Shell Game with Shelf Life: The Binding of Margery Kempe

Enan Heneghan


Shell Game with Shelf Life: The Binding of Margery Kempe


Margery Kempe subscribes to the Eye in the Sky, “social reality” (Hart 256) network. She soaks in the omniscient rays of the male gaze and channels that power into energy that can be seen and heard, anew. Kempe frames her life though it is aired live on the only real broadcast available. She not only knows how to play The God Show, but has a number of advantages in the Earth-bound competition. She memorizes the rulebook. She navigates the set. The only “Father” she acknowledges happens to be the host of the big show. And she is having an affair with the casting director, Jesus, while managing to forge a working relationship with his mom, the executive producer. Kempe’s recollections network a spiritual, rag to riches saga atop a foundation of absorbed doctrine and dramatization. The Book of Margery Kempe frames a version of herself as the favored contestant in a race to sainthood and salvation. Embracing gender constraints and expectations as a means of solidarity, Margery unabashedly lies, cheats and steals for the chance to win the grand prize: a sense of worldly purpose.

Accepting her medieval Christian Edition of reality, that often contradicts and vampirizes experience, is not a given for Margery. She winds up seduced by how significantly religion, as a prescribed belief system, is driven deep in the minds of the medieval masses, actually rewiring what it meant to be self-aware with the new Christian Playbook. This distortion of value and tangibility takes most all of Margery and her faithful brethren’s empirical input and memory. It obscures how those calculably benefiting from the mass communicated message are a handful of corporeal “judges” protected under the abstracted wing of the church.  Kempe utilizes the holy employee’s vested interest in keeping their seed insidiously planted in the general population. Her green eyes spy on how God’s servants’ physical and spiritual comfort depends on people accepting the reality in which they repackage, trademark, and present.  Ready for an analogous makeover, “Margery’s search for confessors becomes a search for those who are willing to grant her spiritual autonomy” (Staley 109). For her contemporaries, to question or refute the insight and power of the church would have been suicidal.  Individual lives are marginalized by the reverence of the celestial suppositions.  Margery, however, was unwilling to be a passive audience member and submitted herself to the exploitative programming with enthusiasm and objectivity.

The religious paradigm Margery succumbs to has striking similarities to the structure in which audience-participation programs operate. Audience-participation programming is defined as “systems of social interaction involving both the audiences and the performers in which the performer simulates an informal, intimate, face-to-face conversation with the invisible spectator” (Horton 569). Like a talk show host, a consistent and continuing relationship is presented to Christian audiences through God the Father. Margery, feeling invisible as a fifteenth century woman, naturally believes in the invisible. When promised an impossibly personal and affecting relationship with the unseen figurehead, she pretends that His message is meant, supremely, for her. She claims the right to impose herself through her beliefs. She does it partly to be watched, but more so to feel relevant and competitive. 

This interaction between the “persona” of God and any real, living, breathing medieval person incarnates through religious prayer. Margery prays to be heard in a time when women aren’t given a voice. By bestowing physical form to the concept of a God, Margery’s own corporeal restrictions seem less finite. It takes perpetuating conventional ideology to combat the gender inequity that would have otherwise doomed her potential. Margery has no choice, but to meld with the ethereal forces controlling visibility and worth.

The aforementioned melding that occurs in an audience-participation show between a host and an audience member generates a parasocial relationship. Parasocial interaction is determined by the “convention of non-interference,” (Horton and Strauss 580) where the performer controls actions. The spectators convince themselves they are being directly addressed, but the qualities of immediacy and reciprocity are illusory. The audience doesn’t just observe, but is transformed by the insinuated intimacy that is staged. They participate and adjust according to the performer.

A relationship is likely to become parasocial when an audience becomes so large that it is impossible for the speaker to address its members individually (Horton and Wohl). Mass media and religion have access to enormous audiences and can both effectively speak to each member in relative privacy. The faux invincibility of parasocial union downplays the comparative worth of interpersonal relationships. In a parasocial dynamic growth without development occurs, to where the spectator believes there is no empathetic hurdle that can test the contrived bond.

