials such as Kempe's.

I have already mentioned in an earlier essay that Elizabeth Robertson posits that for women in the middle ages, "[lust was] potentially redeemable not through its transcendence, but through its redirection to a suitable object, Christ."[23], and that texts such as Hali Meidhad & Ancrene Wisse endorse this method of control, portraying Jesus as the ideal suitor. This is equally valid to my argument here: the passage "Reach out with your love to Jesus Christ, and you have won him. Touch him with as much love as you have once felt for some special person, and he is yours to do anything you like with"[24] is open to a wide interpretation and, I argue, knowingly sanctions an outlet for the chaste woman's sexual frustrations. In a related argument, Harding writes:

[Margery] actualizes the metaphors that describe mystical union by conveying with voice and body the throes of sexual passion. Her tears and sobs represent a response more direct and spontaneous than words[25]

When she writes of 'crying' subsequent to her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Kempe means nothing so controlled as the shedding of tears. She infers great, howling screams which would be mistaken as anguish or pain by most observers, which would blatantly disrupt a church service and in all probability prevent her from hearing a single word of devotional oratory. This cynical opinion is backed up in the textual commentary by Windeatt[26], who notes that the specific terminology of 'crying' begins here and lasts for no greater (nor any less time) than a decade, which implies many, many disrupted sermons.

Such primal screams must have represented a huge release of emotion & when she loses the ability to cry[27], she feels bereft[28]. Having a little experience in a college band of screaming down a microphone[29], I can perhaps begin to understand how meaningful a purging of pent-up frustrations Margery's habit might have been, and how critics have likened such outbursts to sexual release. Religious fervour in this context then is, as I see it, a method of legitimising loss of self-control, meaningful to women especially because of the degree to which the expected behaviour of their bodies and minds was prescribed to them (especially by the other two texts I am principally addressing.) Another point is the universal appeal which raw emotion can claim: Harding suggests that Margery's particular form of affective piety succeeds in bridging the communication gap between her and the foreign pilgrims[30], with which I am inclined to agree—body language possesses many universal traits.

Hali Meidhad's imagery of the bodily trial of childbirth and pregnancy ("you are reduced to a wretch ... fierce and stabbing pain ... incessant misery"[31] being relatively restrained examples) is graphic and, whilst a case may be made that the author is providing a public information service, the focus of the discourse is a systematic negation of female sexuality through the killing of desire (via the route of emphasising probable consequences.) It takes a relentlessly pessimistic view of nature, human and otherwise: "if [your child] is born handicapped, as often happens [it will be] the talk of everyone", your husband will probably be "ill-bred .... an idiot or a cripple"[32], and warns that love in this life is doomed to tragedy, as one partner (or one out of parent and child) will certainly predecease the other. The motivation in this conscious or otherwise, the effect is to devalue the forms of physical affective piety practised by women implicitly in the devaluation of the physical to give preference and prestige to the intellectual and spiritual path of the writer. The female is (of course) debarred from following this path, and must instead settle for striving to reach impossible archetypal targets of physical virtue which are deemed worthless without an arguably unobtainable spiritual purity to match them with. (Since heaven was believed to mirror the hierarchy of God's kingdom on earth, an extreme misogynist conclusion might be that it did not really include women at all, who may have languished in a purgatory so near to eternal as to be effectively of the same duration.) As I see it, hope or fellow feeling of any kind is such an alien concept to this author that I feel it not unlikely he would recommend everyone commit immediate suicide were it not explicitly forbidden by the scriptures.

Drawing towards conclusion, it is interesting to note that the reward which the manipulative Hali Meidhad postulated to virgins was of a nature that described the afterlife as possessing a very similar hierarchical structure to that on earth ("their robes are so bright and shining above all others ... virgins have, over and above what is common to all alike ... [an] aureola [with flowers, with jewels, etcetera]"[33].) I would argue that piety was condescendingly sold by the author to women in terms of material possessions that he felt they would understand and appreciate; women's prideful physical vanities were popularly scorned in the middle ages by woodcuts such as The Devil's Arse In The Mirror[34], and these attitudes, validated by religion, permeated society. Hali Meidhad also notably personifies Lucifer's pride as a female figure, "his eldest daughter"[35]. The effect of such priestly stratagems and ingrained bigotry such as this is that chastity is reduced to a bargaining piece as much by such discourse as sexual favours are by Margery in her discussion with her husband. Bodily worship and mortal labour are denigrated, again for the greater glorification of the male, 'rational' and intellectualised clergy, but in the process the church becomes as sullied by pride and given to obsession with worldly values as those it actively scorns and scapegoats.


Barry Windeatt (edited and translated), The Book of Margery Kempe, (Penguin, 1994)

Linda Lomperis & Sarah Stanbury (ed.), Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)—Quotes in this essay are taken from Wendy Harding's essay "Body into Text: The Book of Margery Kempe", and the ever useful Elizabeth Robertson essay "Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich's Showings"

Bella Millet & Jocelyn Wogan (edited and translated), Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, (Oxford University Press, 1992)

C. H. Talbot (edited and translated), The Life of Christina of Margate (Toronto, 1998)

[1] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 11

[2] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 147

[3] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 133

[4] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 247

[5] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 168

[6] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 169

[7] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 174

[8] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 75

[9] And is also extremely useful when looking for evidence whilst writing an essay such as this.

[10] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 181

[11] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 53

[12] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 184

[13] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 221

[14] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 87

[15] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 137

[16] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 303

[17] edieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 127

[18] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 123

[19] The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 11

[20] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 301

[21] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 62

[22] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 285

[23] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p153

[24] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 127

[25] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 173

[26] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 313

[27] The Book of Margery Kempe, page 240

[28] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 178

[29] Covering 'tourettes' by Nirvana (In Utero, Geffen Records, 1993) with even less words and higher in pitch.

[30] Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, page 182

[31] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 33 (subsequent quotes in this paragraph are, unless otherwise noted, from this same page.)

[32] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 29

[33] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 21

[34] Medieval and Renaissance Writing lecture handout "Margery Kempe (2): Women, Bodies and Mystical Texts" (24th November, Diane Watt)

[35] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, page 37