Publication Date



autobiography, Margery Kempe, mysticism, carnival


Both during her lifetime and since the full manuscript of her forceful autobiography was discovered, no one has quite known what to do with Margery Kempe. Even her staunchest contemporary supporters occasionally lost patience with her or worried that they had inadvertently allied themselves with the wrong side in the divine conflict. Margery followed all the conventional Christian forms: she passed repeated ecclesiastical trials for orthodoxy with flying colors; she went on all the right pilgrimages; she said numberless prayers and took countless communions; even her crying fits and most of her visions have been shown to reflect the experiences of other European female mystics whose writings were available to her. But somehow her life and words defied orthodoxy; as Mikhail Bakhtin says of Rabelais, her story retains "a certain undestroyable nonofficial nature" (Rabelais, 3). Bakhtin ascribes this irrepressibly nonofficial element in Rabelais and other medieval authors to a pervasive and persistent conflict between what he calls the spirit of carnival and the "official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture" (Rabelais, 4). In Margery's autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, the rhetoric of carnival, with its emphasis on the body and the grotesque, functions to disrupt official discourse and established hierarchies to make space for a new kind of female mysticism and piety.