Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Margery Kempe Bound and Unbound

It is, generally speaking, now a faux pas among medieval scholars to diagnose Margery Kempe as being a psychotic, a hysteric, an epileptic, and so on.[1] We instead tend to emphasize Kempe’s agency: her deliberate selection of clerical protectors and her choice to practice various recognizable forms of late medieval piety – the weeping, above all, but also her white clothing, and the erotic attachment to Jesus and her lugubrious fascination with his bloodied image. She may also be deliberately provoking the unholy crowd into persecuting her, or provoking us into embarrassment over her oversharing,[2] because what is a saint without some social difficulty?[3] Kempe is not simply an outrageously or pathetically noisy woman, but rather one seeking her own liberation, especially from her marriage, by enthralling herself to forces more powerful than her husband and his masculine social order. She is, in a way, in control, because she is entirely at the mercy of God.

These two modern approaches to Kempe – Margery as afflicted, or Margery as God’s show-woman – were each common to her fifteenth-century contemporaries too. She is no mere symptom of what English Protestant historiography held as the “inflamed pitch of enthusiastic rapture and gross absurdity [of] some of the devotional treatises of that period.”[4] She was just as much a puzzle in the fifteenth century, not so much because of what she believes – she offers orthodox answers to all attempts to get her to confess to Lollardy – but because of how she worships.

But how sick did her contemporaries think her to be? None of them, so far as the Book wants to tell us, pray for her to stop her crying, not even her husband: we do meet a praying, desperate husband later — more on that below — whose hope gives us some sense of what we might call the nexus of medicine and the miraculous, each of them oriented towards returning an afflicted someone to normalcy. Prayer is a diagnosis too — you have to think someone needs something to pray for them, after all — but Margery’s contemporaries generally offer her nothing but diagnoses without hope for any improvement. Some said she had “epilepsy” (96, “the fallyng evyl”); they accuse her many times of having a devil “inside” her (29, 78, 96, 115, 135, and 149 – page numbers and translations from Bale). As much as it sounds like an accusation preliminary to an exorcism, this last accusation comes closest to being a medical diagnosis: official inquiries to determine whether a person was mentally incapacitated at times used language like “her reason was in the snares of evil spirits”[5] or “possessed by an evil spirit.”[6] The judgement was agentic, not spiritual, aiming to divide the afflicted person not from the devil but from the community of responsible adults. If the accusation stuck, the person is no longer legally responsible for what they did or what they might do. For example, those who die by suicide in the grip of officially judged madness or “idiocy” could still pass on their property to their heirs, because their condition, not themselves, did the deed. But the accusations of devilry thrown at Kempe sound instead like threats, dismissals, or charges that she and her actions are evil. The point in her case is not to absolve or strip her of personal responsibility, but to undo her claims to holiness.

The field of battle in those later accusations is not one of madness, in other words. The only incontrovertible reference I can find to her being officially diagnosed with mental incapacity is in the Book’s very first chapter. Some 40 years prior to her first attempt to have her story recorded, when Margery was in her early 20s, she married, and then bore her first child. Feeling amiss, she confessed to an overhasty, unsympathetic priest, and, not finding the comfort she sought, she seems to have lost her mind. The evidence of the diagnosis is both circumstantial and unmistakable, and I suspect probably hews close to a legal formula: she slanders “her husband, her friends, and her self,” and she tries to harm herself by tearing at her hand with her teeth, and at her chest with her nails. As a result, “she was bound and forcibly restrained both day and night so that she could not have her way” (12). After Jesus appears to her, she “was steadied in her wits and reason” (12; “stabeyld in her wyttys and in hir reson”), and immediately asks for the keys to the household “botery,” that is, its store of food and wine, so she could feed herself. Her husband agrees, but “hyr maydens and hir kepars cownseld hym he schulde delyvyr hir no keys, for thei seyd sche wold but geve awey swech good as ther was, for sche wyst not what sche seyde as thei wende” (her servants and her warders counselled him that he should provide no keys to her, as they said that she did not know what she was saying (so they believed); 12). There are three key elements here: her “kepars,” their efforts to keep her from giving away household belongings, and their justification for trying to keep Margery from the keys.

