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Gender, Authority and Dissent in English Mystical Writers - Is Margery Kempe a mystic?

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Introduction

H242 - English Radicals and Writers, 1370-1420 Gender, Authority and Dissent in English Mystical Writers Is Margery Kempe a mystic? The Book of Margery Kempe certainly provoked an intense amount of controversy, not least in the present but in her own time as well; a debate that centred on her position as a mystic. This position entailed having true knowledge of God, to work towards a union with him where they would essentially become one. Margery Kempe, at the very least views herself to be one of God's vessels through which He can allow her to experience spiritual visions and feelings. It is in her book that Kempe conveys through words what she considered to be the most significant of these experiences, in order that those who read them would derive 'great comfort and solace'. It is Kempe's 'individual and brilliant adaptation of what was originally a discipline for cloistered elites'1 that draws attention to her. Yet it is this individual voice, the style she uses, and her firm relationship with the market world that questions her experiences of higher contemplation. Certainly Kempe does not conform to the solitary life of a conventional mystic, much like Richard Rolle's statement of 'running off' into the woods, and at one point she is even "sorrowful and grieving" because she has no company. ...read more.

Middle

Her first vision is also very personal, and in some ways domesticated. Jesus is said to have appeared 'in the likeness of a man...clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bedside'. The Incarnation is taken to the extreme, where her visions sometimes sit outside the historical moments of the Bible and become part of her own world. Despite distancing herself by calling herself the 'creature' throughout the text many have accused her work of being self-absorbed - 'I have told you before that you are a singular lover of God, and therefore you shall have a singular love in heaven, a singular reward and a singular honour'. Certainly her relations with God are very personal, and in many ways conveyed in sexual terms, as when Christ says to her 'Daughter, you greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband'. However, again this 'great pomp and pride', is said to emerge from her experience as a female within an urban class which fostered within her a strong sense of class identity and self-value.10 A self-value that she never really agrees to give up, thus because she refuses to traditionally quieten the self, Kempe does not sit comfortably as a mystic. ...read more.

Conclusion

Certainly her devotion can not be questioned, and she can't even predict herself when the intensity of Christ's Passion will overwhelm her, be it 'sometime in the church, sometime in the street, sometime in the chamber, sometime in the field'. Yet her extreme metaphors and use of language certainly bring into doubt her status as a mystic. As Susan Dickman has suggested prayers and visions certainly occupy the text, yet they are embedded in a larger structure17, namely how she was 'painfully drawn and steered, [her pilgrimage acting as a metaphor for her mystical journey] to enter the way of perfection'. Certainly 'painfully' is an apt description, leading many to criticise her as a charlatan, a 'terrible hysteric' and even one who was possessed by the devil. Yet this account is from a very independent and highly spirited woman, who although struggled with her identity and sought the higher state to explore that larger structure of herself through God, was deeply devoted to her faith. In the end her piety was very ordinary, it is her style of conveyance however, the lack of the abstract vocabulary of Julian of Norwich, Rolle and the Cloud author18 that brings her status as a mystic into controversy. ...read more.

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