Read on to watch a video of B.D. McClay and Lauren Winner discussing this essay.
MARGERY KEMPE, WRITES ROBERT GLÜCK in his novel of the same name, “turned her second-rate obsession into her last bid for endless response.” The second-rate obsession is Jesus; the last bid, her book, a fifteenth-century autobiography that even in the catalogue of devotional self-writing—a genre prone to strangeness—remains strange. In it, with the help of multiple scribes, Margery, a comfortable Englishwoman of means with a penchant for starting failing businesses, records her mid-life conversion and spiritual life, a story of both extraordinary spiritual privilege and near-constant humiliation.
The Book of Margery Kempe turned up, unlooked for, in 1934, in a hidden collection of texts preserved by Carthusians. In the introduction to his book Margery Kempe and Her World, Anthony Goodman notes that “there is not much evidence that The Book made an impact anywhere else except within this community of remote and exceptionally austere monks.” Still, that it was preserved at all means that for those to whom this book was important, it was extremely important—important enough that (Goodman again) “a pensioned-off monk or a religiously conservative lay person considered the work to be a precious devotional testimony, and that subsequent Roman Catholics risked preserving a compromising work which might have been used to support accusations of subversiveness.”
Perhaps particularly for modern readers, her book is an invitation to despise her, and many take the bait. When I look up the book on Goodreads—perhaps a slightly perverse thing to do, but I’m always a little curious—I run across the following three-star review from 2009, which I quote in its entirety: “My then-roommate and I had a class together in which we read this book. When a stray cat turned up at our house and insisted on moving in with us, we named her Margery because she whined so much.” Margery is forever crying; aside from her long-suffering husband—whom she, with a little help from Jesus, successfully manipulates into accepting lifelong sexual abstinence—few people seem to have sympathy for her; she is constantly being abandoned, hauled up before courts, and exposing herself to danger.
Glück’s 1994 novel, freshly republished by NYRB Classics, takes up Margery with a familiarity both appropriate and off-putting. The narrative voice of Margery Kempe—“Bob”—is deeply erotically obsessed with a younger lover—“L.”—who does not reciprocate the obsession. Bob and L.’s story is intertwined with Margery’s quest for Jesus, which, for Glück, is also quite literal: Margery and Jesus have a lot of sex. But while Margery is Jesus’s, he is not hers. Eventually, abandoned by Jesus, she writes her book. Bob, knowing his young lover simply doesn’t love him back, calls up his friends.
The book’s attitude toward Margery is one of both comforting identification and contempt. It is necessary for Glück’s project that Margery be a failure, just as it is necessary that an erotic spirituality is made legible by becoming literally erotic. In this he is not so different from many of the people who have taken up the study of her and her book. Even those who are devoted to her tend to despise her just a little. Hope Emily Allen, the formidable medievalist and independent scholar who identified The Book of Margery Kempe, thought Margery was second rate, too.
And maybe she was. In her own writing, Margery is a lot of things—her constant crying and insistence on wearing all white give her a diva-like aura—yet failure is not precisely the mood The Book projects, though she does fail often. Margery is clever and resourceful and above all, despite all indications to the contrary, a survivor. Her humiliations and her bodily devotions are a part of her success rather than indications of her failure.
Glück’s Margery Kempe was a particularly poignant book to read this spring, when I found myself abruptly unable to touch another person, go to Mass, or receive the Eucharist. Lent rolled on without any anticipation of a liberatory Easter; then it was Easter, and I was still alone. It is easy to say that one can commune with God spiritually, but I didn’t become Catholic in order not to touch things. Pentecost comes; the Holy Spirit descends; but here I still am, stuck with myself. Thus Margery’s loss of Christ, Bob’s thwarted longing for L., are images in Margery Kempe that I can appropriate in turn for myself: this is how it feels to want something you can’t have.
To accuse Margery Kempe of ahistoricity would be foolish, though in the afterword attached to NYRB’s new edition, Glück spends some time defending himself from this charge. “What drew me to Margery’s life,” he writes, “could only be known by us in the present: the difference between her high aspiration and her failure. In a way, my book is about what Margery could not know about herself.” Still, one is also left wondering if Margery has been allowed into this book on her own terms. The people Margery encounters are deeply aware of her body and their own; one religious figure looks at her and wonders if she is conscious of her own labia touching each other. But this is not how Margery, in her own book, seems to relate to her body; she is unembarrassed, for instance, by telling a spiritual fable about a bear with explosive diarrhea.
