Programme and Abstracts

The programme for the conference is available as a PDF here Updated MK Programme 18.3.18

We are delighted to confirm that the keynote speakers for the conference are:

  • Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck)
  • Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea)
  • Professor Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa (Shizuoka)
  • Dr Sarah Salih (King’s College, London)
  • Professor Diane Watt (Surrey)

We are also delighted to confirm that the conference will host Marge & Jules by Máirín O’Hagan and Sarah Anson. Find out more on their website here.

You can find the provisional programme on the home page here.


Here are the abstracts for the panels:


ALICJA KOWALCZEWSKA: Kempe and Glück: performance of transgressive self.

Among the very few creative renderings of Margery Kempe’s Book and life, one deserves special attention. As far as Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe is indeed based on The Book of Margery Kempe, it shows the character of Margery in a different light –one that is extremely gaudy. Even though such a depiction may at first seem rather too far-fetched, I would like to argue that – especially today – it can have some merit. There are various interpretations of Kempe as a conscious author, responsible for trying to control her life and its image. Glück – on the grounds of literary fiction – takes it further, turning Margery into a creature trying hard to create her own image, as if creating the image would also enable constituting the self. Such a creative rendering invites one to explore the potential of interpreting Margery Kempe with regard to modern modes of creating the self, when in the times of i.a. social media controlling people’s functioning, the very human condition has changed – the stability of the self became more dependent on its image, even in our own eyes. Apart from the question of the self, so vicariously re-presented, a comparison of Kempe and Glück also brings us back to the question of sexuality. The fragments of The Book that are strictly sexual are usually connected with a sense of guilt and transgression. In Glück’s novel Kempe’s sexuality is not repressed – it’s insatiable and instrumental at the same time, as it is also used as vulgar means to an end. The Book’s declarative piety clashes with Margery Kempe’s rampant and literal sexuality. The alternative queer thread of Glück’s novel adds to The Book’s contemporary potential. I believe that juxtaposing and analyzing The Book and its modern, fictional rendering – with regard to the contemporary cultural reality – might be of interest.

RUTH EVANS: Margery Kempe’s Internal Reality

I begin this paper on The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1439) by revisiting the vexed question of Kempe’s “madness,” the question that most medievalists consider, for crucial historical and political reasons, to be strictly off limits. As Jonathan Hsy and Richard Godden remind us, the “inner qualities” of mental states in the Middle Ages “resist easy alignment with modern discourses” (2013, 314). I do not want to argue that Kempe is “mad.” Rather I argue that Kempe’s text reveals distinctive and unique patterns of thinking about her beliefs and experiences, patterns of thinking that need to be distinguished from the fact that those beliefs and experiences were at the time, to invoke an anachronism, cultural norms. The speaking with Jesus, the voicehearing, the sobbing and roaring, the desire to live chastely, the conviction of her own righteousness: these are all features of late medieval devotional practices and of the vitae of the holy women that Kempe strove to emulate. Kempe’s behaviors, excessive as they appeared to some of her fellow-Christians and as they appear to some readers today, are entirely congruent with the beliefs and practices of her day. They are also congruent with the experiences of many people today that we would not consider to be “mad”: voicehearing, for example, is a phenomenon that is experienced not only by those subject to “psychiatric diagnoses” but also by some men and women going about their everyday lives (Saunders and Fernyhough 2017, 210).

Taking my cue from the psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader, I argue that what is at stake in the Book’s rhetoric is not the content of Kempe’s beliefs and experiences, which are entirely conventional, but the place they occupy in her life: how she articulates what they mean to her. I do not think there has been sufficient attention paid to this dimension of the Book’s textuality. The Book is not only a spiritual autobiography but a text within a tradition of representing what are problematically called “abnormal” states of mind, but which are deeply creative and reparative attempts to structure the world: from Thomas Hoccleve’s account of his disordered mental state in the Complaint to Judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). In attending to the language of the Book as a structuring of internal reality my project is very different from reading Kempe’s text as an artless case study of surface symptoms for which we can propose contemporary psychiatric diagnoses. I nevertheless court the dangers of reductionism, including a reductionism of religious experience, and of deauthorizing Kempe as a female mystic. My paper will address those dangers.

At stake also in my reading of the Book is the relationship of the medieval to modernity. How does the Middle Ages legitimate the knowledge that the Book offers about inner, spiritual experience? What is the place of the Book and its author within modernity? And how does that impact the Book’s potential to teach psychoanalysis about historical forms of the relationship between language and subjectivity?

