Friday, June 4, 2010

Physicality Understood Spiritually: The Pious Weeping of Margery Kempe



One of the most striking features of the autobiography of Margery Kempe is the outward manifestation of piety demonstrated most memorably through her continuous, unrestrained weeping. During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, mysticism and other more direct methods of communing with God arose, and Margery’s distinct manner of faithfulness reflects the shifting attitudes of this period. Her feelings toward this external expression of her faith vary throughout The Book from outright resistance to qualified approval to an actual desire that this weeping continue for the sake of Christ. Rather than serene, monkish piety, Margery’s was visceral and physical. Margery believed her tears were conferred upon her by God. Despite the fact that she regarded her weeping as a form of suffering, she acknowledged it as a gift because it reminded her of the continuous presence of God in her life. In the first mention of her weeping, Margery described the process as a form of “bodily penance” in which “our merciful Lord visited this creature with tears of contrition day by day.”[1] She expressed her penitence through this weeping, and at times it is clear that this process was between her and God alone. Margery defended herself from charges that “she was a false hypocrite” who “wept when in company for advantage and profit” by allowing a priest to examine these convulsive acts.[2] According to the priest, “she wept copiously” in the presence of no one “but himself and the clerk,” indicating that these paroxysms were not pretense but legitimate.[3]

By her own account, Margery’s weeping began as a form of atonement for sin, for it occurred primarily “when she contemplated her own wickedness,” but it soon transformed into a multipurpose act directed not only at herself but also those around her.[4] Her tears served a didactic purpose, reminding those who witnessed her own suffering of the suffering of Christ, who endured “hard strokes, bitter scourging and a shameful death at the last for me and all mankind, blessed may he be,” though she was adamant that her own suffering was “truly nothing” compared to what he suffered.[5] Similarly, Christ informed her in one of her visions that her pious weeping reiterated the sorrow of the Virgin, so Christ gave her “great cries and roarings, to make people afraid of the grace I put into you, in token that I wish that my mother’s sorrow be known through you, so that men and women might have more compassion of her sorrow that she suffered for me.”[6] By weeping both alone and in the presence of others, Margery’s hysterics developed a multiplicity of meanings, symbolizing both her personal communion with God and her desire to share this. However, while this morally instructive purpose existed, Margery was clearly uneasy with the boisterous and eruptive nature of her emotional outpourings. In one moment of despair, God informed her that “if you do not wish to suffer any more, I shall take it [her weeping] away from you,” to which she replied, “No, good lord, let me be at your will, and make me mighty and strong to suffer all that you ever wish me to suffer, and grant me meekness and patience as well.”[7]

Eventually, Margery not only accepted her weeping as God’s will, she embraced it as a form of his mercy and was “compelled to believe steadfastly, without any doubting, that it was God who spoke in her, and would be magnified in her for his own goodness and her profit, and the profit of many others.”[8] By the end of her autobiography, she became almost dependent upon these tears, as she was dependent upon God, “for she was sometimes so barren of tears for a day or sometimes half a day, and had such great pain for the desire that she had of them, that she would have given all this world, if it had been hers, for a few tears, or have suffered very great bodily pain to have got them…”[9] By equating her tears with the physical presence of God, Margery welcomed her odd form of piety by conceding “there was no savour nor sweetness except when she might weep.”[10] Margery recognized that her weeping was difficult to comprehend for many who witnessed it, but in the concluding passages of her first book, she stated that “what she understood physically was to be understood spiritually” by others.[11] For Margery, as well as for other mystics and religious lay people of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, piety was to be found in many different ways among diverse people and not merely in those individuals with the sanctioned piety of monasteries and convents.



[1] Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. B.A. Windeatt (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 34.

[2] Ibid., 48.

[3] Ibid., 120.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid., 168.

[6] Ibid., 223.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Ibid., 242.

[9] Ibid., 240.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 261.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"The King's Administration of His Realm": Penance and Virtue in Jean de Joinville's Life of St. Louis

For a nobleman of the High Middle Ages, expressions of Christian faith and piety took on many forms. The rise in the political and economic importance of the feudal system and the spiritual importance of the clergy contributed to a stratified social structure in which “those who worked, those who prayed, and those who fought” each had a specific role to play.[1] Taking up the cross in an “armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem” connected the spiritual to the secular by creating a way in which the Christian noblemen of the Middle Ages could express their faith while at the same time maintaining their feudal obligations and status as bellatores.[2] These crusades reconciled the knights’ Christianity with their inclination toward violence and legitimized the use of force in the name of Christ.[3]

