Margery Kempe’s Vegetarianism I


British Library, Add MS 61823 78v: “Cap. 66,” and, in a red box, “fleyshe”

Thinking about animals and violence and the middle ages tends to follow one of two routes. The first holds that medieval people were more “brutal” — the animal metaphor is telling — because they lacked the “humane” delicacy of modern civilization. The other route holds that medieval people were not more animal than us but rather just more “closely connected” to them, because big, working beasts were so much a part of their daily lives, because animals were driven “on the hoof” into the very heart of cities to be butchered, and because virtually no book could be produced without killing animals for their skin. If reducing cruelty to animals requires getting closer to what “really” happens to them when we have them butchered, then animals may well require that we “get medieval” for them.

That may strike you as self-evidently silly as it does me, but in a purely quantitative sense, animals did have it far better in the Middle Ages than they do now. On occasion there were mass killings, to provision military expeditions, or, for example, to make up the parchment for the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus and its two matching volumes. But the 1500 calves this extraordinary project required hardly register in comparison to the figures of annual cattle slaughter in the United States (in this century, generally well above 32,000,000 individuals per year). In the twelfth century, Walter Map furnished what looks like a more typical portrait of premodern animal intimacy: each evening, a rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat” (515-16). They worked for him; they would end their lives of labor by being slaughtered and eaten; but at least he knew them individually, and, inasmuch as he could, he treated them with kindness; and, as the story concludes, should a deer hide itself from hunters among his herd, the rich man, even in darkness, would immediately identify it, eject it, and have it put to death.

What follows restores to the Middle Ages some of the cultural complexity often denied it by a modern self-satisfaction that makes the middle ages little more than either a barbaric anticipation of modernity or its less decadent origin, or both, simultaneously. My subject is the fifteenth-century bourgeoise, contemplative, preacher, mother, troublemaker, and pilgrim, the author, through her amanuenses, of the first English-language autobiography, the extraordinary Margery Kempe. To use terms not often used to describe her: Kempe was a vegetarian who wept sorely at the sight of animal suffering. This makes her sound as if she would be a troublesome crank, or worse, for omnivores, and a founding hero for modern vegetarianisms. But most modern vegetarianisms want to end animal suffering: not Kempe. Hers was a carnivorous vegetarianism, whose practice was founded on a sublated preservation of desire for the suffering and death of animals (I am distinguishing my approach sharply from several excellent published articles on food and Kempe, by Cristina Mazzoni, Melissa Raine, and animals and Kempe, by Lisa Kiser; see also this seminar paper by Elizabeth Knight, whose development is certainly worth watching). This at least was perfectly in line with contemporary Christian piety. What distinguished her was less her diet than her gender, age, and life experience as a mother, all of which generated a particularity potent sanctity, established through identification with a suffering, pleasurable flesh that was at once animal, female, and divine.

Around the year 1409, Christ granted Margery Kempe his first long visionary visitation, in which he commands her to “forsake that which you love best in this world, and that is eating of flesh. And instead of that flesh, you shall eat my flesh and my blood, which is the true body of Christ in the sacrament of the altar” [forsake that thou lovyst best in this world, and that is etyng of flesch. And instede of that flesch thow schalt etyn my flesch and my blod, that is the very body of Crist in the sacrament of the awter” (Chapter 5, line 379 ff)]. Despite the exertions of pilgrimage, and despite bullying from her fellow travelers, she keep the vow for years, begrudgingly having some meat when he confessor insists, but for no more than “a lytyl whyle” (Chapter 26, line 1404). It is not until Christ himself intervenes, years later, that she fully “resort[s] ageyn to flesch mete,” and that only because he wants her to build up her strength for another pilgrimage. Obedient on both occasions to her divine lord, she – in Sarah Salih’s words – gets “to have her fast and eat it” too.

In her fifteenth-century England, Kempe’s decision to forgo meat for years on end would have been unusual for a secular woman, but was otherwise perfectly orthodox. Kempe could have gone much further and still remained within the church: the twelfth-century mystic Alpais of Cudot, for example, is said to have subsisted on nothing but Eucharistic hosts. Meat would not necessarily have been rare in the diet; late fourteenth-century harvest workers in eastern and southern England would have received nearly a pound of it daily during the laboring season (28). Baseline Christian dietary practice thus really did require some care: for Kempe’s Christianity would have required that she, like any other layperson, abstain from meat for nearly a third of the year, mostly during the fasting season of Lent. Monks tended to do still more, and Carthusian monks, whose practice Kempe’s most closely resembled, did the most of all, by requiring that their adherents keep to an entirely meatless diet.