JULIANA DRESVINA: Creating a Margery-sized space: Margery Kempe’s psychological defences and offences

“Nevertheless, she persisted” and “nasty woman” became among the most quoted memes of the 2017. If anyone needed a medieval illustration for them, Margery Kempe would be first in line. As Chris Wickham recently put it, “Margery Kempe was doubtless, on the basis of her book at least, a totally infuriating person, but she managed to create a Margery-sized space for herself and defend it against people of every social level” (Medieval Europe, 2016, p. 189). In my paper I propose to examine and appreciate the ways in which Margery carved her “Margery-sized” mental and emotional spaces in a rigid and inhospitable 15th-century climate from the perspective of contemporary psychology. Multiple commentaries on how Margery actively searched for models to shape her devotional practices (e.g. medieval mystics or popular saints) and on how pious fantasies were authorised by the popular guide to meditations which encourages devotees to imagine themselves as actors within the sacred narratives, have lately been taken further to connect Margery’s behavioural models with modern cultures of fandom (viz Anna Wilson, Godelinde Perk). I suggest considering such fashioning of the self and of the reality by Margery (through RPG and therapeutic writing) in the light of current views on psychological defence and coping mechanisms when dealing with loss, instability, and abuse.


LAURA KALAS WILLIAMS: The Swetenesse of Confection: A Recipe for Spiritual Health in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, The Book of Margery Kempe

This paper will reveal the contents of the elusive recipe, annotated at the end of Additional MS 61823 by a late fifteenth-century reader of the Book. The recipe, brought to light by the help of multispectral imaging technology, is for medicinal sweets – or ‘dragges’ – used commonly as post-prandial digestives.

But how to use and to understand the recipe in the context of the Book’s focus on Margery Kempe’s spirituality is now a thornier question. I will argue here that the recipe provides an opportunity to explore ideas about confection and sweetness in relation to Kempe’s burning, intoxicating love for her heavenly bridegroom. In Middle English, swete denotes taste, but also smell, sound, pleasure, a beloved, God and the saints, and preciousness. The meaning of sweetness can thus be at once sensory, emotive, and figurative. John Trevisa noted that sweet flavours are pure ‘by kynde [nature]’, and beneficial for bodily health. Sweetness is also, then, therapeutic. This paper will suggest that the myriad references to God’s swetenesse, and Kempe’s sweet dalliances, are characteristic of the sensual viscerality of her spiritual experience. Using the dragges of the recipe as a metaphor for her trajectory towards eschatological perfection, I will illustrate how the swete sounds, smells, and tastes of rapture help her to go some way towards describing the ineffable, since the metaphor of the sweetness of God holds deep, symbolic value. How does the divine confection of God’s love with the sweet spices inside her soul construct a healthy site for Christ’s habitation? The recipe’s inclusion in the manuscript gestures towards the curative nature of the Book, both for Kempe who lives the narrative, and for her readers, who are edified by the healing words of the text.

MICHAEL LEAHY: The Intimacies of Care: Kempe and her Patients

The image of Margery Kempe caring for the sick recurs frequently throughout her book. We are presented with instances of her providing solace to neighbours, praying for those who are dying, nursing her infirm husband and, in her visionary life, acting as midwife at Christ’s nativity. In these accounts, Kempe is associated with conventional late medieval images of female domesticity including washing, wringing clothes, bathing and providing nourishment. This paper will explore some of these episodes and consider the extent to which they underpin the text’s representation of Kempe as a saintly figure. I will argue that whilst domesticity is largely seen as a restriction to her spiritual calling, it provides a rich set of images that help to affirm her sanctity. For instance, she transforms her aversion towards the daily task of tending to the body of her incontinent husband into a kind of penance which atones for the sexual desires of her younger self. This relates to a broader pattern in the text where the feelings of disgust and revulsion that are triggered by patients and their unruly bodies help to generate spiritual possibilities for their carer. This paper emerges from a wider project entitled Imagining Illness which analyses the different ideologies attending representations of patients in late medieval culture.


The faded recipe for a medicinal sweetmeat, or possibly a form of poudre douce, on the final leaf of BL Additional MS 61283, raises a number of questions about the role and status of sugar and spices during the lifetime of Margery Kempe. Some inherent ambiguities of interpretation regarding the purpose and exact form of the finished confection and the precise nature of some of its ingredients are difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, this brief Middle English culinary aide memoire opens a window into a world where sugar and other imported exotic ingredients had become firmly embedded in English domestic life and commerce. The recipe contains clear clues regarding the fourfold nature of sugar at this period, as medicine, sweetener, preservative and even as an art medium. Clarification of a number of the technical issues raised by the recipe have been found in a contemporary collection of confectionery receipts in BL Harley MS 2378. Sugar, like alcohol, was the product of a refining process learnt mainly from the Islamic world. The gross crudities of raw sugar cane where eliminated in a quasi-alchemical process to reveal the pure-white, essential spirit of sweetness, a transformation with some obvious parallels to the quest for spiritual cleansing.


