Popular influences on "The Book of Margery Kempe"

Cathryn Lee McCarthy, Fordham University


Bakhtin viewed the medieval world as two-tiered: an “official” establishment culture maintained the status quo, while a “carnival” culture burlesqued and lampooned it. The Book of Margery Kempe reflects both aspects of medieval culture. At times, Margery represents the official; indeed, she seeks its approval. Yet, her narrative has a carnivalesque dimension as well. Her mystical alliances with the divine, for example, allow her to take part in past sacred events. At such times, she is a denizen of carnival. As such, she appropriates aspects of medieval culture—beliefs about the weather, the saints, the liturgy—and re-orients them to establish credibility for herself. This kind of self-portrayal allows Margery to become a narrative figure, a character in her own vita sancta. Chapter One delineates how Margery uses popular weather lore to validate herself as saint. In the Middle Ages, the divine will was reflected in nature, becoming most conspicuous during storms. Thus thunder and lightning appear in Margery's narrative to validate her conduct or condemn someone else's. Chapter Two analyzes Margery's nativity vision in which she acts as midwife to the Virgin Mary. Midwives are absent from official versions of the nativity story, but are commonplace in legendary accounts, where they provide icons of virtuous service. Margery's role-playing is modeled after such apocryphal images and is intended to provide readers with a similar model for service to the Virgin. Chapters Three and Four examine the vitae sanctae of three saints to whom Margery had particular devotion: Sts. Katherine, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen. Margery designed her own vita sancta to include details from the lives of these saints, intending that readers would recognize parallels and acknowledge her sanctity as well. Chapter Five explores Margery's increasingly Pentecostal and Trinitarian sensibilities. Although her account begins with a focus on the manhood of Christ, the narrative moves to a focus on his divinity, expressed through the Holy Trinity. The language miracles and the images of white clothing which accompany the feasts of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday are imitated in Margery's own account. Her narrative also includes her assumption of the blessed Virgin's role, as she too, like Mary, is crowned before the Holy Trinity.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|Biographies|British and Irish literature|Religious history

Recommended Citation

McCarthy, Cathryn Lee, "Popular influences on "The Book of Margery Kempe"" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9917500.