From the thirteenth century on, medieval English law increasingly sought to ensure that the property of people judged mentally incompetent not be wasted by the person so afflicted.[7] The law’s two key divisions were between “idiots” – that’s the medieval terminology – and the mentally ill, who might be called lunatics, or frenzied, or just insane. At stake in the assessment was the control of property: people judged to be permanently impaired – whether from birth or from the result of some injury or sickness – would have to pass on control of their property to an agent of the crown or city, and be looked after by some party supposedly disinterested enough not to want to fleece them, whereas someone judged to be only temporarily mad would have control of their property returned with the return of their mental health. It seems likely to me that Margery had been judged mentally incompetent at a time when her family, as well as her husband’s, were still rich enough to worry about what Margery might do with the family holdings.[8]

To the degree that they were judged to be a social problem, conditions of mental illness or, more generally, mental incompetency, were socially determined. It was not that conditions of impairment had only a legal existence but rather that impairment became a matter of social concern only when it was matter of property disputes, or in cases when a family determined that one of their members was socially or politically inconvenient. Concern with the supposed dangers of widespread “idiocy” and “degeneracy” would have to await the biopolitical management of human populations more characteristic of the nineteenth century than the late middle ages.

As the aim of these assessments was, officially, to prevent goods being spent down foolishly, the questions at the assessment predictably focused on mercantile knowledge: did the interviewee know their age, the days of the week (the date of the month last Friday fell on, for example), how to make change, or how to measure cloth? As Eliza Buhrer points out, what might seem to us simple23 enough questions would have been for many people, even in a commercial town like Lynn, quite befuddling. Lynn got a public, mechanical clock by 1372, but the “merchants’ time”[9] that it marked as it sounded the hours, distinct from the cyclical calendar of the church, would have mattered only to those in business. Knowing your own age to the year is also a sign of a certain approach to time. Making change with England’s coins – often shifting value, and some, like shillings, virtually impossible to find – would be a skill necessary only for those who routinely used money, far from a universal skill in fifteenth-century England. Think of your befuddlement, if you can, in handling foreign currency even in our era of fiat money. Knowing how to measure cloth has the same limitations. Medical judgements concern what a person is expected to be able to do, and what actions are socially valued.

Furthermore, judging whether someone was of sound mind, or an “idiot from birth” – or the other legal conditions of contractual inability: deafness, muteness, or a “natural fool” – was, like anything else involving money, subject to fraud and coercion. During the periods of mass mortality during the visitations of the plague, beginning in the 1340s, women were increasingly accused of being idiots, not, of course, because impairment was more prevalent among women in this period, but rather because as husbands suddenly died off, women would have found themselves unexpectedly in control of family property. Their former in-laws might charge them with idiocy to wrest control of the property back into their family. Buhrer cites the case of Joan of Jordan, daughter of a propertied London fishmonger, who faced three idiocy accusations over a 15-year period, each time, tellingly, when she became widowed. Her opponents finally won, and in 1402, we find her former tenants attempting to disprove Joan’s legal idiocy to free themselves from a landlord – presumably a warder – whom they found unpalatable.[10]

The legal problem is less with the purportedly mentally incompetent person than with their property. The care of the individual could be of a matter of concern, not directly because of what the ward needed, but because of what the warder expected: should the ward die, the managed property, and with it, its income, would pass on into other hands. Margery is a case in point. She “was bowndyn and kept wyth strength bothe day and nygth that sche mygth not have hir wylle,” but it is not until Jesus appears to her that she “was stabelyd in hir wyttys and in hir reson as wel as evyr sche was beforn.” She shares no memory with us about being cared for during her period of distress: what she remembers is restraint. And when she asks for her keys, her servants and warders’ first concern is not with her health, but with her property. Not having her will, in this case, means not being able to do with her property as she likes.

Kempe’s official return to “reason” – which we might anachronistically call her “sanity” – happens in the same chapter where she had officially lost her mind, her Book’s very first, at the very moment her husband agrees to have her keys returned to her. Her full return to public reason, evidenced by her own management of her own property and business, occurs in the very next chapter, when we witness the very mercantile character of mental health in fifteenth-century Lynn. Once more is a good bourgeoise, with the expected sartorial and social faults of her class and gender, once more living up to being the mayor’s daughter of what was then one of England’s great ports, she attempts to set herself up first as a brewer and then as a miller.