RACHEL MOSS: Falling in Love and Crying: Academic Culture and What Margery Can Teach Us

In June 2015, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt remarked that when women work in labs, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” That month I wrote a blog post in response: about the pressure on women and other minorities to conform to academia’s hegemonic norms regarding emotions and embodiment, and my own pregnant body’s inability to exist ‘professionally’. It struck a nerve; 7000 readers read that piece in the week it was published, and shared stories of their own about seeming to feel ‘too much’.

In this paper I use Margery’s public, passionate persona as a model for modern academics. Discarding traditional structures that centre cis-masculine, white, able-bodied experience as the baseline for writing ‘dispassionate’, ‘objective’ history, I think about the ways in which Margery’s radical integrity, public engagement and desire to lead still profoundly discomfit our students and colleagues because they upset long-established notions of what it means to be a good teacher and a great thinker. I argue that perhaps if there were more space to love and cry in our labs and lecture halls, our teaching and research spaces might better accommodate us, rather than us squeezing ourselves into the narrow confines of our expected roles.

LAURA VARNAM: Framing The Book of Margery Kempe: How the Good Mystic Taught her Readers

My fundamental argument is that The Book of Margery Kempe is not only an exemplary text but a text that is interested in how exemplarity works. The Book frames (MED compose/fashion) Margery Kempe’s experiences in a variety of ways (and her detractors seek to ‘frame’ her too). The text displays Margery in different modes at different moments so that the reader can learn to model their piety on hers but it is a piety that is flexible and reflective of the readers’ own interests too; the Book eschews a rigid and fixed exemplarity. The text frequently constructs Margery as an example to others- e.g. God describes her as a mirror- and in this paper I will think about how and where this mirroring process takes place. How is the reader supposed to learn from Margery and what, precisely, should we do to imitate her example? How does this good mystic teach her readers? I will argue that the Book presents the heart as the most crucial location for the operation of exemplarity and that the reader is encourage to mirror Margery’s example by cultivating heartfelt emotions (I refer here to Sarah McNamer’s Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion and her concept of emotional scripts, and the recent work of Ayoush Lazikani on medieval emotions in Cultivating the Heart). I will focus my analysis on a particular episode of the Book, chapter 53, when Margery is imprisoned in Beverley and she opens the window of the room and tells ‘many good talys’ to the women outside who respond with ‘gret hevynes of her hertys’ to Margery’s situation. Margery’s appearance in the window exemplifies the ways in which the Book ‘frames’ her for our didactic use and the image of the heart will be my starting point for examining a heartfelt emotional imitation that is also modelled by Margery in her relationship with God elsewhere in the Book.

KATHERINE LEWIS: ‘And þerfor sche dede no þing wryten but þat sche knew ryghth wel for very trewth: Margery Kempe, Oral History and the Value of Subjective Memory’

The Book of Margery Kempe is often described as ‘oral history’ due both to its form as a life-story, and what we know about the process of its creation. Indeed, Robert C. Ross identified parallels between the Book and oral history interviews collected by Luisa Passini, pointing out the implications of these for enhancing our understanding of the Book’s apparently idiosyncratic nature and structure. The discipline of oral history has developed significantly in the twenty five years since Ross wrote. This paper seeks to take our appreciation of the Book further by exploring the benefits of evaluating it in terms of current methodologies of oral history, especially post-positivist approaches to memory. Memory (perceived as inherently unreliable) and History have sometimes been viewed as antithetical, in strictly empiricist terms. But Alessandro Portelli has written influentially on the potential value of subjective memory, and of what the processes of remembering (individually and collectively) reveal about subjects’ perceptions both of their past experiences, and the longer term significance of these. The ‘peculiarities’ of oral history (as Portelli puts it), which are paralleled in the Book, should be viewed as strengths, not weaknesses, allowing us access to vital truths about past societies, regardless of the precise accuracy of events described. For example, often oral history subjects are telling their life story for the first time, but not always. Some have previously told their story many times. Some such subjects are not simply retelling what happened to them, but self-consciously perform their act of remembering as a lesson which must be told and plotted in a certain way in order to be effective (and, indeed, affective). This is something Lindsey Dodd has observed in her work on children’s experiences of allied bombing in Vichy France, for example, and is strikingly similar to the Proem’s account of the Book’s creation and purpose. Moreover, when considering their involvement in the creation of oral history sources historians like Dodd are increasingly aware of, and explicitly comment on, what Valerie Yow identifies as the need for an objective relation to their own subjectivity. Thus, engaging with both the methodologies of oral history and the experiences of historians working in this field, as well as those whom they interview, allows for new reflection on the status of the Book as History, in relation both to medieval and modern epistemologies of historical truth.