Fully indebted to her own parasocial bonds, Margery’s rhetorical technique develops a comparable modus operadi to God’s word and speech pattern. The familiarity of her content and delivery is meant to draw in, affix and fill a minimum quota of devotees. By her estimation, the “judges,” or church officials, are focusing on quantifying her various emulations, instead of considering their overall importance. Capacity over substance, sensation over sense, and suffering over sex leads her both on and off the page. It made sense that her meta-glued God was unsubstantiated, senseless, and incurably abstinent.

An all-powerful cognizance, with control over the afterlife, remains the most potent character to brand any enterprise with. Medieval folks bought what God slung because he had a monopoly on meaning. Margery even admits being “very much afraid of the Godhead” (Kempe 122).  She ultimately relinquishes herself to God, as she does Jesus, when he promises her, “you shall hear what you never heard, and you shall see what you never saw, and you shall feel what you never felt” (Kempe 125). Here God morphs into the sweet-talking host she warmed up to. God, the presenter, delivers incontrovertibly reliable on-demand alleviation for real-time woes, the very same woes He caused. Margery fosters the dream of immortality when considering God’s shifting embodiments. The preponderance of maladies and corruptive forces that He allows acts as the greatest contrast to what was promised in the next state of being. Sin and sadness were essential to the Christian pitch. She only jumpstarts to life once the carrot of purity dangles before her. Margery, riding God’s coat-tails, wants to be loved, but needs to be hated because it will take her farther in the game.

Margery and her fellow devotees integrate the persona of God into their routines and, consequently, build a shared past that heightens the significance of future revelations. Eventually, “the ‘fan’ comes to believe that she ‘knows’ the persona more intimately and profoundly than others do; that she ‘understands’ his characters and appreciates his values and motives” (Horton and Wohl 216). Margery’s finds herself less vigilant when deciphering the boundary between reality and perception because of her ecclesiastic saturation. The adage, “perception is strong and sight weak,” encapsulates Margery’s inclination succinctly. The transformative effect psychic meaningfulness has on perceptual realism, coupled with the neural changes that physically occur in the brain, lends credence to the minds predisposition for imaginative symbolizing, (Ashbrook) which Margery is no stranger to. Her kinship with invented figures grows out of an inability to consider the possibility of unconnected random experiences. Random never crosses her mind. This mental blocker correlates to the content of her Book. The stories she remembers to dictate are only the one’s bearing on her spiritual destiny, the memories God would look up from his podium and smile knowingly at, but, to others, they came off the desperate, brown-nosing, attention-getting accounts that sit on the surface of the page. She placates the fact that knowledge and learning centered on memorization and discouraged critical thought.

To sustain iconic influence, the persona(God) actively attempts to disintegrate and blur the line that divides him and the show by emphasizing intimacy with supporting cast and crew. Hence, the strength of God is reliant on the artificial connection acted out with his minions. Jesus and Mary aid  in the marketability of God and Christianity’s religious services. Jesus simultaneously acts as co-host to God and vetted casting agent in their global production. Professionally assisting the Godhead, Jesus puts a human face on a concept. As noted above, Margery falls for Jesus before God. Margery’s gateway to the heavenly father is through Jesus. As the flesh and blood representative of God, Margery uses Jesus for sexually associative purposes. She knowingly and cunningly turns sexual events into moments that stress her devotion. “All her love and affection were fixed on the manhood of Christ” (Kempe 123). It is Jesus’ words “sitting upon her bedside, (Kempe 42) that “worked his grace in her” (Kempe 43). He auditions her to compete for meaning with a simple goad, “Daughter, why have you forsaken me?” (Kempe 42). At her most vulnerable and empty, after giving birth, yet again, Jesus mystically swoops down to offer her what appeared the only chance of being something more. To build her hype, Kempe acts as if Jesus put the fix in for her to become the next star of a reality competition like England’s Top Virgin, Christian Idol or Big Brother Sister. She spins her suffering and loss as what qualified her extreme candidacy.

