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Portrait of a Holy Life: Mnemonic Inventiveness in the Book of Margery Kempe

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Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

After waiting 20 years to compose her book, Margery Kempe—in the 1430s—dictated the account of her life to two scribes, one of whom helped her revise. Even though Kempe claims to be illiterate, she mines her rich memory stores to frame, structure, and authorize her account. To do so, she draws on tropes, figures, exempla, character types, plot lines, and settings from biblical accounts, saints’ lives, and virgin martyr legends. Even though she was unschooled, she avidly listened to public sermons and the private instructions of her amanuensis, who read and interpreted many religious texts for her, texts whose modes and messages she recorded in her prolific memory. Drawing on the work of Mary Carruthers, accounts of Christ’s passion, and virgin martyr tales, I examine Kempe’s use of memory arts in the invention and arrangement of her heresy trial accounts.

Keywords

Memory Network Religious Authority Intercessory Prayer Holy Ghost Church Authority 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Roxanne Mountford, The Gendered Pulpit: Preaching in American Protestant Spaces, ed. Cheryl Glenn and Shirley Wilson Logan, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 96.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary J. Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 11–14, 16, 22–23.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Cheryl Glenn, “Popular Literacy in the Middle Ages: The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Popular Literacy: Studies in Cultural Practices and Poetics, ed. John Trimbur, Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 69 [56–73].Google Scholar
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    Naoe K. Yoshikawa, Margery Kempe’s Meditations: The Context of Medieval Devotional Literature, Liturgy and Iconography (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), 5.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ: A Reading Text by Nicholas Love, ed. Michael G. Sargent (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2004), 10–11. “As Love informs his reader,” Denis Renevey asserts, “imagination plays an important role in this hermeneutic process. Neither is that role limited to the writing process. Rather, Love exhorts his readers to engage affectively with his material in order to become active in filling in the affective gaps left blank by his text and the gospel accounts.”Google Scholar
  6. Denis Renevey, “Margery’s Performing Body: The Translation of Late Medieval Discursive Religious Practices,” in Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England, ed. Denis Renevey and Christiana Whitehead (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 203.Google Scholar
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    Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), 195, 197.Google Scholar
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    Sherry L. Reames, ed., Middle English Legends of Women Saints, TEAMS Middle English Text Series (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute Publications, 2003), 170.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism, trans. and ed. Lynn Staley (New York: Norton, 2001). All references are to this edition of Kempe’s book.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    As Karma Lochrie notes, Kempe “seems to assume that Christ’s response to the woman authorizes her to speak about him.” However, she “blatantly ignores his instruction that people should only hear and keep the word of God” (emphasis in original). Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 466.Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    Emphasizing the effectiveness of this rhetorical move, Genelle GertzRobinson writes, “By defining preaching as the occupation of a pulpit … Kempe reserves for herself the possibility of preaching in other public settings.” Genelle Gertz-Robinson, “Stepping into the Pulpit? Women’s Preaching in The Book of Margery Kempe and The Examinations of Anne Askew,” in Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Linda Olson and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 459. Identifying a precedent for Kempe’s rhetorical strategy, Karma Lochrie refers to a popular fifteenth-century treatise called Speculum Christiani in which the author makes the following distinctions between teaching and preaching: “Preaching occurs in a place where there is a summoning together or following of people on holy days in churches or other special places and times ordained thereto. And it belongs to them who are thereto ordained, who have jurisdiction and authority, and to no one else. Teaching means that each body may inform and teach his brother in every place and at a suitable time, as he sees it necessary. For this is a spiritual almsdeed, to which every man who possesses cunning is bound.” Lochrie, Margery Kempe, 111.Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    Describing this belief, Carolyn Walker Bynum writes, “The eucharistic host, fragmented by human teeth and digestive processes” nonetheless transubstantiates so that “every minute crumb” constitutes “the whole body of Christ.” This sacramental dissemination of Christ’s flesh within mortals’ flesh is God’s “guarantee” to humankind of “wholeness.” Carolyn Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 12.Google Scholar
  13. 41.
    Charlotte D’Evelyn and Anna J. Mill, ed., The South English Legendary, EETS (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 58.Google Scholar
  14. 58.
    Here, Kempe follows established conventions in medieval hagiography. As the age of martyrdom ended, early medieval hagiographers portrayed asceticism in terms reminiscent of martyrdom. Jo Ann McNamara examines the identification of ascetic cloistered and enclosed women with martyrs. Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 13. The Desert Fathers may serve as a precedent here, for as Ana Maria Machado notes, they replaced martyrdom with asceticism as a sign of holiness. Ana Maria Machado, “Memory, Identity, and Women’s Representation in the Portuguese Reception of Vitae Patrum: Winning a Name,” chapter 6 in this volume.Google Scholar
  15. 60.
    Richard Kieckhefer coined the term “autohagiography” in his discussion of Kempe’s book. Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 6.Google Scholar
  16. 71.
    Lynn Staley also interprets this exemplum, although she focuses on how it functions within the narrative to set up a “confrontation between Margery and Henry Bowet, the actively anti-Lollard Archbishop of York.” Lynn Staley, M argery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 6–7.Google Scholar
  17. 75.
    Mary Morse, “‘Take and Bren Hir’: Lollardy as Conversion Motif in The Book of Margery Kempe,” Mystics Quarterly 29, nos. 1–2 (March–June 2003): 29.Google Scholar
  18. 77.
    Charity S. Stokes, “Margery Kempe: Her Life and the Early History of Her Book,” Mystics Quarterly 25, nos. 1–2 (March–June 1999): 25.Google Scholar
  19. 78.
    Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London: Hambledon, 1984), 50.Google Scholar
  20. 81.
    According to Beverly Boyd, “The examination as [Kempe] reports it was aimed at Wyclif’s teaching on the nature of the Eucharist and its relationship to the virtue of the consecrating priest.” Beverly Boyd, “Wyclif, Joan of Arc, and Margery Kempe,” Mystics Quarterly 12, no. 3 (1986): 114–115.Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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