EINAT KLAFTER: Boldly take me in the armys of thi sowle” – The Eschewing of Somatic and Erotic Language in Margery Kempe’s unio dei

Margery Kempe was deeply attached to the Eucharist, successfully petitioning Archbishop Arundel to receive weekly communion. This is not unusual within the context of late-medieval spirituality and female mysticism. The centrality of the Eucharist in the devotional practices of the period, along with the important role that it held within the documented experiences of female saints and holy women throughout Europe, has been well established by scholars such as Carolyn Walker Bynum, Miri Rubin, and David Aers, to name but a few. However, unlike other late-medieval female mystics, such as Mary of Oignies or Angela of Foligno, Kempe does not recount any mystical experience initiated by receiving physical communion. That is not to say that Margery is denied the manifestation of the miraculous nature and potential of the Host, only that it is manifested through ocular communion.

This paper will show that the way the Eucharist offers Margery access to Christ, fits a pattern of Margery’s engagement with the divine throughout her text, which shuns the somatic and the erotic in the here and now, deferring it to the spiritual and the hereafter. I posit that this is connected to Margery’s complex relation with sexualized somatic relations stemming from the shame and anxiety over her pre-conversion sexual activities and appetite, from which she derived pleasure; the need to continue her marital debt post-conversion, while pursuing her husband’s consent for a chaste marriage. The paper presents a project that I am currently working on, which maps the language and imagery employed to describe (comm)union with Christ and divine ecstasy by late-medieval holy women. It seeks to examine how the lived experiences of wives and widows influenced how the relationship with their heavenly spouse is articulated, in relation to those holy women who remained virgins. The Book of Margery Kempe is a main case study.


CLARCK DRIESHEN: The Fourteenth-Century Christi Leiden in einer Vision geschaut as a Source for Margery Kempe’s Visions of the Passion

Scholars have long followed Hope Emily Allen’s assumption that the Book’s vision of the
Flagellation is Margery’s own invention. In this paper, however, I argue that this vision was influenced by Christi Leiden in einer Vision geschaut: a fourteenth-century visionary account of the Passion that circulated both in Middle German and Middle Dutch versions. There can be little doubt that the Book’s account of the Flagellation is based on this Continental work: both works describe that Christ was flagellated by sixteen men who each give him forty blows with whips containing lead-covered knots. This identification of the Book’s source provides new evidence for Margery’s indebtedness to Continental mystical writings. But it also gives new insight into the
way in which Margery gained access to and used Passion-centred writings. My paper discusses a unique Middle English translation and reworking of Christi Leiden that I have identified in a fifteenth-century devotional manuscript. The translation is followed by a ‘visionary script’ that suggests that its intended reader, an anonymous woman, should use Christi Leiden to identify with Christ and imagine herself as a participant in the events of the Passion. However, I argue that Margery (or one of her scribes) has rejected this ‘script’ —perhaps written by a cleric who was concerned about women’s unmediated interpretation of Christi Leiden—and used the narrative’s details in order to present herself as an eyewitness of the Passion in imitation of the Virgin Mary.

DIANA DENISSON: Social Exclusion as Self-Representation in Margery Kempe’s Book and Alijt Bake’s Boecxken

This paper will discuss two major late medieval examples of spiritual female life writing, The Book of Margery Kempe and the Middle Dutch Boecxken van mijn beghin ende voortganck (‘Book on my beginnings and progress’). Due to language boundaries, scholarly interest in the interconnections between Margery Kempe’s Book and Alijt Bake’s Boecxken is still in its early stages and deserves more attention.

My paper will focus on the question in which sense social exclusion, apart from being a test of Bake’s and Kempe’s faith, functions as an important rhetorical and strategic device in both texts. When the nun Alijt Bake first enters her convent in Ghent she constantly fights with the prioress and she does not adapt well to the convent’s communal way of living. Bake describes how the others constantly criticise her crying and her highly personalised relationship with Christ. Bake is told that the convent is not the right place for her and that she should leave. A similar pattern can be seen Margery Kempe’s Book. One of The Book’s recurring motifs is that people are annoyed and angry with Kempe and the way she expresses her devotion to Christ. Yet, in both The Book and Boecxken there is tension between these forms of social exclusion and the forms of support and encouragement that Bake and Kempe receive at the same time. This paper will therefore explore the nuances of this form of late medieval female self-representation.