Not restricted to lusty visions of masculine presence, Kempe wholly worships and believes her life entangled with the Virgin Mary’s. When visiting Jerusalem she claimed to have “heard and saw in her spiritual sight the mourning of our Lady” (Kempe 104). Mary provides a positive feminine model for Kempe. However fallacious the Holy Mother’s struggle and image are presented can’t compete with the symbolic permanence it had for Kempe. Mary is an unalterably, female character with the power to speak beyond the grave. When visiting the burial site of the Blessed Virgin she had a “sweet conversation,” (Kempe 109) where her physical union with Jesus is approved of. Mary, as the executive producer, drawing in the women’s demographic for Christianity, encouraged subordination to Jesus, who was simultaneously God. Shifting essence, a staple of the trinity, is a facet Kempe honed in on. Margery primarily wants to shape-shift into the Virgin Mary, her idealized woman. She clearly comprehends the perks of being positioned just adjacent the trinity by studying the Holy Virgin.

Margery relies heavily on Christian narratives to substantiate her own treatise. “Her divine visions allowed her to communicate with God, love Jesus in his humanity, attend the Virgin, and participate with all her emotions in the joy and grief of the Christian story” (Glenn 541). Her divine interactions are paralleled both verbally and typologically to gospel passion narratives. Attempts to deliberately imitate Christ or the Virgin are reliant on the transcribed patterns of Jesus, Mary, and the saints she had previous knowledge of. The notes of Jesus’ previous cast and crew are her divine character blueprints. Meditations Vitae Christi is borrowed from directly in Margery’s accounts. It proved the primary devotional model for her sensory phenomenon (McMurray 49). By dictating her character as being accustomed to the same travails experienced by Jesus and Mary, Margery saps the authority of the church and harnesses its tested and successful manipulative techniques.

 Kempe flies amongst the virtuous vultures for the sake of survival. Remixing familiar patterns is less “something she put on deceitfully herself,” (Kempe 119) than something she divisively puts up with.  Self-designating herself as “creature” throughout the book, Margery alludes to the twelfth century Books of Life (Evans). Both works posit people as walking, talking books. By using the third person “creature,” she enters the metaphoric “book competition” without serious threat of misogynist backlash. Framing her life as a book written by God ensured a certain level of critical immunity.

The narrative-self that arises is born of a gendered historical and institutional discourse. Her voice is delivered indirectly so the reader is forced to superimpose personal meaning and avoid passivity. She attempts to mimic the illusory intimacy she wholly believed to experience with God, Jesus and Mary. This orchestrated structural instability only distracted the incredible literary control the narrative and its characters apply. Margery’s unbridled insecurity in self, and complete confidence in the Almighty, prompts the combination of third person and direct speech.  She can differentiate between her self, her being an other to others, her being a product of institutions, and being a gendered body. Christ, as a real person, becomes the subject to Margery’s objectified self. When speaking with Christ she “imagines herself the object of the Others desire” (Evans 515). The conflicting forms of subjectivity(subject to and subject of) enable Margery to both be loved and watch herself being loved. She viewed disengagement from one’s body a privilege. 

The instigators of this split in vision were devotional images and physical representations of her faith that she encounters. This allies with how the capacity of any brain to generate hallucinations resides in the associative cortex when released from its normal inhibited state. When the visual cortex is released from pragmatic visual sensations, it can become spontaneously active and interpret random activity as visual stimulus. (Steen 215).  So, if not entirely constructs, she is triggered into any hallucinatory phenomena by surrounding idolatry. Meditation on holy objects and images offers immediate access to the “real” thing. People saw themselves and the world as being part of a representational space. Their experience of self was shaped by the awareness that they were always being watched. Upon spotting a devotional image, there was a division between the eye and the gaze. What resulted was a voyeuristic experience that involved the reading subject(Margery) apprehending the holy figure, cognitively, and then regarding herself within the illumination, objectively. Her consciousness is asked to view the mirrored self as if it were as sacred as the actual devotional representation. The third person narrative allows her to appear as a puppet in her own account – a puppet in a show of her own scripting. She raises herself out of the “realm of meaninglessness into representation, iteration and hence signification” (Sponsler 125).

Viewing the world a staged competition, the holy lands symbolized the number one public space for the expression of personal pains that might otherwise go unheard. The continual movement through her holy set depicts a woman who relishes seeing where she has been almost more than where she is going. Her values are bogged down in the past instead of the possible. 

