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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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2. Medieval Spirituality


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2 Medieval Spirituality

For a thorough discussion of Margery Kempe, a brief outline of the theories surrounding medieval mysticism and spirituality, which so immensely shape her life, is of paramount importance. It is, however, not possible to answer the question of Margery Kempe’s membership to the exclusive coterie of “true mystics” within the limited scope of this study. More precisely, the study intentionally abstains from any attempt at such a classification and shall instead approach this medieval woman via an interdisciplinary analysis of coeval sources and interrelated spiritual role models. Ultimately, it remains debatable whether “authentic mysticism”, which is after all a judgemental term, might be conducive for an understanding of her spirituality at all. This approach is similar to Peter Dinzelbacher‘s, who questions the feasibility as well as the benefit of a literary scholar attempting a distinction between “real” and “pathological” mysticism. According to him, discrimination between these two states does not further our understanding of the Middle Ages at all (Dinzelbacher, Mittelalterliche 25).5

2.1 Mysticism – A Concise Analysis

In her book Mysticism, distinguished expert and mystic Evelyn Underhill refers to the term mysticism as ”one of the most abused words in the English language“ (Underhill XIV). The Latin term mystic initially signified something “hidden, secret, allegorical” (Watson, Introduction 6). The current state of affairs, namely that the term mysticism is heavily charged with negative connotations, is in all probability not only attributable to its etymology but also...

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