Claire Crow: Lesbian Space and Postpartum Homoerotic Desire in The Book of Margery Kempe

We are delighted to host Claire Crow’s blogpost below. You can find Claire on twitter here. Enjoy reading, everyone!

Bio: Claire Crow is a first-year PhD student in English at Yale University, where she is also a fellow for Yale’s Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. So far, her research explores the histories of sexuality, reproduction, and race with attention to thirteenth- through fifteenth century English and French literatures––especially romance, travel narratives, and women’s writing. One of her current (in-progress) projects examines discourses of gendered race in the Roman de la Rose; she shows how Jean de Meun’s racial imagination is informed not only by the religious treatises he translated, but also in part by the growing ivory trade between France and North Africa in the thirteenth century.

Lesbian Space and Postpartum Homoerotic Desire in The Book of Margery Kempe

“It is the very social and existential experience of loneliness that compels the lesbian body to extend into other kinds of space, where there are others who return one’s desires.”

 -Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (p.43)

At the time that I read The Book of Margery Kempe for an amazing medieval women’s writing tutorial with Hannah Ryley at Magdalen College, Oxford, I remember feeling homesick and sad that my girlfriend was four thousand miles away. Quite pathetically, I started to fixate on moments in the Book that filled the void of my own loneliness, imagining how, like Sara Ahmed describes as she interrogates the spatiality of lesbian desire in Queer Phenomenology, Margery might be extending her own solitary queer body into spaces for women to reciprocate her affection (Ahmed 2006, 43). What happens to the Book’s constructions of space during Margery’s personal relationships with other women? This is a question I have been fascinated by in Kempe Studies, and one I have returned to repeatedly when thinking about Margery’s queerness. Her one-on-one homoerotic connections––in whatever form they may take––almost always develop in unnamed, marginalized, or enclosed spaces. Stringing together a pattern of the discreet places Margery goes to access other women can tell us so much about how the Book articulates erotic desire in these bonds.

Around 1413, Margery travelled to Norwich seeking spiritual counsel from the anchoress Julian of Norwich––recognized now as an esteemed medieval theologian for her two surviving visionary texts. Chapter 18 of the Book narrates the women’s meeting over hundreds of lines, summarizing the bliss shared between them as: “mych was the holy dalyawns that the ankres and this creatur haddyn be comownyng in the lofe of owyr Lord Jhesu Crist many days that thei were togedyr” (Much was the holy communing that the anchoress and this creature had by coming together in the love of our Lord Jhesu Crist many days that they were together)  (18: 986-87). Laura Saetveit Miles has fascinatingly pointed out the queer nature in this visit, arguing that Margery’s lengthy meeting with Julian illustrates how “affective touch” and spiritual intimacy between holy women creates “a queer contact that transgresses not only clerical control but also the limits between human and divine” (Miles 2019, 205). The traditional design of an anchoritic cell may also help cultivate the intimate and maybe even erotic exchange between Julian and Margery. Michelle M. Sauer has analyzed medieval guides for anchoresses to show how their private cell was often eroticized, potentially producing a “lesbian void” for the anchoress and for the few women who were authorized to enter the space; a female-controlled room that was free of male clerical supervision, the cell was an atmosphere secure and private enough for same-sex erotic contact to have taken place (Sauer 2004). With the cell’s environment in mind, Miles additionally encourages us to think about the sexual and spiritual connotations of the word “dalyawns” (communing). The description of the Julian and Margery’s conversation is one of the only instances in which this term is used to describe earthly rather than heavenly intimacy. Appearing over thirty times during Margery’s visions of divine communing with Christ, “dalyawns” means “polite or intimate or spiritual conversation,” but it can also mean “amorous talk, flirting, and sexual union” (Miles 2019, 210).

This slippery term “dalyawns” reappears in Margery’s devout connection with another human woman: a sick mother who has been locked up by her husband for loud and violent postpartum behavior. In chapter 75 at St. Margaret’s Church, a panicked husband falls on his knees in front of Margery, begging her to come heal his wife who is psychologically distressed after giving birth. He tells Margery in his plea that “sche roryth and cryith so that sche makith folk evyl afeerd. Sche wyl bothe smytyn and bityn” (She roars and cries so that she makes people terribly afraid. She will both hit and bite) (75: 4210-11). Uncooperative with anyone else but Margery, the mother warmly receives her into the home. The mother gazes at Margery lovingly and admits, “I beheld many fayr awngelys abowte yow, and therfor, I pray yow, goth not fro me, for I am gretly comfortyd be yow,” (I behold many fair angels around you, and therefore, I pray you, don’t go from me, for I am greatly comforted by you) (75: 4219). We quickly learn this woman becomes so disruptive to her community that she is physically removed from her home, exiled “to the forthest ende of the town into a chambyr that the pepil schulde not heryn hir cryin” (to the furthest end of the town into a chamber that the people should not hear her crying) (75: 4223-24). The first meeting between Margery and the mother in the house quickly evolves into routine visits. With assurance from God that she can remedy the situation, Margery makes her way out to the margins of the city once or twice per day to unite with this woman in the banished bedchamber.

