- Margery Kempe and the Animalization of ChristAnimal Cruelty in Late Medieval England
In The Book of Margery Kempe, among the many sights said to inspire Margery to think of Christ's passion, one stands out as particularly unusual, namely the witnessing of animals being beaten. This association is recorded in the following passage:
& sumtyme, whan sche saw þe Crucyfyx, er yf sche scey a man had a wownde er a best wheþyr it wer, er ʒyf a man bett a childe be-for hir er smet an hors er an-oþer best wyth a whippe, ʒyf sche myth sen it er heryn it, hir thowt sche saw owyr Lord be betyn er wowndyd lyk as sche saw in þe man er in þe best, as wel in the feld as in þe town, & be hir-selfe [a]lone as wel as a-mong þe pepyl.(69.1–8) 1
This passage has received little or no commentary from scholars, possibly because they have silently read it merely as an uncomplicated example of the ease with which Margery's thoughts could turn to Christ's bodily existence on earth and thus as a typical example of affective piety, that is, a conventional emotional response to the thought of Christ's bodily suffering on the cross. To be sure, at the beginning of the passage, Margery's mention of the sight of the "Crucyfy" inspiring her to [End Page 299] imagine Christ's suffering does not seem unusual in the late-medieval visual environment in which she moved, for representations in her time of Christ on the cross encouraged viewers to dwell on the bodily particulars of the crucifixion. In the Middle English life of St. Mary of Oignies, for example, we find a deeply emotional response to the image of the cross: the saint "myghte not byholde an ymage of the crosse, ne speke ne heere oþere folke spekynge of the passyone, but if sche felle in to a swounynge for hy3 desyre of herte." 2 Nor does Margery's sight of a wounded man or a beaten child seem especially out of place as an inspirer of thoughts about Christ's suffering; after all, it is only a small step to move from thinking about an anonymous suffering human to thinking about Christ in that same role. Such a step was actively encouraged both by Scripture and by the devotional literature of the time, as the following passage from the Middle English translation of the Stimulus Amoris suggests: the good Christian, "whenne he seeth a seek man or a man in misseese. hym semeth þat he seeth crist seek." 3 Moreover, this same text actively encourages devout Christians to see the crucified Christ everywhere they look: "wider-so I turne me. al mote I se þe crucified with myn inner y3e." 4 Margery's specific reference to wounded and beaten animals is quite unusual, however, and, for anyone interested in exploring the possible religious and devotional underpinnings of late-medieval animal/human relationships, the passage serves as rare and important evidence of a response to the possible suffering of those beasts. But what kind of evidence is it? Are there larger cultural assumptions that might be sponsoring Margery's comparison between the beating of an animal and the torture of Christ? And, further, can [End Page 300] we argue that this passage implies that she disapproves of the animal cruelty she would have seen around her every day, viewing it as tantamount to the beating of humans, including that special human, Christ?
To begin to answer these difficult questions, we need to examine the larger cultural environment in which Margery is making her remark, seeking cultural contexts that somehow link Christ's bodily form with that of animals both symbolic and real. Other devotional works in Middle English, with which Margery's book may be compared and to which her book may be indebted, seldom employ animals as models for human suffering of any kind, Christ's included. Animals in these treatises, when they appear at all, are largely present as parts of allegories, their animate, corporal natures (and thus their potential for...