King Louis IX of France embodied the ideal of the virtuous Christian ruler by undertaking a Crusade from 1248 to 1254, following the example of so many Western European kings and emperors before him. However, according to Jean de Joinville, upon returning to France, Louis made a conscious effort to seek peace rather than war. For the king and his biographer Jean de Joinville, what was more important in defining his holiness and piety: the crusade in his earlier life or the steady rule he provided for France over the next two decades? If it was the crusade, why was Joinville so keen on emphasizing the devotion of King Louis to his subjects in France? If it was his munificence as a ruler, why dedicate nearly three quarters of the Life of Saint Louis to the crusade which occupied fewer than six years of his forty-four year reign?
Louis’s distress over the failure of the Seventh Crusade may have led him to a more penitential life after his return to France. Shortly after his landing at Hy√®res in Provence, a Franciscan friar named Brother Hugues preached to King Louis and implored him to “rule his people in justice and equity that he may ever be worthy of God’s love and that God may not take his kingdom from him so long as he live[d].”[4] For the remainder of his reign, according to Joinville, Louis lived a pious life and ruled admirably, especially in his treatment of the poor, his humility toward his subjects, and his governmental responsibilities. He demonstrated austerity “after [his] return from overseas…[and] lived with such a disregard for worldly vanities that he never wore ermine, or squirrel fur, nor scarlet cloth nor were his stirrups or his spurs gilded.”[5] On one occasion, when Joinville informed Louis that he did not wash the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, Louis expressed his concern, and admonished Joinville that he “should not disdain to perform such an act, seeing that our Lord had done so.”[6] The king, “who made it his chief concern to find out how the common people were governed, and their rights and interests protected,” commanded respect for them in his ordinances, ruling that “bailiffs, sheriffs, mayors, and all others…will do justice to all, without respect of persons, whether poor or rich…”[7]

Similarly, King Louis was conciliatory in affairs of state. In spite of his councilors’ protests, King Louis made concessions to the King of England and returned to him “so large a part of the territory” that he “and his predecessors had won from him” that his barons considered it a loss.[8] Louis claimed that he was “not bound to surrender [it] either to himself or his heirs” but did so “rather as a means of establishing a bond of love between [his] children and [the English king’s].”[9] In his defense, he only asserted that he wished not “to be at enmity with our Lord” and invoked the words of Christ, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[10]

However, if Louis truly did experience this sort of volte-face in his later life, one important question remains: If Louis’s penance took the form of non-violent acts, why did Louis attempt another crusade late in his life? Joinville certainly did not approve, and he refused to participate—a Crusade was a way to serve God, not the king, and Joinville told Louis that “if [he] wanted to do what was pleasing to God, [he] should remain here to help defend the people on his estates.”[11] It was also bad for France, which had enjoyed peace and prosperity under Louis. After he left, “the state of the kingdom [had] done nothing but go from bad to worse.”[12] By Joinville’s account, Louis simply possessed an authentically generous personality “right from the time of his childhood” irrespective of his deeds on crusade, and his “compassion for the poor and suffering” was borne out of this moral fortitude.[13] Like most medieval rulers, Louis maintained very different standards for treating with Christians and non-Christians. Louis refused even to speak to a Christian convert to Islam while in captivity in Egypt, and while on his deathbed, he instructed his son “to beware of undertaking a war against any Christian prince without careful deliberation; if it has to be undertaken see that you do no harm to the Holy Church or to persons who have done you no injury.”[14] While the final two decades of Louis’s reign may have been penitential for the failure of a crusade, it was not penitential for the conduct of the crusade. By embarking upon a second one late in his life, Louis attempted to fulfill a lifelong obligation to his faith that remained incomplete despite his virtuous behavior as ruler of France.



[1] C. Warren Hollister and Judith M. Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 157-158 and 166. Hollister calls this “tripartite” structure “bad sociology” but “good ideology.” It was created by the clergy to bring order to the nebulous social structure, and it reinforced the “mutual obligations” of its members.

[2] Caroline Smith, ed. and trans., Chronicles of the Crusades (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), xii.

[3] Ibid., xxi.

[4] Jean de Joinville, The Life of Saint Louis, in Chronicles of the Crusades, ed. and trans. M.R.B. Shaw (London: Penguin Classics, 1963), 328.

[5] Ibid., 331.

[6] Ibid., 336.

[7] Ibid., 337-341.

[8] Ibid., 334.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 335. See Matt. 5:9.

[11] Ibid., 346.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 262 and 342.

[14] Ibid., 348.