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^Margery Kempe: Hysteria and Mysticism Reconciled William B. Ober But I, except in bed, Wore hair-cloth next the skin, And nursed more than my child That gTudge against my side. Now, spirit and flesh assoil'd, Against the wild world I lace my pride in, Crying out odd and even. —Howard Nemerov, "A Poem of Margery Kempe"' Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-ca. 1440) was a fifteenth-century Englishwoman whose Book is a narrative of her pilgrimages and spiritual experiences. With a poet's insight Howard Nemerov tells us clearly that her incurable wound was sustained in child-bearing and delivery, that the damage to her ego (pride, first of the deadly sins) was as much spiritual as physical, that it set her against the world, and that she cried out against it, appearing odd to her neighbors but keeping even with her pilgrimage through life. The epigraph for this essay is the final strophe of Nemerov's poem, but the refrain that recurs after each stanza is Alas! that ever I did sin, It is full merry in heaven. These words she uttered one night after hearing a melody "so sweet and delectable, that she thought she had been in Paradise."2 Her past sins debarred her from heaven, and she repented of them. Coupling this insight with what is known of Margery's biography, what we can leam from her writing, what medical inferences can be drawn, perhaps William B. Ober 25 we can approach a more detailed, if less poetic, definition of her particular problem and illuminate some of the medical aspects of mystical experience. Until 1934 all that was known of Margery Kempe was seven pages in a quarto pamphlet printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501, titled A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde lhesu cryste, or taken out of the boke of Margene kempe of Lynn. A single copy was preserved in the Cambridge University Library, and its contents were selected passages so chosen as not to offend the religious sensibilities of early Tudor readers. These extracts gave a flavorless impression of Margery's character and spiritual development. In 1934 Col. William Butler-Bowdon, the representative of an old recusant Roman Catholic family in Yorkshire, sent for examination by experts at the Victoria and Albert Museum a manuscript book that had been "in the possession of [his] family from time immemorial."3 Hope Emily Allen identified it as the lost Book of Margery Kempe. Marginal notes in the manuscript as well as analysis of the handwriting, paper, and watermarks indicated that it had been written at King's Lynn between 1440 and 1450 and had been in the possession of the Yorkshire Charterhouse of Mount Grace prior to the dissolution of the monasteries. Col. Butler-Bowdon published a modern English version of the text in 1936, and a full critical edition supplemented by extensive annotation by Miss Allen was published by the Early English Text Society in 1940. Appearing de novo from five centuries past but lacking an established niche in the English mystical tradition, Margery Kempe was not warmly received by the public; even the Anglican and Roman Catholic press was reserved. To be sure, the late 1930s was not the optimal time to introduce a new mystic. The economic depression that began in 1929 was slowly improving, but political events in Europe were ominous. Waiting for the gun-butt on the door often precludes mystical contemplation, though Sir Thomas More's Dialogue of Comfort and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are among notable exceptions. The general level of spiritual aspiration in the 1930s was no higher than the moral rearmament advocated by the Oxford Group. Prophets, let alone mystics, were not wanted. In her prefatory note Miss Allen quotes Father David Thurston, S.J., who wrote soon after the Book appeared: "That Margery was a victim of hysteria can hardly be open to doubt." In an earlier definition of hysteria Thurston had written that it was "chiefly ... an exaggeration of suggestibility," a concept derived from the relation between hysteria and hypnotic states by the nineteenth-century studies of 26 MARGERY KEMPE Charcot, Janet, and their predecessors.4 But Miss...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 24-40
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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