And what she becomes after that, when she becomes the weeping holy woman, must be something beyond that reason, something perhaps without a name.[11] But though she gives away a small fortune when she’s in Rome, leaving herself entirely dependent on others, she is never again at the mercy of “kepars.” She may be trouble and troubled, but so far as the Book wants us to know, she is sane. It never hints at her being threatened again with any official judgment of mental competency. The only warder her contemporaries want her to have is her husband, however scandalized they may be by her otherwise.

We can better understand Margery’s condition by noting her Book’s efforts to contrast her with two other mental incompetents, a madwoman and, then, her husband. Like Margery, the madwoman had gone “owt hir mende” (“out of her mind,” 155) after giving birth, and, like Margery, had then become a danger to others, as she “wyl bothe smytyn and bityn” (will both strike out and bite, 159, translation modified). Her husband has her bound with manacles and iron chains and then removed to the far end of town, away from others, so that they will not be disturbed by her roaring and crying. Her likeness to the Book’s star roarer and crier signals how we should read this episode: it aims to distinguish Margery’s holy roaring from the roaring of the mentally ill. Margery heals the woman, and then, in the next chapter, Margery takes care of another mental incompetent, her husband, who, after injuring his head in a fall, “turnyd childish agen and lakkyd reson” (turned childish again and lacked reason, 162, trans modified). The two chapters, back-to-back, emphasize Margery’s mental health: unlike this woman, Margery roars for God, and unlike her husband, she is no fool, despite needing the support of others. These are people whom the Book wants us to understand as incapable of taking care of themselves, just as Margery was, for a time, in the Book’s very opening. But Margery, afflicted as she is, is in the service of something else.

Neither case, notably, mentions any “kepars.” The madwoman’s husband seems to be taking care of her himself, and Margery, as she presents it, is afflicted with the penance of tending to her helpless husband in a kind of living purgatory. Property might not have been a concern in either case, although perhaps it was: we are at the mercy of the omissions of both Margery and her amanuenses. As the Book tells it, the madwoman and her husband may not be rich enough to attract the attention of the king or city or any family that might be eager to insist on a warder. And by the time Margery was compelled have John move back in with her, his family and hers, once important in Lynn, had long since faded into civic obscurity. In both cases, then, we can witness a practical matter of mental incompetency independent of the legal machinery of property. All three cases – Margery’s first illness, then the madwoman, and then her husband’s final condition – collectively aim to distinguish Margery the Holy Woman from mental incompetents of whatever sort, but we also get a sense of mental healthcare directed towards a person rather than towards their wealth. Margery notably first learns about the madwoman when she finds her husband in her accustomed church, “knelyng at hir bak, wryngyng hys handys and schewyng tokenys of gret
hevynes” (a man came and knelt behind her, wringing his hands and showing signs of great misery; 159).

For most of the Book, Margery faces other dangers than the dangers of losing control of her property. She fears rape, most of all: this is the chief concern of the Book’s small second part, detailing her journey to Germany with her daughter-in-law, and her misadventures as she tries to get back to England. She fears being charged with heresy: early the fifteenth century, likely to help shore up Henry IV’s disreputable claims to the throne, England finally started burning people for unorthodoxy. Margery often shows herself answering the charges ably, each time keeping well clear of any Lollard disdain for pilgrimage, regular fasting, or spiritual self-education outside the guidance of the priesthood. She has her clerical supporters offer a syllabus of associated mystical readings to demonstrate that her behavior, as troubling as it is to most laypeople, actually follows patterns already set by Richard Rolle, Bridget of Sweden, and Marie of Oignies (but perhaps notably, not Marguerite Porete). She especially suffers social ostracization, from her family, her community, and her fellow travelers, and must find help among the outcasts: beggars, “a brokebakkyd man,” and a Muslim who does her the honor of carrying her up Mount Quarentyne, where Jesus was tempted by the Devil.

