A C Clarke is a poet living in Glasgow and a member of Scottish PEN. She is interested in outsiders and obscure historical figures. Her fourth collection, In The Margin (Cinnamon Press), came out in 2015 and a pamphlet in Gaelic, Scots and English, Owersettin, in collaboration with Sheila Templeton and Maggie Rabatski, was published by Tapsalteerie 2016. Her collection centred on the medieval visionary Margery Kempe will be published by Oversteps Books this year (2017).
‘Where shall I find a man to take this woman away from me?’ So cried the Archbishop of York, Henry Bowet, confronted with the force of nature that was Margery Kempe. For Bowet, whose predecessor had been executed for treason and then venerated as a martyr by those who opposed the usurping Henry IV, and who was well aware of the additional threat to stability posed by the Lollards, the followers of the reformist (and in the Church’s eyes heretical) Wyclif, Margery must have seemed the last straw.
Here was a woman who though married wore white as if she were a virgin, who told him to his face that she had heard he was a wicked man, and perhaps worst of all was given to delivering impromptu homilies just as Lollard women were supposed to do. She was twice brought before Bowet and it is plain that he had no idea what to do about her. Her vivid presence and unorthodox behaviour certainly made her seem a danger in a diocese already full of political and spiritual unrest and throughout her life she was a disruptive influence even though she was dedicated to a life of secular piety.
Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438), the daughter of a mayor of Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk, was always, by her own account, a woman who called attention to herself. In her youth, before the birth of her first child and the life-changing visions which followed it, she had worn clothes designed to be ‘the more starying to men’s sight’. On pilgrimage she antagonised fellow pilgrims by refusing to eat meat and suddenly exclaiming in the middle of a meal ‘It is full merry in heaven!’ At home in Lynn she was prone to loud and copious weeping during sermons. All this is recorded in the autobiography which she dictated to an amanuensis, probably a local priest, towards the end of her life.
It is almost certainly because she was regarded with suspicion, especially by many of her fellow townsfolk, that she elected to tell her story. It is her apologia. While it is possible that her amanuensis may have rephrased some of the sections dealing directly with her visions and meditations, the voice that comes through is unmistakeably her own. The experiences that that voice describes suggest that in any period, including ours, Margery would have presented difficulties to those she came in contact with. In her own time much of what she did and said was a provocation. What is fascinating about her, to me, is that while some of her adventures might be textbook illustrations of how a male-dominated society reacts to women who refuse to conform, the very beliefs which sustained that society made many wary of dismissing her as a madwoman (though some did) or condemning her as a heretic. Even the ‘boistous’ Archbishop of York ended up, after she was brought before him a second time, by giving her his blessing and a letter of safe conduct. Though of course we have only her word for any of it.
Margery was dangerous in two ways – one which would still be comprehended now: her challenging behaviour, and one peculiar to her time: the danger that to ignore or persecute her might be in effect to ignore or persecute God Himself; and there is, for me, a third way in which Margery might be considered dangerous, which I will come to at the end.
Margery must have seemed to many a woman who went gadding about the country (sometimes with her husband, sometimes not) upbraiding people, especially the clergy, as she often did, for their sinfulness, their blaspheming oaths (a pet topic), their general worldliness. Even her supporters frequently had their faith in her tried. Aside from her bold reproof of the Archbishop of York, she reprimanded the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, for the way men in his household swore; when a friar renowned for his sermons came to preach at Lynn she ‘fell in a boistous weeping’ which made him ban her from the church because of the disturbance she caused.
On this last occasion two of the Lynn clergy, including her confessor, Robert Spryngolde, went to the friar in question to plead with him to let her back in to his sermons. Spryngolde was one of her staunchest allies, although she did not always heed his advice. Many of the local religious, including the anchoress Julian of Norwich whom she visited for advice, were well disposed to her as were those pious lay people who helped to finance her pilgrimages. All these believed that she did indeed speak with God and the Virgin Mary in vision and that the instructions she said she received, however unorthodox (like wearing white clothes), were to be accepted because they were God-given.
Moreover, although Margery’s account of her life is unusual in its circumstantial detail, it has many precedents in the lives of female saints in Catholic Europe: indeed one way of viewing her actions is to see her as having internalised details from the lives of married saints like Katherine of Alexandria and Bridget of Sweden. Likewise her sometimes feverish expressions of devotion to the ‘manhood of Christ’ and her lover-like dialogues with Him were within a tradition of English mysticism that her readers would have found entirely acceptable and indeed proof of her piety.
To modern readers accustomed to a blanket view of women in history as oppressed and suppressed, Margery’s frank acknowledgement of her sexuality and apparent domination of her husband might mark her out as a dangerous pioneer. She speaks of ‘the great delectation’ that she and her husband had in love-making; although it is to her discredit she recounts how a fellow parishioner tempted her to adultery; the second of the two demonic visions she recounts – the temptations of St Margery one might say – was entirely sexual in nature with a succession of men showing her ‘their bare members’. To a medieval readership there would have been nothing unusual in the idea that a woman might enjoy sex (see for instance Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, William Dunbar’s Twa Marryit Wemen and the Wedo) but equally nothing to be deplored in Margery’s final renunciation of sex when she got her husband John to agree that they should ‘live chaste’, chastity being the more perfect life. She did so by agreeing to pay his debts, which casts an interesting light on a relationship in which she clearly considered herself his social superior – ‘she came of worthy kindred and he should never have married her’ as she cast in his teeth in one of their quarrels. This superior status no doubt allowed her to be unusually independent, something which was definitely perceived as a threat by the mayor of Leicester, who feared she might ‘take away our wives and lead them with you’, a telling remark.
The whole narrative of Margery’s relations with her husband illustrates the danger of trying to superimpose a modern viewpoint on a very different age. Margery was both far less constrained than we might think and far more imbued with the religious doctrines of her time than we may be able to imagine. And here is the third way in which I think Margery – and not only her but others who may be celebrated as ‘dangerous’ in a positive sense – is dangerous. She is a dangerous role model and should definitely not be cited as an example as a woman ‘ahead of her time’.
Yes, she stood up to male authority, but equally she put herself under obedience to the church hierarchy and to principles of asceticism that most would now find repugnant. She comes across as remarkably unaware of the feelings of others. When a man she meets in Italy lends her money he has earned for the two of them by begging she promptly gives it all to the poor; when she goes with her German daughter-in-law to see her off on her return journey she suddenly decides to go with her and seems surprised that her daughter-in-law is less than enthusiastic; she forces her company on a wealthy woman she meets near Calais, likewise on pilgrimage, and is astonished to find the next day that the woman has got up early and left – plainly to escape her; and one may question the Christian charity of someone who rejoices in being the one person on that return journey from Calais who escapes sea-sickness – all the sufferers, she concludes, are being punished for their behaviour towards her.
The real significance of Margery Kempe, as I see it, is her exuberant individuality which clearly made an impression for good or ill on everyone who met her. She was not someone to be ignored. And in so far as she was considered dangerous at the time perhaps that was her true danger. She presents herself as an obedient daughter of the Church but she is the central character in her dialogues with Christ (it is the other way round in Julian of Norwich’s ‘Shewings’) and her obedience never gets in the way of her determination to follow her own path. Robert Spryngolde could probably not have coped with another parishioner like her.