Monday, February 24, 2014

A Journey to Germany with Margery Kempe

(Before I begin, please visit last week's post about Margery Kempe here. Also, let me note that most of this post was typed up while I waited for 2.5 hours at the DMV for my new Virginia license, so I apologize if any of my recollections of the text are slightly off.)

In Margery Kempe’s “The Later Years” – also lovingly nicknamed by this graduate student as “M.K. does Deutschland,” but most commonly known as “Book II” – we find our time-tempered and ripened female mystic more sympathetic than the emotionally volatile woman of her youth (even her insufferable wailing is mentioned less frequently). This senior Margery seems more accessible, more human, as we share in her hesitations about her divine protector when she suffers treacherous seas, as we envision a grey-haired woman over 60 having discarded her maiden whites only to find herself too destitute for anything more than a potato sack dress, yet still too ashamed to discard her rugged wardrobe in front of her impoverished traveling companions in order to pick vermin from her flesh. Most of all, we empathize with Margery Kempe as widow and suffering mother who, without confiding in anyone, absconds to Germany with her daughter-in-law, both women having lost their spouses (and for Margery, her son), both women fleeing the site of their most human tragedies, united in grief and the willingness to face the uncertain and unfamiliar after so much death.

As I considered “The Later Years” alongside Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality, I discovered within it a real sense of materiality that is not as present in Book I. My discovery was surely in part because, just as Bynum evidences the majority of her investigations into relic cults, Eucharistic miracles, and sacramental worship by describing artistic traditions from the high and late medieval Germanic cultures, Margery Kempe encounters relics and Dauerwunder only here in her senior years in Germany (excepting, of course, that “staf of a Moyses yerde” she misplaces while in Leicestershire in Book I). In Book II, Margery is traveling through a region riddled with sacred objects at a time when theologians were embroiled in the paradoxical arguments defending iconography while simultaneously proclaiming their contemptus mundi. Margery continues to commune with the Godhead even as she frets about her material poverty – she is clothed in little better than rags – and fears rape and attack by highwaymen. Thus the more mature Margery jaunting around Germany reads a bit like a Frau Welt, a woman of the world at once solidly planted on this earth, haunted by the lust and pride of her youth and worrying about the sanctity of her body, while always signaling her desire to transcend the flesh that will rot and decay.

By Frau Welt I refer specifically to the medieval Germanic iconographic statuary (most notably the sculpture at Worms Cathedral) which depicts to the viewer oriented in front of the carving a gorgeous, voluptuous, and perhaps haughty woman, while the viewer who investigates the statue from behind finds a body bored into and eaten away by worms and frogs. Allegorically, the icon signifies the evils of the material world, that no matter how many pleasures the body offers, humanity should not be distracted from spiritual determinations by the lustful desires of a flesh that will inevitably putrefy and decay. Yet the image also celebrates the paradox of simultaneously rejecting and celebrating materiality, finding divinity in the aesthetic and affective power of the mineral world which invites our touch and stimulates the artist’s desire to shape stone into story, as well as signifying with that story the mutability and instability of the body. Only the spirit transcends death; only the material ignites and inspires conscious awareness of the divine. Thus Margery Kempe, like Frau Welt, invites ephemeral communion with the spirit by simultaneously rejecting and relishing in the very realness of her flesh.

I would love to explore the parallels between Margery Kempe and the Frau Welt tradition further (the literal vermin on Margery’s flesh, the paradox of an intransigent stone’s representing the mutability of the flesh, senior-citizen Margery’s continued hypersensitivity to her sexuality), but this is a blog, my blog, and I intend to focus on my personal reflections. Thus, as I journeyed across Germany with Margery and cataloged Christian material culture there with Bynum, I thought deeply about my ever-present anxiety an aspiring medievalist to engage continental literatures without the aid of a translator. I have long assumed I would inevitably undertake the study of French – a language I have never once attempted to learn – since the Francophone route is the way most travelled by scholars of medieval English lit; but as my mouth playfully shaped the rich acoustic syllables of words like “Dauerwunder” and Das Nonnenturnier, I recalled my two semesters of German-language study as an undergraduate so many moons ago and wondered if I could learn to read German instead. The trials of graduate school are already severe enough, so I hoped I could ease my burden by, at the very least, pursuing the study of a language for which I have already built a foundation, even if that foundation is obscured after years of neglect.

