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Familial Discourses in «The Book of Margery Kempe»

«Blyssed be the wombe that the bar and the tetys that yaf the sowkyn»


Raphaela Rohrhofer

The Book of Margery Kempe (ca. 1438) offers an illuminating account of late medieval female spirituality, affective devotion and subversion. This study approaches Margery Kempe’s roles in her earthly, heavenly and spiritual families from an interdisciplinary perspective. It details the tension between the domestic and spiritual life of the eccentric visionary and examines the intense agony and ecstatic pleasure imposed on her by the divine. Extensive research is devoted to late medieval female mysticism and the complex question of authorship and genre of The Book of Margery Kempe. In addition to a meticulous textual analysis, contemporary socio-religious, historical, medical and legal sources yield profound insights into the emotional and spiritual climate of the late Middle Ages.
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1. Proem


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1 Proem

Thow schalt ben etyn and knawyn of the pepul of the world as any raton knawyth the stokfysch. Drede the nowt, dowtyr, for thow schalt have the victory of al thin enmys. I schal yeve the grace inow to answer every clerke in the love of God. I swer to the be my mageste that I schal nevyr forsakyn the in wel ne in wo. I schal helpyn the and kepyn the, that ther schal nevyr devil in helle parte the fro me, ne awngel in hevyn, ne man in erthe, for develys in helle mow not, ne awngelys in hevyn wyl not, ne man in erthe schal not. (MK 72)1

Composed in all probability in the 1430ies, The Book of Margery Kempe has ever since the rediscovery of its full text in 1934 been sparking off fervent discussions. While early reviews of this work have been rather dismissive of the main protagonist’s mystical authenticity, and Hope Emily Allen, who wrote the notes to The Book’s first scholarly edition by Sanford Brown Meech, even referred to the visionary as “petty, neurotic, vain, illiterate, physically and nervously over-strained” (Allen lxiv), positive characteristics were acknowledged, too, even at this early stage of criticism. Margery Kempe, despite the initial critic’s recourse to physical and mental illness to describe her spirituality, is still considered as “devout, much-travelled, forceful and talented” (Allen lxiv). Nonetheless, subsequent critics’ comparisons with the universally acclaimed late-medieval English anchoress and...

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