Ruth Evans Talk: "Margery Kempe's Internal Reality"


Tuesday, October 31, 2017


4:00 pm


Sankey Room

"Recognizing that there is such a thing as psychosis … does not mean that we need to buy into the discourse of mental health and illness. Although many people experience unbearable levels of suffering, this does not make them “mentally ill,” as there is simply no such thing as mental health. The more we explore each individual case, the more we find that the seemingly “healthy” person may have delusional beliefs or symptoms that generate no conflict in their lives and hence attract no attention. Each of us faces problems that we tackle in our own unique ways, and what is labelled mental illness may in fact … be an effort to respond to and elaborate these difficulties. Using such labels not only entrenches the false dichotomy of health and illness, but also eclipses the creative, positive aspect of psychotic phenomena."

—Darian Leader 2011, 7-8

I begin this paper on The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1439) by revisiting the vexed question of Kempe’s “madness,” the question that most medievalists consider, for crucial historical and political reasons, to be strictly off limits. As Jonathan Hsy and Richard Godden remind us, the “inner qualities” of mental states in the Middle Ages “resist easy alignment with modern discourses” (2013, 314). I do not want to argue that Kempe is “mad.” Rather I argue that Kempe’s text reveals distinctive and unique patterns of thinking about her beliefs and experiences, patterns of thinking that need to be distinguished from the fact that those beliefs and experiences were at the time, to invoke an anachronism, cultural norms. The speaking with Jesus, the voicehearing, the sobbing and roaring, the desire to live chastely, the conviction of her own righteousness: these are all features of late medieval devotional practices and of the vitae of the holy women that Kempe strove to emulate. Kempe’s behaviors, excessive as they appeared to some of her fellow-Christians and as they appear to some readers today, are entirely congruent with the beliefs and practices of her day. They are also congruent with the experiences of many people today that we would not consider to be “mad”: voicehearing, for example, is a phenomenon that is experienced not only by those subject to “psychiatric diagnoses” but also by some men and women going about their everyday lives (Saunders and Fernyhough 2017, 210).
Taking my cue from the psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader, I argue that what is at stake in the Book’s rhetoric is not the content of Kempe’s beliefs and experiences, which are entirely conventional, but the place they occupy in her life: how she articulates what they mean to her. I do not think there has been sufficient attention paid to this dimension of the Book’s textuality. While I acknowledge that the text is a collaborative production, I think we can still read in it Kempe’s permeability to language: how language, the symbolic, enters the real of her body and organizes it for her, for example, in the too-presentness (for her) of the libido. The Book is not only a spiritual autobiography but a text within a tradition of representing what are problematically called “abnormal” states of mind, but which are deeply creative and reparative attempts to structure the world: from Thomas Hoccleve’s account of his disordered mental state in the Complaint to Judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). In attending to the language of the Book as a structuring of internal reality my project is very different from reading Kempe’s text as an artless case study of surface symptoms for which we can propose contemporary psychiatric diagnoses. I nevertheless court the dangers of reductionism, including a reductionism of religious experience, and of deauthorizing Kempe as a female mystic. My paper will address those dangers.