Unlike Margery, I discussed my desire to head into Germanic territory with my advisor, who gave me his blessing while smartly advising me of the challenges I will face. The study of medieval Germanic literature is typically left to German language departments or falls under the aegis of Anglo-Saxon/Old English scholarship, but I intend to maintain my focus on English literatures of the high and late medieval periods. Thus, I will forge ahead with fewer travel companions at my side – but if I learned anything from Margery’s early years, it is that the pack will often turn against its very own, so there might be some wisdom in travelling with few companions.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Becoming Ill with Margery Kempe

Last week I returned to The Book of Margery Kempe for the first time since I read it as a senior undergraduate, nearly seven years ago. At the time I was a much disaffected and disenchanted young man, and, like Margery’s fellow travelers on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I was “most displesyd for sche wepyd so mech and spak alwey of the lofe and goodne of owyr Lord” (1407-8). Although I would be approaching the text as a more savvy reader with a different set of critical tools than I once possessed, I nevertheless worried I would still be turned off by the nearly impenetrable effulgence of affect, by a performance so hyperbolized that its excesses seemed only tedious and overwrought. I wondered if, this time around, the text would have the power to enchant.

Then illness struck. For three-and-a-half days I writhed and moaned on the couch as my temperature skyrocketed and hovered around 101 degrees, sweating and shaking in a feverish nightmare. Perspiration poured from my veins, chills riddled my flesh and mucus fought aggressively to carry the infection from my body. In fact, my body did not feel like my own, hijacked as it was by a virulent virus. Thus it was in this vulnerable condition that I vigorously engaged with Margery and, not surprisingly, my illness afforded me a wealth of sympathy for the afflicted mystic. Suddenly, like Margery, I was a contagious body.

I do not wish to imply that Margery’s mystical experiences should be read as sickness, or I would be as guilty as the folk of her hometown of Lynn who too easily conflate her bouts of illness with her affective responses to her encounters with the divine:

Sum seyde that sche had the fallyng evyl, for sche wyth the crying wrestyd hir body turning from the o syde into the other and wex al blew and al blo as it had ben colowr of leed. And than folke spitted at hir for horrowr of the sekenes, and sum scornyd hir and seyd that sche howlyd as it had ben a dogge and bannyd hir and cursyd hir and seyd that sche dede meche harm among the pepyl (2473-8).
Some said that she had the falling evil, for as she cried she wrested her body, turning from one side to the other, and waxed all blue and gray as if she were the color of lead. And then folk spit at her in horror of her sickness, and some scorned her and said that she howled as if she were a dog and banned her and cursed her and said that she did much harm among the people.

To read Margery’s weeping as illness is a dehumanizing gesture which seeks to equate Margery with objects much lower on what Mel Y. Chen would call an animacy "reference cline" by marking her as leaden and canine; Chen writes, “When humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized,’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified” (Animacies, 40).

I also do not mean to suggest that such a hierarchy is ontologically manifest, that humans are somehow privileged and more agentic than metals or dogs. Like Chen, I am interested in slippages along this hierarchy, I hope to uncover moments when the verticality of such a subject-making system is toppled and objects are perceived along an animacy continuum. Therefore, what I do mean to acknowledge is that my illness illuminated the real material excesses of the very condition of embodied being, material excesses of which Margery is fully engaged and aware, and which her townsfolk and other peers are too obstinate to acknowledge. Margery’s metallic flesh and bestial howling disturb the epistemological structure which shapes the desire to marginalize and exclude the very matter of our existence.

Although Margery Kempe’s union with the Trinity is spiritual, her experience of the divine is emphatically material and sensorial. The text relishes in the sensory details of her encounters, in the perfumed aromas of visitations, in the harmonious arrivals of inspiration, and in the corporeal extension of the body in the world, her torso thrusting itself into positions simulating the crucifixion. Her “boystows” voice (its disruptive agency thoroughly investigated by Jeffrey Cohen in Medieval Identity Machines) is perhaps so offensive to her interlocutors, as well as her unwilling audiences, in part because it carries all the material weight that my own contagious breath, redolent with viral particles, injects into my surroundings. Even the divine fire in her heart is more than mere metaphor, but a visceral burning she felt “as verily as a man schuld felyn the material fyer yyf he put hys hand or hys finger therin” (2063-4…or, might I add, if he should have a fever!).

Like Margery’s eruptions, then, illnesses are so abjected and abhorred precisely because they evidence a materiality beyond our control; our body seems not our own because it is not our own, but is instead an entangled network of organic tissues and fibers that we share with billions of bacteria, with the ephemera of other corporeal beings (see Caroline Walker Bynum for more in medieval fascination with and ingestion of sacred ephemera…or, if you live with a non-human animal, inspect your body for some fur or scales), and, occasionally, with viruses. Thus, the community that I forged with Margery over the past week was built from our shared engagement with matter and all its unpredictability. Our unwieldy and terribly strange bodies are always withdrawing from any understanding we might have of them. Margery’s keen attunement to her body offends precisely because it serves as an invitation to abandon ourselves to the superabundance of corporeal entanglements and to relish, even in illness, the excesses of the flesh.