What’s exceptional about this female bond in particular is that Margery’s formulaic visits to the wife transform the lonely, prison-like setting into a space that fosters not only postpartum healing, but also shared ecstasy between the two women: “Whyl sche was wyth hir, sche was meke anow and herd hir spekyn and dalyin wyth good wil wythoutyn any roryng er crying” (While she was with her, she was meek now and heard her speak and commune with good will without any roaring or crying) (75: 4226-28). Where no one else can see or hear them, in a clearly unorthodox, non-institutionalized space, they are free to “dalyin”–– to commune, to talk intimately, to flirt, to embrace, to dwell together. Suddenly this erotic feminine room, also completely away from masculine supervision, is not all dissimilar from the “lesbian void” Sauer sees in the cell of an anchoress.

Ahmed views queer moments, the moments “where things come out of line” as fleeting, while the “straight” or normative world is here to stay (Ahmed, 2006, 105). This brief female-female bond in the Book pairs nicely with Ahmed’s observations about modern queer life. The two women lose their authorized space to “dalyin” as soon as the wife recovers. The healed woman was “browt to chirche and purifiid as other women be” (brought to church and purified as other women are) (75: 4233). This purification ceremony of “churching,” which marked a woman’s official re-entrance into society after childbirth in medieval Christian cultures, also washes away whatever queer attachment she has had to Margery––placing her back in line with the “other women” or the “normal” category of mothers in the town.

But this episode is only one part of a larger chunk of the Book that overflows with same-sex desires between Margery and other women in private spaces. In the chapter which comes directly before this queer postpartum affection, Margery kisses female lepers on the mouth in an unnamed location with her confessor’s permission. An authorization Margery is more than ecstatic about, I continue to be struck by Jonathan Hsy’s commentary on the implications of the same-sex contact in this scene. It is not only possible that Margery “elicits (unspecified) erotic desires in the leper in this moment” but also that the female leper’s “unarticulated desire––like leprosy––might be conceived as contagious” (Hsy 2010, 192). Whether or not the desire is culturally perceived as contagious does not seem to bother Margery, as she passionately ventures to these leprous woman many times: “Therefor the sayd creatur went to hir many tymys to comfortyn hir and preyd for hir…” (Therefore the said creature went to her many times to comfort her and prayed for her…) (74: 4203-05). In back-to-back chapters, the Book offers us thorough depictions of socially outcast women who elicit strong desires for Margery; and both women Margery can’t seem to get enough of, returning to them over and over again.

Along with Margery’s one-on-one affections with anchoresses, wives, and female lepers, scholars have long accepted Margery as queer for both her sexual behaviors more broadly and the other ways in which she disrupts social order in fifteenth-century England. A wife and a mother of fourteen children, Margery’s controversial choice to wear white clothes––a garb typically reserved for virgins––on her pilgrimages is widely embraced as a quintessential component of her queerness. Carolyn Dinshaw reads this “virginal cross-dressing,” along with Margery’s desire to renounce her earthly family for the heavenly family, as queer acts: in her white clothes, “we perceive a creature that itself is not clearly categorizable in her community’s bourgeois heteronormative terms […]. We perceive a creature whose body does not fit her desires. We perceive, that is, a queer” (Dinshaw 1999, 148-49).

Interestingly, in chapter 48 the mayor of Leicester merges his anxiety about these white clothes with his worries about her potential same-sex intimacies. The mayor exclaims during Margery’s accusation of Lollardy, “‘I wil wetyn why thow gost in white clothys, for I trowe thow art comyn hedyr to han awey owr wyvys fro us and ledyn hem wyth the” (I want to know why you go about in white clothes, for I believe you have come here to lure away our wives from us, and lead them off with you) (48: 2727-28).  We see this same masculine clerical anxiety just a few chapters later when the Archbishop of York interrogates Margery in Beverly about her profane influence over royal women: “My Lady hir owyn persone was wel plesyd wyth the and lykyd wel thy wordys, but thu cownseledyst my Lady Greystokke to forsakyn hir husbonde, that is a barownys wyfe and dowtyr to my Lady of Westmorlond […]” (My lady herself was well pleased with you and liked well your words, but you counseled my Lady Graystroke to forsake her husband, that is a baron’s wife and daughter of my Lady Westmoreland […]” (54: 3148-50). Even when no one can confirm the rumors yet, the mayor and the archbishop treat Margery’s proximities to other women as extremely dangerous. Through the men’s perspective, Margery’s orientations toward their wives threaten to collapse orthodox familial structure within their communities.