GODELINDE PERK: Channel-Hopping Saints: Margery Kempe as a Modern Devout Mystic

With her fondling of Christ’s toes and loud weeping, Margery Kempe’s spirituality seems foremost deeply somatic, performative, and material; discussions of the Book often center on this notable exteriority in The Book of Margery Kempe.Yet in one of the later chapters of the Book, Christ promises he will reward for Margery for her devout desires for charitable deeds as if she had performed them. I argue that contemporary parallels for this intriguing blend of virtual actions and performative piety can be found across the Channel:  the female-authored Middle Dutch texts from the Devotio Moderna, a lay and (semi)monastic movement,  likewise brim over with somatic expressions and inner feats. Juxtaposing the Book with the Sister-Books, autobiographies such as Alijt Bake’s Mijn Begin ende Voortganck,  and Modern Devout treatises, this discussion reads the Book as a Continental vita and a Continental mystical text.  In particular, it examines the texts’ models of the dynamic, gendered interplay between interiority and exteriority, showing how both the Book and Modern Devout texts challenge medieval faculty psychology and transform the readers’ mind to the likeness of that of their characters’. I will tease out points of intersection between and disjuncture of these works’ literary and devotional strategies, contextualizing these with memoria to attend closely to the texts’ complex responses to fifteenth-century gender discourses. This analysis thus conceives of the Book as a literary and theological pilgrim, impressed by the European context through which Margery is described as traveling. Arguing for a more pan-European and comparative approach to medieval women’s vernacular theology, this paper illuminates both the Book’s place in its international context and its appropriative localization of Continental traditions.


SUSAN MADDOCK: Comyn hom into Lynne: the historicity of Margery Kempes Book in relation to her home town

 In the 80 years since Sanford Meech conducted his impressive trawl of records in King’s Lynn for the first critical edition of the Book, only modest additional scraps of archival evidence from Lynn have been published. As Anthony Goodman wrote in 2002 (Margery Kempe and her World), ‘Although King’s Lynn is rich in documentation from the period … [this] has not even yielded information placing Margery Kempe securely within broad family and social networks’.

The creation of a database of names from the borough’s leet court rolls (the most socially inclusive record surviving from late medieval Lynn), together with the geographical identification of the nine wards into which the town was divided, now enables members of the Brunham and Kempe families and their associates to be linked with particular locations and social networks. They include John Brunham’s respected neighbour, a widow who shares connections with the Brunhams and Kempes in nearby Shouldham, and who may also be Margery’s godmother, while two memorial brasses, one bearing a verse in English, which were commissioned by Margery’s niece, Alice White (née Brunham), bear witness to the latter’s continued pride in her birth family at Lynn.

Margery’s relationships with priests in the town and her initially successful brewing business can also be seen in a local context, while her assessment of those who lobbied for parochial status for St Nicholas’s chapel (‘gold [to] spede in every nede’) is verified by tax assessments for the North End of Lynn. Margery’s consciousness of her father’s high status as a leading merchant-burgess is evident in the Book, but it now appears from records at Lynn that, at the time when Book II was being written, she had formed a connexion with the families of two ‘artificer burgesses’ who represented a newly empowered class within the borough.

PAT CULLUM: Monitoring, Mentoring and Admonition: Margery Kempe and the Prelates

At significant points in her text Margery Kempe describes encounters with various of the prelates (bishops, archbishops and abbots) of her day. In the relative absence of English vitae of holy men and women of the kind Margery herself was familiar with from Continental traditions, the Book gives us an insight into day to day interactions between senior clergy and a woman whom they may have considered to have a debatable reputation for holiness. Few laywomen outside London or below the aristocracy can have met both English archbishops, as well as other senior clergy. Margery can help us understand how such meetings, formal and informal, which are so rarely recorded in Bishops Registers, reflect the day to day interactions of the episcopate with their flocks. At a time when bishops have been argued to be imposing an increasingly conservative and conformist religious culture, what does the Book tell us about how prelates monitored, mentored and were admonished by lay women who had a reputation for public expression of their religiosity, whether that was conventional or otherwise.

Twenty years ago Sarah Rees Jones wrote ‘A peler of the holy Cherch: Margery Kempe and the bishops’ in which she argued that the bishops were real and Margery Kempe but a fictive vehicle for delivering their message. Here I will take the view that while Margery may not be a wholly reliable author, she is no more or less real/constructed than the prelates she encounters. Do these accounts suggest parallels with those in the vitae that Margery read and if so does that say something about the extent to which English episcopal pastoral activity shared practice with their Continental brothers, or can we identify something more specifically insular?

VINCENT GILLESPIE: The Latin Margery Kempe

We are accustomed to thinking of The Book of Margery Kempe as an important English vernacular text, “the first autobiography in English”. We also have an unusually full list of the books that she says were read to her. These books (Rolle, Hilton, Love, Birgitta) have come to be seen as a near-normative archive of late-medieval vernacular devotional and visionary spirituality. But most of the books of which she displays knowledge are not readily available in English at the documented times of her key experiences with them. Her clerical reader must in most cases have been translating for her direct from Latin. So using extant vernacular versions of these texts to calibrate our sense of her cultural formation is profoundly misleading. How does our perception of The Book of Margery Kempe change if, instead, we put it into the context of key Latin prophetic, visionary, devotional, and pastoral texts available to her and her clerical advisors? This paper will suggest that Margery Kempe is, in fact, better regarded as the last Latin woman visionary of medieval England rather than primarily as an avatar of a vernacular spirituality.