Despite this, Glück’s is a beautiful book about the body, its fundamental eros, and its longing. “I’m on my stomach in a side chapel at St. Margaret’s,” he writes in a passage in which Margery’s voice and Bob’s blend: “My hipbones press against the floor, gas moves through the side of my gut, my hot cheek grinds on the stone. My crying is choked; I curl into a ball and clench, an impossible shape. I put myself in your body.” Aside from Jesus and L., few of the bodies on display are attractive. They are aging, diseased, uncomfortable.
The discomfort of the body is one of the many ways in which it expresses its desire. Even in its most physical sense, sexual arousal is always at least a little painful; blood floods into the groin, and the body expands against its limits. Any lovely physical sensation—a beautiful note in a piece of music, running one’s hands over silk, the first sip of a drink that burns down the throat and spreads its warm wings through your shoulders—always feels in some way unbearable, too. They are too much; I cannot stand them. And when I go to Mass—when I could go to Mass—I want to jump out of my skin in a fairly literal sense. I am satisfied only at the moment in which I can actually consume the host and bring the object of my desire within me.
And while in one sense we never get anything we want—that beautiful note doesn’t last forever, and the first sip of the drink is lost in subsequent consumption—there is a difference, not only of degree, between the kiss that does not allow full commingling of self and other and meeting others only in a Zoom chat.
If erotic spirituality has a relationship to eros plain, that relationship comes from its difference as well as its likeness. The ecstasies of religious women have been a strange and disturbing touchstone for many writers. But perhaps no book like Margery Kempe comes so close to inhabiting the desire while missing its content—a piece of contrapuntal music that somehow slides inexorably into a two-part harmony. “By what alchemy does L. complete me when he’s so sketchy himself?” Bob wonders. Margery, too, could be the subject of this question.
For more than failure, the difference between Margery Kempe and Margery Kempe is their distinct versions of absence and presence, God’s gifts and God’s withdrawal. “I am like a hidden God in your soul,” Christ says to Margery in The Book:
and I sometimes withdraw your tears and your devotion, so that you should think in yourself that you have no goodness of yourself, but all goodness comes from me; and also, so that you should truly know what pain it is to be without me, and how sweet it is to feel me, and that you should be the more busy to seek me again; also, daughter, so that you should know what pain other men have, who wish to feel me and may not. For there is many a man on earth who, if he had for only one day in his whole lifetime what you have many days, he would always love me better, and thank me because of that one day. And you may not, daughter, do without me for one day without great pain.
For Margery, Christ’s absence is also Christ’s presence, not simply in the way that longing charges all space with its own desire, but because her relationship with God does not take place within a world of emotional uncertainty. God is as present in what he takes from her as what he gives her, and these gifts and absences take place against a backdrop of certainty. Her spiritual turn, in her biography, is associated with at last confessing a sin she has never dared to confess before. And while this sin is generally assumed to be sexual, Rebecca Krug, in her book Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader, makes a strong case that the unnamed sin was despair, that Margery’s great temptation was not sex, but suicide.
In confessing her despair and being freed from it, Margery enters into a world of love, even as her relationships with others become harder and harder. Once assured of God’s love, she can do anything—expose herself to humiliations, challenge churchmen, travel to Jerusalem, immiserate herself, weep constantly. Her greatest spiritual struggle is not over Christ’s constancy but the reality of damnation, to the point where she refuses to believe that messages from God concerning damnation are from God at all.
“This novel records my breakdown; conventional narrative is preserved but the interest lies elsewhere,” writes Bob. “Like L., Jesus must be real but must also represent a crisis.” Yet the distinction between Margery Kempe and The Book might be put as pithily as this: unlike Bob’s L., Margery’s Jesus is real. The Book is not about erotic longing for an indifferent and indistinct object but rather longing for a distinct and loving beloved, a Christ Jesus whose “precious tender body, all rent and torn with scourges, more full of wounds than a dove-cote ever was of holes” hangs “upon the cross with the crown of thorns upon his head, his blessed hands, his tender feet.”
Before Margery Kempe—a hundred years, give or take—there was Angela of Foligno, an Italian woman of similar circumstances. Like Margery, she was married and had children; like Margery, she was a woman of comfortable means. Like Margery, she had an unspecified sin that she refused to disclose in confession for many years, and its eventual disclosure was what led to her abrupt midlife conversion. While Margery’s narrative, at least throughout the bulk of her book, is totally uninterested in her fourteen children (as Glück puts it: “Margery had fourteen children and that’s as much as she tells us about them”), Angela takes this attitude a bit further; she prays to God to be given the freedom to follow him, and when her husband, mother-in-law, and children promptly die, she takes this to be the answer to her prayer.