Above all, she is threatened with arrest. I have been trying to determine what this might have looked like.[12] It would be centuries before England would have a regular police force; burgers would be obligated to provide their cities with a nightwatch, and even to serve on them, but this is far from the regular policing of modernity. England had prisons, and people might be sent to them because they were social nuisances, or because they had been charged with breaking contracts, or heads, or they might be kept in them while they awaited trial. Since prisoners had to provide for themselves, simply being held in prison was often punishment enough. Prisoners might be chained for a time outside a prison so they could beg passers-by for their sustenance, while richer prisoners could pay both for better cells and to be free of chains. Anyone stuffed away out of sight had reason to expect terrific suffering, although we have at least one record, featured by Sarah M. Butler last August during the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd, of a medieval English jailer at Newgate in London, Richard of Harlow, who was executed in 1290 for the terrifyingly familiar act of strangling the imprisoned Philip Lauweles, an Irishman, by sitting on his neck.[13]

[obviously I need to keep going! But where this might go, I’m unsure. I’ve been thinking about the absence of crime fiction from Medieval England, and thinking too about Kempe’s practice of the works of corporeal mercy, including visiting prisoners – much in absence from dominant Christianity in this country! It’s already more than long enough for a conference paper….]

  1. But see the more cautious approach in Corinne Saunders and Charles Fernyhough, “Reading Margery Kempe’s inner voices,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 8.2 (2017): 209-217, and a brief but fascinating glimpse at Margery in Wallace Cleaves, “From Monmouth to Madoc to Māori: The Myth of Medieval Colonization and an Indigenous Alternative,” English Language Notes 58.2 (2020): 21-34.
  2. Yea Jung Park, “The Embarrassments of Confession: Reading Margery Kempe today,” postmedieval 11.2 (2020): 253-263.
  3. See this very helpful blogpost by “Dr Virago” at her Quod She, “Calling Margery Kempe crazy — and why it matters,” April 17, 2006
  4. Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s second edition of Joseph Ames’ Typographical antiquities, 363, on the bowdlerized version of Kempe printed in 1501.
  5. Qtd in Eliza Buhrer, “Law and Mental Competency in Late Medieval England,” Reading Medieval Studies 40 (2014): 83-100.
  6. Qtd in Wendy J Turner, “Silent Testimony: Emotional Displays and Lapses in Memory as Indicators of Mental Instability in Medieval English Investigations,” 91
  7. In addition to work cited above, I have begun my research into mental competency judgments in late medieval England with the following: Margaret McGlynn, “Idiots, lunatics and the royal prerogative in early Tudor England,” The Journal of Legal History 26.1 (2005): 1-24; Wendy J. Turner, “Town and Country: A Comparison of the Treatment of the Mentally Disabled in Late Medieval English Common Law and Chartered Boroughs,” in Madness in Medieval Law and Custom (2010), and, in the same volume, James R. King, “The Mysterious Case of the ‘Mad’ Rector of Bletchingdon: The Treatment of Mentally Ill Clergy in Late Thirteenth-Century England,”; and Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c. 1170-1509 (Ashgate 2013).
  8. Michael D. Myers “A Fictional-True Self: Margery Kempe and the Social Reality of the Merchant Elite of King’s Lynn,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 31.3 (1999): 377-394.
  9. Le Goff “Church time and merchant time in the Middle Ages” in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages
  10. Eliza Buhrer, “Disability and Consent in Medieval Law,” postmedieval 10.3 (2019): 344-356.
  11. I have in mind, for example, Anne E Bailey, “The Problematic Pilgrim: Rethinking Margery’s Pilgrim Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe,” The Chaucer Review 55 (2020): 171-96, which questions whether we can even call Margery a pilgrim, despite her voyages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and holy sites within England.
  12. Research so far has been through the following: Richard W. Ireland, “Theory and Practice within the Medieval English Prison,” in the American Journal of Legal History 31 (1987): 56-67; Helen Carrel, “The Ideology of Punishment in Late Medieval English Towns,” Social History 34.3 (2009): 301-320.
  13. Discussed in Sarah M. Butler, “Law Enforcement Officials and the Limits of Violence in Medieval England,” Legal History Miscellany August 18, 2020