MARGARET SHEBLE: Queer Eye for God: Reading Margery Kempe as Female Masculine

Using Margery’s frequently-discussed relationship to the Godhead, this paper proposes a queer reading of Margery Kempe as demonstrating gender fluidity alongside the Godhead and Christ. As Carolyn Dinshaw, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Leah Devun have articulated, Christ and to an extent the Godhead, performs both femininity and masculinity. This gender fluidity is also transparent in female mysticism’s treatment of the Christ/Godhead figure. Such a reading troubles typical gender and queer understandings of the Middle Ages and complicates Margery’s sexuality (and thus also Christ’s sexuality) as not following the heteronormative tradition. Margery’s marriage to the Godhead follows a medieval tradition of female mysticism. However, where Margery differs is the intimacy of this relationship and the role of her own gender identity in association with her affiliation with Christ. This paper will focus extensively on the marriage between God and Margery as both being queer and performing female masculinity. Margery performs passivity associated with femininity but finds she can have an active spiritual life with the privileges associated with masculinity through her queer relationship with Christ. Margery strategically queers her gender identity being affiliated with/as Christ as well as being queer in her sexual desire to be with the divine rather than an earthly being.

HANNAH LUCAS: ‘Clad in flesch and blood’: The Sartorial Body and Female Self-Fashioning in The Book of Margery Kempe

In Chapter 6 of Margery Kempe’s Book, she receives a vision of the Virgin Mary’s birth to St. Anne, in which Mary is clothed in ‘fayr whyte clothys and whyte kerchys’. The chapter concludes with Margery seeking for Mary the same ‘fayr whyte clothys and kerchys for to swathyn in hir sone whan he wer born’, after which she herself ‘swathyd hym wyth byttyr teerys’. This passage is one of many scenes in the Book charged with Marian devotion, evoking the apocryphal tradition that augmented the New Testament’s rendering of Mary’s early life and the incarnation of Christ. The above episode evinces a process that continues throughout her text, whereby ‘clothys’ operate as devotional objects, and interaction with them facilitates the self-fashioning of Margery’s religious identity. In order to posit this as a new way of reading textiles in the Book, this paper will employ Judith Butler’s theorisation of gender identity, and recent work by Laura Varnam on the affiliated concept of performative religious identity. I will then examine the evolution of Margery’s sartorial body; how the power encoded within textiles by female heavenly models – the Virgin in particular – is used to render the body as a sacred space. This will demonstrate how Margery’s self-fashioning sartorially and devotionally empowers her, in spite of the restrictions of her gender and lack of virginity. Using this approach, details from the Book appear in a new light: the significance of Kempe’s pursuit of Marian cloth relics, of course; but also her widely-noted desire for white garb, contrasted with her preoccupation with other less ethical (‘dagged’) clothing. Weaver becomes wearer, when Margery’s interaction with the Marian motif of enrobing Christ is translated to her own sartorial performance. This subsequently becomes a physical demonstration of her creative, incarnational power; her narrative, and her religious identity.

TARA WILLIAMS: Revisiting Margery and Julian’s “Holy Dalyawns”

The Book describes Margery’s meeting with Julian in Chapter 18, explaining that “mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr.”  This encounter has become a pivotal element in retellings of these medieval women’s lives and experiences, particularly in plays such as J. Janda’s Julian (1984), Dana Bagshaw’s Cell Talk (2002), Heidi Schreck’s Creature (2009), and Máirín O’Hagan and Sarah Anson’s Marge & Jules (2015).  The paper begins by exploring how modern texts depict Margery and Julian’s relationship and why that has proven to be so fascinating for readers and writers.  Is the focus on the contrast or the connection between the two women?  Is the dominant paradigm friendship, mentorship, or something else?  Is the relationship portrayed as historically specific or timeless?  And why does this subject seem so well suited to the dramatic genre?  The second half of the paper returns to the representation of the meeting in the Book.  Rather than assuming that Margery and Julian’s connection is distinctive, I examine it in the context of the many other encounters Margery has with religious and secular figures in public, private, and visionary spaces.  This approach highlights some different aspects than the modern re-imaginings do, revealing that the Book’s depiction of the exchange between Margery and Julian contains diction and formal features similar to Margery’s conversations with sympathetic clerics like the monk in Chapter 12, the Archbishop in Chapter 16, and the English priest in Chapter 40, as well as with Christ and the Virgin Mary in the visions.  I conclude by considering how a dialogue between scholarly and creative treatments of Margery and Julian’s “dalyawns” might inform Kempe studies in the future.