Based on the genuine rhetorical charm Margery possesses over women, whether it be spiritual charm or something else, these men have every reason to react nervously. From her prison cell window in Beverly, Margery affects her female listeners so much with her “many good talys” (many good tales) that these women publicly “wept sor and seyde wyth gret hevynes of her hertys, ‘Alas, woman, why schalt thu be brent?’” (wept sore and said with great heaviness of their hearts, ‘Alas, woman, why shall you be burnt?’” (53: 3082, 3083-84). The Book consolidates each expression of affection into one pitiful question, narrating the women’s emotions for Margery as if these individualized feelings were one large devotional act from the female community. Perhaps most interestingly for my questions about same-sex desires in the Book is that this intense and “gret” public affection immediately develops into another one-on-one female encounter with a Beverly wife. Margery convinces one of the wives to sneak her food and drink against her husband’s wishes (53: 3087-88). A remarkable feature of the Book is that, in all of these examples I have explored,the narrative does not commit to a single representation of Margery’s homoerotic relationships. We see speculation, tolerance, condemnation, and even celebration. In any case, what I hope my brief catalog of Margery’s same-sex connections spotlights is just how nuanced the representations of female-female relationships are in the Book, especially the ones that build up in private settings.

“The problem of defining ‘the lesbian’” is a major obstacle historians face in writing about lesbian pasts, as Diane Watt, Michelle M. Sauer, and Noreen Giffney emphasize in the introduction to The Lesbian Premodern. Lesbian history, “if the premodern lesbian is to be demarginalized and celebrated,” depends upon us to continually rethink space and categorizations (Giffney, Sauer, Watt 2011, 4-5). Naming Margery’s repeated gravitations toward other female bodies and feminine spaces as “lesbian-like” offers productive ways to read her desire for and from other women. Judith Bennett developed the term “lesbian-like” to reconceptualize all kinds of same same-sex affections between premodern women, even if they did not explicitly have genital contact. Practices that are “lesbian-like,” Bennett proposes, result from “women whose lives might have particularly offered opportunities for same-sex love; women who resisted norms of feminine behavior based on heterosexual marriage; women who lived in circumstances that allowed them to nurture and support other women” (Bennett, 2000, 14). It is without question that the Book presents Margery with multiple opportunities to nurture and be nurtured by other women; but the narrative’s loaded diction to describe same-sex bonds––many of which take place in secluded or undisclosed spaces––allows us to question if these moments of support ever do escalate into something like sexual pleasure or “lesbian-like” affection. It’s crucial that we continue to read desires contained within the Book of Margery Kempe, as well as in any medieval text, with a queer gaze to catch what might otherwise slip by us.

Claire Crow, 2022.

References:

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Bennett, Judith M. “‘Lesbian-Like’ and the Social History of Lesbianisms.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, no. 1-2 (2000): 1–24.

Dinshaw, Carolyn Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Hsy, Jonathan. “‘Be More Strange and Bold’: Kissing Lepers and Female Same-Sex Desire in the Book of Margery Kempe.” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5 (2010): 189-199.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Lynn Staley, TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in Association with the University of Rochester, 1996.

Miles, Laura Saetveit. “Queer Touch between Holy Women: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Birgitta of Sweden, and the Visitation.” In Touching, Devotional Practices, and Visionary Experience in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Delfina I. Nieto-Isabel David Carillo-Rangel, Pablo Acosta-Garcia, 203-35: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Sauer, Michelle M. “Representing the Negative: Positing the Lesbian Void in Medieval English Anchoritism.” Third Space: A Journal of Feminist Theory and Culture 3, no. 2 (2004).

The Lesbian Premodern. Edited by Michelle M. Sauer Noreen Giffney, and Diane Watt. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Further Resources:

In 2020, I (along with my co-host, Rebecca Leppert) interviewed Professor Diane Watt about Margery Kempe for our open-access podcast, Knight School: Taking a Stab at the Middle Ages. Give the episode a listen, or read the episode re-cap for a brief, general introduction on Margery! https://knightschoolmedieval.wordpress.com/2020/07/03/margery-kempe-with-prof-diane-watt-episode-re-cap/

Hollywood, Amy. “The Normal, the Queer, and the Middle Ages.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 2 (2001): 173-179.

Kłosowska, Anna. Queer Love in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Lavezzo, Kathy. “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe.” In Premodern Sexualities, edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, 175-198.

Lochrie, Karma. “Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies.” In Constructing Medieval Sexuality, edited by Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and Jamie Schultz, 180-200. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Orlemanski, Julie. “How to Kiss a Leper.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 3 (2012): 142-157.

Sheble, Margaret. “Queer Eye for God: Reading Margery Kempe as Female Masculine.” Atchison 24, no. 1 (2018): 39-61. Traub, Valerie. “The Rewards of Lesbian History.” Feminist Studies 25, no. 2 (1999): 363-394


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