Kempe’s meaningful world is “fashioned” by her adaptive processes. The experience of Margery through “large symbolic patterns” (Evans 517) such as continual crying and repetitive holy visions depict a genuine attempt at meaning and value. “Iterability is what makes signification possible in the first place: in order to mean anything, a sign has to be able to be repeated in a variety of contexts. Repetition is thus a necessary condition of meaningfulness” (qtd. in Sponsler 125). Margery’s beliefs and actions reduce any ambiguity, ambivalence and complications of character. It was never unclear where Margery stands because so much of her story retreads the same issues. Her “reflective consciousness finds its fullest expressions in the phenomenology of experience –symbolic process, language and culture in all its forms” (Ashbrook 15). The fantastical apparitions emerge more plausible when latticed with identifiably prosaic redundancy. The monotonous features of her Book paradoxically work toward her credibility.

            She is a product of her environment. It so happens that her environment breeds the illusion of a parallel space. Physicality on Earth juxtaposed the metaphysical confusion inherent to the afterlife. Church officials keenly understood the susceptibility of people to fantasy. To supplement didactic preaching, the church encouraged the biblical narratives to be performed. Religious dramatizations were considered “acceptable to existing patterns of church authority” (Sponsler 140) and especially effective in permeating the mind of the commoner. Theatre was viewed “an ambiguous meeting ground” (Horton and Wohl 215) where fiction briefly and viscerally trumped reality.   With a unique integration of orthodox and unorthodox religious practice, dramatized divinity provides the template for Margery’s strategy.

She disguises her authority and maneuvers herself to the front of the celestial line by yoking the impact of performance based bodily penance.  Chapter eleven starts, “It happened one Friday, Midsummer Eve, in very hot weather – as this creature was coming from York” (Kempe 58) placing Margery temporally and geographically, near the Corpus Christi celebrations, she and her husband likely saw passion plays at the previous day (Sponsler 129). This probability, atop her living in a considerably theatre-heavy part of the country, assures Margery’s awareness of theatrical productions, whether or not she comprehended their unreality. 

Indeed, her own theatrical nature bubbles up via costumes and evocative gestures like weeping, falling to the ground, throwing arms out as though she were being crucified, and even kissing lepers. She disrupts church processions, one-ups officials and generally sateals the show wherever she went. These “spiritual exercises” (Gibson 49), easily and preferably misconstrued, grant Margery social aspirations, independence and status. Forcing the Christian narrative on others is a pattern Margery memorizes and deems a prerequisite for earning prized sainthood.

Running for her life, away from bedeviling anonymity, Margery Kempe comes off both ambitious and fractured. She may not have end up winning the right to sainthood, but she achieves a similar transcendence. The Book of Margery Kempe lives on because of the passion she put into birthing it.





Works Cited


Ashbrook, James B. The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim P, 1997. 1-35.


Evans, Ruth. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” A Companion to Medieval English Literature and culture,1350-1500. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. 507-21.


Gibson, Gail McMurray. “St. Margery.” Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1989. 19-46.


Glenn, Cheryl. “Author, Audience and Autobiography: Rhetorical Technique in Margery Kempe.” College English 54 (1992): 540 53.


Hart, Roderick, Kathleen Turner, and Ralph Knupp. “Religion and the Rhetoric of the Mass Media.”Review of Religious Research 21 (1980): 256-74.

Horton, Donald, and Anselm Strauss. “Interaction in Audience Participation Shows.” The American Journal of Sociology (1957): 579-87.


Horton, Donald, and Richard Wohl. “Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction,” Psychiatry, XIX (1956): 215-24.


Kempe, Margery. Book of Margery Kempe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1985.

Sponsler, Claire. “Drama and Piety: Margery Kempe.” Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2004. 129-44.

Sponsler, Claire. Drama and Resistance: Bodies, Goods, and Theatricality in late Medieval England. Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota P, 1997. 114-126.


Staley, Lynn. “The Image of Ecclesia.” Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994.127-170.

 Steen, R. Grant. The Evolving Brain: The Known And the Unknown. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 209-221.


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