Early medieval monastic rules tended to forbid all but the sick from eating quadrupeds and sometimes even birds; later monks developed loopholes by distinguishing forbidden carnes (fresh-cooked meat recently cut from the joint) from licit carnea (pre-cooked, pre-salted meat) (40), so much so that a monk like the twelfth-century Samson, abbot of Bury St Edmunds, earned high praise for eating neither (40). Carthusians would have none of this. After centuries of debate, even the chancellor of the University of Paris weighed in. Jean Gerson’s 1401 De non esu carnium Carthusienses admitted that while abstinence from meat was bad for the health, so too were mercantile voyages and nearly all other human endeavors, so there was nothing inherently wrong with Carthusians damaging their health for God, and therefore no reason for their critics to charge them, as they often did, with homicide (101-103). Carthusian attitudes towards meat-eating found themselves promulgated outside the cloister in works like the enormously popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a meditative guide that explains that Christ ate meat only once, at the Last Supper, where Christ’s typological role as the sacrificial, sacramental Paschal lamb made eating symbolically useful (51, 377). Carthusian approval for Kempe’s ascetic diet is suggested by the so-called “red pen annotator,” an early sixteenth-century monastic reader of the sole extant manuscript of Kempe’s Book. Willing at times to delete or even rewrite passages to suit his doctrinal preferences, he leaves the margin blank when Kempe first stops eating meat (9r), but when she takes it up again, he writes “fleysche” near the passage, and draws a box around it: it may be too much to suggest that he was disturbed by this change in Kempe’s religious practices, but he certainly found her new difference from his own vowed commitments remarkable.

In Kempe’s England, the common heresy was not one of not eating meat, but of eating it at the wrong times, and without due regard for its special importance. Peter of Bruys provides a spectacular twelfth-century continental example: he dined on meat that he had roasted in front of a church, on Good Friday, on a pyre of disarticulated crucifixes (PL 189:771C-D). According to records produced in the last decade of Kempe’s life, the heretics of Norwich – a town some 40 miles from Kempe’s own King’s Lynn, one which she visited frequently – broke with the church with far less fanfare, by saving leftover meat to eat on fast days (Margery Baxter, 46), or by declaring that anyone on whatever day “can eat fish or flesh indifferently, according to the desire of their appetite” (potest indifferenter edere pisses vel carnes secundum sui appetitus desiderium). This studied carelessness was punished with a temporary diet of bread and water, or, in one case, bread and ale, simultaneously depriving these heretics of meat and returning them to the cycle of penitential eating that was supposed to be common to all of the faith.

The heretics who had worried the church the most were the s0-called Cathars, who “shun all flesh…but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195:14C), according to Eckbert of Shönau’s complaint in his 1163 sermon in praise of meat-eating. Eckbert explains that the Cathars believe that since some vast prince of shadows (“quemdam immanem principem tenebrarum”) created the material world, they should not eat meat, the most material of foods. Eckbert then sarcastically regrets that there had been no Cathar present to whisper his doctrine in Noah’s ear after the flood, when God first authorized this new diet of flesh. It is in memory of beliefs like these that one late medieval defender of the Carthusian vegetarianism explains “unlike certain heretics, [we] hold like other Christians that all God’s creatures are good,” which is to say, inherently good for food.

While medieval ethnographers were willing to imagine fully vegetarian, entirely peaceful ascetics, and to let them voice disdain for those who “made their bellies a tomb,” they deposited these ascetics safely in the far east, or the distant past of the classical “Golden Age,” before humans turned to meat, warfare, and commerce. Good Christians, even Carthusians, were supposed to want to kill and eat animals, and to recognize that God had given them animals for exactly this purpose. They were encouraged to refuse this pleasure, but they were supposed to refuse it as a pleasure, so that the Christian year, even for laypeople, may be understood as a elaborate management, and refinement, of the pleasurable satisfactions of denying oneself the pleasures of eating meat. This is how Kempe fasts: the orthodoxy of her abstinence is marked by what Christ says to her: leave off eating what “thou lovyst best.”

Since orthodoxy requires that she never give up this desire, her fasting must therefore be distinguished from her celibacy: the two asceticisms differ. Quite early in the book, after waking up to celestial song, she suddenly loses all sexual desire for her husband (Chapter 3); and she dolefully recollects, as she cares for him in his incontinent dotage, that she had once desired him (Chapter 76): but now, she thinks sex “abhominabyl,” a sin, a distraction, certainly fleshy, but only repulsive. Meat, on the other hand, she has given up without giving up desire for it. The preservation of this pleasure preserves the desire for this substance, flesh, that was the material sign of human supremacy over animals, the particularly feminine unruliness and pleasures of the body (in particular see), and the very substance of the incarnated Christ himself. It was all these that she presented, denied, identified with, and performed, troubling nearly all who came in contact with her with the noisy insistence of her fleshy and suffering piety.


(to be continued)