Clare Taylor, Helen

title.none: Staley, Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions

identifier.other: baj9928.9507.008 95.07.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Clare Taylor, Helen, Louisiana State University, Shreveport

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Pp. xiii + 224. $35.00 $16.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01030-4 ISBN 0-271-01031-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.07.08

Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Pp. xiii + 224. $35.00 $16.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01030-4 ISBN 0-271-01031-2.

Reviewed by:

Clare Taylor, Helen
Louisiana State University, Shreveport

The last ten years have witnessed an explosion of interest in The Book of Margery Kempe, which has in turn stimulated a plethora of books and articles. Thankfully, these have moved away from the "Margery Kempe as hysteric" motif of earlier interpretation and have found the very ambiguities and anomalies of the text to be a rich area for discussion. Most studies, however, focus on Kempe's response to religious modes such as affective piety; The Book has been examined, for example, as sacred biography, as a work of mysticism, and as a work of "autohagiography." In contrast, Staley's approach privileges the social context of The Book of Margery Kempe, rather than its protagonist. In fact, Staley argues that Kempe's depiction of herself as a holy woman is a "screen" (39; 78-9; 172) for social criticism; The Book, she tells us, "finally is not 'about' . . .religious experience; instead it uses Margery to examine what were some extremely provocative issues" (102).

Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions explores Kempe's response to a number of social issues such as national identity in the reign of Henry V, Lollardy, the mercantile values of Church and State, and conflicting public uses of translation and the vernacular. Staley argues that Kempe dramatizes the life of a woman (whom Staley refers to as a fictional character "Margery" to distinguish her from "Kempe" the author) whose public behavior brings her into conflict with received standards of conformity in order to subvert the official picture of a harmonious and unified England. Margery's actions thus become analyses of the underlying fragmentation of a society which presents and celebrates itself as a cohesive unit; in essence, Staley claims that The Book deconstructs the society which it creates as background for the written life of "Margery."

For example, in a chapter called "Sacred Biography and Social Criticism," Staley argues that Kempe's food practices signal her rejection of communal values as spiritually flawed; her fasting, her refusal to eat meat, her unwillingness to participate in social dining while on pilgrimage all arouse hostility from her community. These reactions to Margery's heterogeneity reveal that social unity is no more than a compulsion for conformity. Instead of recognizing and accepting that her behavior signifies spirituality, Margery's fellows mock her because she is unlike themselves. Similarly, Staley examines Margery's clothing and her marital chastity to show that her community is "stifling, conformist, mercantile, violent, and superficial" (40). Margery's desire for celibacy conflicts with social and religious ideas about the "marriage debt," but Kempe assures us that Margery's behavior is authorized in her private colloquies with God, which allow her to transcend the authority of the Church and of society. In creating the fictional character Margery and endowing her with all the attributes of a holy woman, Kempe can exploit her spiritual activities to perform social criticism.

Other chapters deal with "Authorship and Authority," "The Image of Ecclesia," and "Fictions of Community." In what I find her most compelling chapter, "The English Nation," Staley explores the ways in which Henry V worked to create the illusion of national unity and cohesion in England during a time when that unity was threatened by foreign wars, issues of language and authority, and the heresies of the Lollards. Public documents, royal celebrations, and movements towards national religious conformity such as the promotion and adoption of the Sarum Use indicate official attempts to define the nation's unanimity. Kempe's portrayal of Margery provides a "corrective" (152) to this picture, as she eschews the strictures imposed by both secular and clerical power to establish herself at the center of new communities based on Christian love and fellowship. Her dissent exposes her to charges of Lollardy (whose documents Staley explores in some depth), and indeed, as Staley's argument shows, any threat to conformity in the days of Sir John Oldcastle might be taken as a sign of heresy. But by proving her orthodoxy in front of Henry Bowet, Archbishop of York (7; 148-9), for example, Kempe dissociates Margery's social criticism from dangerous Lollard ideology.

Several critics have suggested that the humilitiations endured by Margery because of her spirituality amount to an imitatio Christi, but again Staley explores the social dimensions of this idea. For Staley, Kempe's life becomes a "radical" gospel, "a vernacular version of the Christ-like life, a life wherein Margery's own countrymen play the part of the persecuting Jews" (152). The reader's recognition of the analogy helps validate Margery's social analysis. In the same way, Kempe's use of gender issues locate Margery as a marginalized figure (like Christ) struggling to subvert social hierarchies; the community she creates around her is based on spiritual relationships instead of the conventional female roles of wife, mother, and female citizen. Staley sees Kempe as a "textbook exemplar of late medieval female piety" (117), but one who exploits the paradox of female spiritual power found in the lives of the mulieres sanctae to explore the limitations of secular and clerical authority as well.

Staley's distinction between "Kempe" and "Margery" is important and useful. It allows us to focus on the fictionality of The Bookand to examine its construction of character in the context of its literary influences and its social milieu. While Staley does touch on the devotional models for Kempe's depiction of self (such as Marie d'Oignies and Bridget of Sweden), which are mentioned in The Book, she relegates these to "screens" or distractions to Kempe's real purpose, which, as we have seen, is social commentary. Staley is slightly less clear, I think, on the role of the scribe in Kempe's authorial process. The figure of the scribe has troubled many feminist critics, who would like to establish Kempe as sole author of her text. While Staley rightly points out that the figure of the priestly scribe confers authority on Kempe's text, she seems to equivocate on whether the scribe is merely a trope (37) invented for this purpose as part of Kempe's fiction, or whether the text is an "oral recitation" (87) of Kempe's experience recorded by the scribe. It is of course, impossible to quantify the fictionality of the text; even a straight autobiography involves some self-fashioning. But Staley seems to lack a sure direction here.

A few errors mar an otherwise pleasantly clean text: "committment" for commitment (4); "Sienna" for Siena (99); and "1336 or 1337" given as the dates for The Book's composition instead of 1436 or 1437. I also wish that Staley could have found more synonyms for "adumbrate," which appears with almost amusing frequency. These very minor quibbles aside, Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions is a provocative, stimulating, and immensely readable book. It is a welcome and original contribution to the field of Kempe studies, and will do much to reshape our thinking about the world which Kempe describes.