A Short Analysis of the “Book of Margery Kempe”
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by Michael Hall
…when the woman had heard our Lord preach, she came before him with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed be the womb that bore you and the teats that gave you suck.’ Then our Lord said again to her, ‘Forsooth so are they blessed that hear the word of God and keep it.’ And therefore, sir, I think that the gospel gives me leave to speak of God (93).
For in anything, daughter, that you might do on earth you might no better please me than to suffer me to speak to your soul, for at that time you understand my will, and I understand your will.
And also, daughter, you call my mother to come into your soul and take me in her arms and lay me to her breasts and give me suck (153).
Margery uses this book as a platform to state her views on women and the church. Specifically, her purpose is to counter the views of her male contemporaries who believed that women were forbidden to preach the word of God to the populace. After the Archbishop orders her to swear not to preach, Margery refuses to submit and uses scripture to uphold her position. In the first passage, Margery cites a woman who spoke to God: “Blessed be the womb that bore you and the teats that gave you suck.” She then states the Lord’s response, in which he did not reprimand the woman, but instead said “Forsooth so are they blessed that hear the word of God and keep it.” However, Margery’s use of this evidence is shaky in response to the Archbishop’s statement. The evidence put forth merely shows that women can speak to God, and such dialogue is encouraged. The right to preach is not explicit in the argument, but instead hangs on to a small detail that could be interpreted as a right to voice her views to others. That detail is that “when the woman had heard our Lord preach, she came before him with a loud voice.” Since the Lord had been preaching, assumedly to a large group of people, and the woman spoke in a “loud voice,” Margery infers that the woman’s statements concerning God were, in fact, heard by the surrounding people, and therefore is then sufficient evidence to support her view that women may preach. But the goal of the woman wasn’t to reach out to the people in the crowd, but her words were specifically aimed at Christ in response to his own teachings. She was not attempting to inform, persuade, or inspire the people around her, and therefore she was not preaching. While there are, I’m sure, other passages that may support Margery’s argument, her choice of evidence is lacking due its weak theological grounds. But Margery further attempts to persuade her readers into supporting her view by her own dialogue with God, an example of which can be found in the second passage. According to Margery, God tells her “you understand my will, and I understand your will.” Since Margery has been preaching up to this point, such a statement from God would endorse her view and reaffirm that she has made the right choice. In a sense, such a statement supports the view that Margery is infallible since she knows the will of God. Therefore, she cannot be wrong in her choice to preach. The problem here is that while a divine endorsement would most assuredly give Margery the okay, there is no way to verify whether or not God actually took part in this conversation. What Margery is hoping on here is that people place a lot of prominence on faith, and do not require empirical data.
The passages also reveal Margery’s awkward view on her relationship with God in which she seems to see herself as having usurped the position of Christ’s mother, Mary. There are numerous places throughout the text that place Margery at the scene of very sacred events in which only the immediate earthly family of Christ are found, and fulfilling such roles such as Christ’s nurse. We also know, due to the first passage, that Margery was familiar with Luke 11.27 in which the woman said “Blessed be the womb that bore you and the teats that gave you suck.” Although this passage is obviously referring to Christ’s mother, Mary, it could be interpreted (as I believe it was interpreted by Margery) to be two different people. The first is the mother who actually delivered the child, and the second could also be the mother, or anyone else who nursed the child. This brings us to the second passage in which God tells Margery: “And also, daughter, you call my mother to come into your soul and take me in her arms and lay me to her breasts and give me suck.” Here, the Lord talks of Himself as a child who is being breastfed by his mother, but at the same time also by Margery. Since Mary enters her, she becomes the symbolic mother and actually becomes not just the nurse of Christ, but the wet-nurse. So to Margery, scripture now immortalizes her because she is the other half of Luke 11.27 and is now eternally blessed. So, at the very least, Margery believes that she is at the same level as Mary, and may actually be Mary herself.