SUE NIEBRYZDOWSKI: ‘Wolcomyd and mech made of in dyvers placys’:The shared piety of the citizens of York and Margery Kempe

In 1413 Margery Kempe made the first of two visits to York. On this first trip Margery recalls that she was well treated and welcomed in a variety of places. On a return visit in 1417, her reception by some of York’s clergy was hostile, culminating in Margery appearing before Henry Bowet, Archbishop of York. Many of York’s citizens, whom Margery describes as ‘good men and women’, still desire, however, to meet her and defend her before her critics. Carol Meale and Claire Sponsler have suggested a relationship between York’s mystery plays and the performative aspects of Margery’s piety. What else did the city of York and its citizens have to offer the daughter of a former mayor of Bishop’s Lynn in the self-fashioning of her spiritual development? In 1413 York’s mayor was Nicholas Blackburn senior, evidence of whose piety, along with that of his extended family, survives in a variety of documentary sources, the glazing of his parish church and in a book of hours (York Use). On Margery’s return visit in 1417, Nicholas Blackburn’s relative by marriage, William Bowes, held the post of mayor. This paper explores the spiritual sympathies shared by Margery and the Blackburn family, into whose orbit Margery may have come during her two visits to York, and considers the impact of the devotional life of early fifteenth-century York – favoured saints, guild practices, and key religious figures – on Margery’s own spiritual development.

JOSEPHINE KOSTER: “‘I cry the mercy, blisful Lord’: The Prayers of Margery Kempe and the Construction of Orthodoxy”

At the end of Book Two of The Book of Margery Kempe is a collection of prayers attributed to Margery Kempe, which Windeatt notes (2000) may pre-date the composition of her book and possibly even her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, these prayers have for the most part been regarded as a liminal portion of the text, perhaps as an imitation of the popular prayer The Fifteen Oes or as an echo of the prayers in the life of St. Brigit of Sweden. Rarely has sustained attention been paid to Kempe’s collection of prayers, which range from passionate personal discourse to politic requests for grace to political and religious authorities of her day. Most studies of The Book of Margery Kempe relegate the prayers to the margins of their arguments, even as the prayers appear to be appended to the actual manuscript of The Book.

In this paper I argue that the prayers of Margery Kempe present both an argument for and a self-representation of Kempe’s interpretation of religious orthodoxy. Connecting them not only to The Fifteen Oes but to the genres and purposes of medieval bidding prayers and contemplative exercises, I argue that Kempe uses the prayers as a demonstration of her authority as an interpreter of medieval religious practice and as an advertisement of her suitability as a role model for other medieval laywomen. In her skilled rhetorical manipulation of the language and forms of traditional Middle English prayer, Kempe constructs a picture of her devotional practices in these prayers that provides unassailable evidence of her conformity in an age when heterodoxy was a dangerous, even lethal stance. I will provide examples of similar, often unpublished, Middle English prayers as cultural and historical context for her compositions, illuminating my argument for the centrality of these expressions of her religious practice in understanding her as a rhetor and as a medieval Christian. I conclude that the prayers of Margery Kempe, far from being an appendix to the text, are a necessary lens through which the story of her explorations of her faith should be read.

SARAH MACMILLAN: Margery in Print: Asceticism and Imitatio

Sarah Rees Jones argued in 2000 that ‘modern readers often want Margery Kempe to be ‘real’ and for the book to be her voice’. This paper seeks to understand what sixteenth-century readers wanted from Margery and what happened to her voice in the abbreviated Short Treatyse of Contemplacyon by exploring the two printed volumes in which it appears.

Through a comparative study of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1501 booklet edition, which was later compiled into a sammelband (known as Moore Sammelband I), and Henry Pepwell’s 1521 edition, which locates the Tretyse specifically alongside the works of Richard of St Victor, Walter Hilton and Catherine of Siena, the paper will explore the choices made by compilers, printers and readers of mystical texts in the late Middle Ages.

In particular, it will examine the fact that de Worde appears to present some of the most ascetic parts of the Book, centred on penitence, pain and tribulation, and consider the appeal of these sections to his readership in 1501. It will also consider the implications of compilation activity on the part of collectors and readers, particularly in the context of the Moore Sammelband where the Treatyse is located between books 3 and 4 of the Imitation of Christ.

The paper then turns to Pepwell’s 1521, in which the printer, not a reader, has dictated the ordering of the collection. In Pepwell’s edition, the Treatyse follows directly after a severe abbreviation of The Orcherd of Syon (the English version of Catherine of Siena’s Il Dialogo) which also has heavily ascetic inflections. The paper will conclude with a comparison of the two abbreviated texts to understand the strategies involved in reconfiguring earlier mystical writers for new audiences, their ascetic emphasis and the implications these have for the voices of the mystics themselves.