It is also Angela who enacts, to my mind, one of the more breathtaking dramatic expressions of erotic piety, when, alone in a chapel, “standing near the cross, I stripped myself of all my clothes and offered myself completely to Him. And although I was afraid, I promised to observe perpetual chastity and not to offend Him with any part of my body. I also accused every part of my body, one at a time, before Him.” Nothing in The Book approaches this, even the passage in which Margery and Jesus sleep together in a single bed and Christ tells her, “you can boldly take me in the arms of your soul and kiss my mouth, my head, and my feet as sweetly as you want.”
There are a range of contemporary responses to these passages, all of which strike me—a naïve reader, to be sure—as mistaken. To put it another way: These women don’t want to fuck God, but these passages are not metaphorical. Still, if you were going to err, the first error may take you closer to what they were trying to do. These experiences assert that the body is a tool of worship, that in our particular embodied-ness we can draw away from or approach God. But while this eroticism, like all eroticism, exists in the gap between lover and beloved, it takes place within a kind of bold certainty, not doubt. When Angela accuses each part of her body, she names them as places in which she has committed specific sins and which can be specifically reconciled to a God who specifically sees her and who she sees in turn; her hands and elbows are means of grace as well as sin.
What is surprising in Glück’s book is not the decision to take the more literally erotic, less metaphorical route, but rather that for all his interest in the body, his attentive description of embodied experience, nobody’s body emerges with specificity. L.’s body is Jesus’s body, but both seem more generically handsome than “present.” When the Virgin Mary appears, she is frequently literally insubstantial, flickering in and out of existence. Bob is dissolved into the narrating voice; there is only Margery, but even she is only what the book requires her to be.
Glück writes that “all we know of the external world is our own shit, piss, tears, sweat, spit, snot, come, pus, babies, and sometimes blood,” but, without being too precious, we don’t only know our own shit—there is the shit of others. It is this experience of seeing without being seen that gives the book its poignancy. “I aimed at L. the longing for seduction and credence I had aimed at the world,” he continues a few paragraphs later. “Naked in bed, he praised my writing—the one thing a stranger could like.”
But if Bob fails because of his love for an L. who is—as he admits—indistinct and to whom he is indistinct in turn, to transfer this failure to Margery seems like the book’s great and constant error. Bob’s statement that he responds to “the failure that permeates her book” describes only the book that is his own. Yet is that failure not, itself, the point?
We know that, in her many travels, Margery visited her contemporary Julian of Norwich, who offered her some consoling words: “the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in the right faith and the right belief.” Julian, more famous to us than Margery, was an anchoress—which is to say, she lived in a small room attached to a church, conversing with people who came to visit her.
We know very little about Julian except that she almost died and, in dying, prayed for and received a mystical vision and subsequently recorded what she saw in two separate texts. Like Margery, she might have been married at one time and had a family, but there is no way to really know. She became an anchorite after this near-death experience; if she did have a husband and children, perhaps, like Angela, she was unexpectedly freed from them.
In her life of retreat into one small cell, Julian emerges as a potential icon of self-isolation. An article on The Conversation on “advice from the Middle Ages for how to cope with self-isolation” quotes Julian as well as manuals written for anchorites. (One takeaway: “Routines are key.”) Julian’s likeness to the self-isolated, however, goes slightly deeper. As her conversations with Margery demonstrate, Julian’s withdrawal was also a form of intimacy, part of a social situation in which her aloneness played a crucial role. Through withdrawal, contemplation, prayer, and conversation with those who came to her, Julian was part of a genuine social world. Julian’s revelations are physical; she sees Christ’s wounds and receives wounds in turn. Famously, at one point she sees an object:
the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, “What can this be?” And the answer came in a general way, like this, “It is all that is made.” I wondered how it could last, for it seemed to me so small that it might have disintegrated suddenly into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding, “It lasts, and always will, because God loves it; and in the same way everything has its being through the love of God.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Glück’s book suffers for this lack of homely physicality, the beloved hazelnut world that rests safely in the love of God. Love in Margery Kempe is lonely, anguished, and isolating, as love often is in between people, in real life. But while Glück’s Margery and the historical Margery both weep, their tears are of different natures. In their diverging pursuits of God—Margery through ceaseless agitation, Julian through stillness—both women imagined a world in which love formed the ground on which you stood as well as the arrow that pierced your heart. If, like Glück, we struggle to incorporate these both into our visions of the world, it seems that it is not Margery who doesn’t understand herself; it’s us.
B.D. McClay is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review and has written for The Week, Commonweal, and Books & Culture.