Friday, February 13, 2009

The Book of Margery Kempe, part one

     Margery Kempe is called a 'mystic'.  If one uses the definition of mystic from the Oxford Concise Dictionary - "One who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the Deity..." then it fits but she really does not do anything that one could not spot on an average day in any Southern Baptist Church.  She cries when she experiences the 'rapture' and so loudly that she disturbs the congregation with whom she is worshipping.  Many a priest was dismayed to find her attending their sermon as it seems that her weeping was loud enough to distract the congregation from hearing the Word of God.  I am sure it was not her intention to keep people from hearing Psalms and the like being read out loud, but it seems as though this was the result nevertheless.
     It does not seem as though anyone could tell Margery what to do.  She insisted on wearing the white of purity in spite of being a married woman and having borne fourteen children. After her husband died, when she wanted to go somewhere and her confessor forbid it, she declared that Jesus himself told her to go and off she went.  She was accused of heresy many times, a charge that could have lead to her execution but her sharp wit and tongue saved her every time she was tried.
     How do we know so much about the life of an ordinary woman from the 14th and 15th centuries in England?  Jesus commanded her to have her life story written down and so she found someone to write her autobiography for her since she herself was illiterate.  It is rare to hear the voice of a woman from the Middle Ages so this book is a treat.  In spite of the point of this book being to inspire others to follow Christ, this book inadvertently tells more about her life, her neighbors, her husband, the behavior of pilgrims and the dangers of travel in the Middle Ages.  She went to Rome and Jerusalem and even took a pilgrimage to Santiago (she took the route by sea instead of walking over land for Santiago).
     She repeatedly tried to get her husband to let her take a vow of celibacy insisting that sex was 'very painful and horrible' to her.  Men and women had a legal right to sex from their spouse and one could not take such a vow without the consent of the other.  Eventually she succeeded. 
    After the vow, they continued to live together and her husband took sick.  Margery tells how as he grew old, he 'turned childish' and in  his senility lost the ability to control his bowels.  He would sit by the fire and "voided his natural digestion in his linen clothes".  She was a little irked at this since cleaning him up kept her from her contemplations as she needed to change his clothes, wash him, make fires, and clean the soiled clothes.  These are the days before Depends and indoor plumbing or toilets even.  Margery then goes on to say that she would then think about all the times she had "many delectable thoughts, fleshly lusts, and inordinate loves" for her husband and she was glad to be punished for it by the same person.
    Like so many human emotions, Margery's feelings about sex are complicated.  She must have liked it and him; they had fourteen children together.  His death freed Margery to travel even more whenever her confessor would allow her to or she could sneak off.  Women could not travel freely in the Middle Ages and it was required that a woman have a man to accompany her to go anywhere or Margery would have gone all over the place.  As it was, she travelled far more than we suppose ordinary people to have done in those days.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, she sounds like an interesting lady. Instead of the Rapture, it sounds like she was having an orgasm.

Oops, did I say that?

Why is it that we're taught from childhood that sexuality is sinful and it's wrong to enjoy it?


Anonymous said...

Indeed, a rare treat, a story of a simple medieval woman told by herself. Margery seems to me a media personality - if she had lived today I am sure she would have been an avid blogger or even a guest of as many reality shows as she could take part in. Her faith, in my opinion, was just a good excuse to have some fun and who can blame her, poor woman with fourteen children, for wanting some fun in her life? I can even understand her ambivalence towards sex, as it was closely connected not only with temporary pleasure but also with pregnancy, delivery and raising children - nothing nice in times where there was no washing machine and diapers!


The Red Witch said...

Yep, you said that Kristin.
And yet Bridgit, when a man who wasn't her husband approached her and demanded sex, she thought about it and decided yes. The man changed his mind in the meanwhile and turned her down. And who knows what that big sin was that was on her mind when she had post partum depression and thought she was dying.
Hard to say what a woman like Margery would be doing today. Her blog would probable be about how to brew good beer or something like that. :-D

Anonymous said...

[i]when a man who wasn't her husband approached her and demanded sex, she thought about it and decided yes. The man changed his mind in the meanwhile and turned her down. And who knows what that big sin was that was on her mind when she had post partum depression and thought she was dying.[/i]

Quite a mystic indeed! Perhaps she thought it was her last chance to have fun...:p


Anonymous said...

Just because she had fourteen children doesn't necessarily mean that she liked sex, but her husband did! (sadly, we don't need to have orgasms to get pregnant - and a fair number of women still don't) It's well known that when you're at your most fertile, in the middle of your cycle, you are also most interested in sex - it could be that every time she had sex, post-pregnancy, that she became pregnant again. Fourteen children would be exhausing to look after - be enough to put anyone off sex for life.

The Red Witch said...

She had a number of dreams where men were walking around with their members hanging out. She expressed some occasional difficulty with her chastity vow so I would think, in spite of her age and 14 children, she was still into men.