CHRISTINA HILDEBRANDT: The Book of Margery Kempe, Disability, and the Power of Discourse

There is a paucity of first-person accounts of disability in the Middle Ages, which has meant that medieval disability studies has, by and large, focused on representations. The Book of Margery Kempe thus constitutes an important – and challenging – addition to medieval disability studies discourses, as it potentially provides an autobiographical voice which has been critically absent. Kempe’s eccentric behavior has led to many readings of the text which attempt to pathologize her. Although this paper views Kempe as a historically disabled figure and her Book as a disability text, this paper nevertheless distances itself from those pathologizing impulses, reading Kempe’s early episode of going “out of her mind”  (often read pathologically as post-partum psychosis) as an inciting traumatic episode. I posit that Kempe’s use of mystical discourse is an attempt at narrativizing trauma in such a way that allows her to overcome it. To support such a consideration, this paper outlines trauma theory as articulated by Dominick LaCapra and Judith Hermans in order to illustrate the ways in which the Book functions as a means of working through trauma. Explicitly responding to Julie Singer’s proposal that medieval disability studies consider the ways in which medieval disabled bodies are “endowed with a unique capacity to redraw boundaries between margins and center,” I argue that Kempe’s participation in literary production while occupying an arguably liminal social location (as an illiterate woman ) uniquely positions her Book for such a consideration. The Book acts as a site of transformation, empowering not just Kempe’s overcoming of trauma, but our own understanding of the power of discourse to redraw accepted boundaries between margin and center.

DOROTHY KIM: Margery Kempe in Jerusalem: Sonic Wars, Religious Soundscapes, and Christian Noise

Critics have been particularly keen to link Margery Kempe’s tears as a form of affective religious devotion. This paper will reassess her tears particularly in her pilgrimage to Jerusalem to consider the soundscape of the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre. As the Stations of the Cross, in Ashmole 61 advocates for tears at specific moments during the stations, Margery Kempe’s tears are but her following the directions of Middle English pilgrimage guides circulating and accessible to merchant class, 15th-century readers. However, I would also like to consider the soundscape of the Via Dolorosa as it circumvents the walled city of Old Jerusalem and traverses numerous districts including the Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim areas of the city. In this way, we must consider her tears in relation to the valences of other religious sounds emanating from the city—the Muslim call to prayer on Friday, the beginning of Shabbas at sundown on Friday evening with the use of the shofar, the Armenian devotional practices that include processions and vocal songs. Along with the Via Dolorosa, I would like to discuss Margery Kempe crying at the Holy Sepulchre, but particularly the territorial war of religious groups that have a stake in the space of the Holy Sepulchre. If one considers the Greek Orthodox musical and chanting repertoire, with the consistent marching and singing of the Armenian Christian church, which then intersects with the Franciscans who lead the devout from the Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre, one cannot but see that Margery Kempe’s tears and noise are but her participation in the Franciscan campaign to claim the Holy Sepulchre for the Roman Catholic Church. What one has is a sonic war in which the different factions who have fought for centuries (by the time Margery Kempe went to Jerusalem) have waged territorial, sonic, and occasionally hand to hand (or broom to broom) wars with each other to claim the Holy Sepulchre for their Christian religion. In this way, her tears and noise are quotidian and part of the contexts of the soundscapes of Jerusalem.

JOHANNES WOLF: Margery Kempe as De-Facement: Pathology, autobiography, and ‘this creatur’

Margery Kempe is perhaps the Middle English author with whom we are most familiar – not only as the author of the famous Book, but as a palpable historical subject in her own right. Responses to Kempe have from their earliest origins broached the subject of Kempe-as-person, most infamously in an uncomfortably healthy tradition of psychiatric diagnosis. Whilst this heady mix of misogyny and ahistorical pathologising has somewhat abated in recent scholarship, the textual geography and reading traditions that enabled it in the first place bear further investigation.

This paper will attempt to problematise and perhaps close a series of gaps – between medieval and modern responses, historicised and medicalised subjecthood, and modern and mystical language-theory – by suggesting a particular historical and theoretical model for autobiography, as genre and as reading strategy. In the process it will draw on modern and postmodern critiques of the notion of autobiography, the history of ‘pathologising readings’ in studies of the Boke and further afield, and the Book’s own prefiguration of these responses in Margery Kempe’s struggles against accusations of somatic and psychological infirmity. What the drawing together of such disparate strands shows is that, firstly, the Book itself structures, invites, and challenges diagnostic readings of Kempe and, secondly, that the process of making-medical (and making-historical) essential to the autobiographical gesture is an important element of Middle English devotional and pastoral subjectivity. Interrogating the autobiographical elements of the Book, in other words, allows us to give post-structuralist critiques of autobiography some historical specificity, and might bring us a step closer to understanding the compelling peculiarity of this particular creatur.