Today we have a first for this blog – a guest post! My dear friend, fellow mermaid and all-round inspiring feminist academic Roberta Magnani reached out and asked if she could write something for this blog, and of course I was delighted. I was lucky enough to attend the Margery Kempe conference referenced here, and had a wonderfully generative couple of days – big thanks to Laura and Laura for their hard work. And without further ado, I’ll let Roberta take it away.
‘‘There is no need to cry’: #teamMargery and the disruptive power of tears’
‘Why do you weep so, woman?’. At a time when some of my dearest medievalist friends are gathered in Oxford at the first conference entirely dedicated to Margery Kempe (organised by the fabulous double-act Laura Kalas Williams and Laura Varnam), I am reminded of these words. An astonished and disgruntled Archbishop of York speaks these uncompassionate words to Margery, a controversial but, in my opinion, totally phenomenal and fierce middle-class woman from fifteenth-century Lynn.
I am not an expert in Margery’s works, but I have enjoyed unpacking her challenging and complex Book in my teaching. I have facilitated class discussions during which students have responded with a mixture of confusion, respect and rejection to her profuse weeping, perpetual whining and dubious sartorial choices (apparently wearing white is not acceptable for a married woman).
The Archbishop’s question stems from frustration rather than genuine engagement with her affective or embodied spirituality. In the first line of her Prologue Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath juxtaposes ‘experience’ to ‘auctoritee’ (formalised written knowledge) and she genders this distinction. ‘Experience’ is an incarnate epistemology, that is a female-coded way of making sense of the world and responding to it. On the contrary, clerics see the world through a purely intellectual lens, an inscrutable puzzle to be parsed and glossed through the rigid structures of logic. This male-coded epistemology is exclusionary, as it alienates those (like women and subordinate masculinities) who don’t partake in the same intellectual privilege and elite literacy.
Margery and Alison of Bath’s bodies are their literacy and epistemology. Christ’s profound bodily suffering on the Cross makes the divine incarnate, and therefore authorises these female-coded affective and bodily epistemologies. Both Margery and Alison of Bath harness this sanctioning, and this disorients patriarchal figures like the Archbishop of York whose privilege and hegemony are not designed to be challenged by alternative paradigms. And Margery’s cacophonic weeping is impossible to ignore or silence.
These forms of silencing are still in operation. I have written about this here. Western society, and academia is not an exception (quite the opposite), constructs women as pliable and docile bodies. Judgment values about women are still made on the basis of what they wear and clothes signify as markers of compliance to pre-scripted archetypes: the invisible assistive intellectual woman who serves power instead of sharing it, and the acquiescent object of sexual predation.
A woman who doesn’t abide by these constructs disorients and she is therefore construed as deviant and necessitating re-orientation. Margery makes us all uncomfortable; often readers don’t know what to make of her. She seems to unsettle the epistemological scripts and maps which we use to orient and make sense of our lives She scrambles and explodes all of that. Alison does that too, but she cries a lot less. Is that why we like her more? Why are Margery’s tears so unsettling?
This question resonates with me now more than ever. Recently, I was involved in a car accident. I am physically fine, but psychologically very bruised. I am lucky to be in one piece, but it has been a traumatic experience, partly because I have lost my beloved car which was much more than a pile of metal, as people keep telling me: it was my freedom and independence. After all doesn’t Chaucer make such a big deal of the horses that the pilgrims ride as markers of their identity and ways of inhabiting space, of being visible?
After the accident I believe I reacted in a very rational manner: I called 999; I put my hazards on; I tried my best to move my car to a safe place to avoid further disruption. I stayed focused and strong as my statement was taken, as the lovely guy from the ambulance service asked whether I needed to go to A&E, as I had to call my husband on a rainy and windy night to tell him that I had been involved in an accident, as I was breathalysed. However, at some point the tears came. They were profuse, spontaneous, necessary, a manifestation of relief (things could have been so much worse), but also fear and shock. At that point someone said to me: ‘There is no need to cry’. It wasn’t the Archbishop of York, but it could very well have been him.
Since then I have thought about it long and hard. I have thought about Margery and her tears which also make people uncomfortable: who wants to do the emotional labour of sympathising, understanding, consoling? My rationality made me and the situation manageable (for myself and others), but my tears made me visible. No longer a pliable, docile body, suddenly I became uncomfortably audible and present. Tears were my bodily epistemology: the means through which my body was beginning to articulate, but also heal the trauma.
In medieval Marian theology Mary’s tears are a marker of her power: they reify her suffering for the loss of her Son, but they have also the power to cure and perform miracles. I am not Mary (!), but my tears brought me back home to myself; they restored my sense of presence and rejected the paradigm of docility imposed on all bodies, but especially female-coded ones which are, after all, much dreaded uncontainable leaky vessels.
Initially, I was ashamed of my tears; now I wear them as a badge of honour. Chaucer imagines a community of fierce women, Alison’s sect: vociferous, cacophonic (loud laughter and loud weeping), agential, conspicuous, unapologetically present and audible. I like to think that my deliberate decision not to stop crying has granted me access to and life-time membership of that sect (#teammargeryandalison).
Margery pities the Archbishop because of his lack of tears or affective response to the divine. I agree with her: castrating the body and the bodily manifestations of our selves ultimately silences us by severing us from what grounds us in this world. Silencing the body distances us irreparably and damagingly from our identity. As an academic, I am aware of the power (and hegemony) of intellect and I cherish it: I harness it every day to advocate, question, unpack, create, write, reflect. But it is through my body that I connect with others, the world and also myself. And the body is a source of incredible strength, but it is also imperfect, reluctant, fragile; it often refuses to conform and comply.
Like Margery, with her annoyingly assertive weeping, and Alison, deaf, battered and ever so vocal about her desires, I embrace the non-conforming body and its strength: it’s taught me the power of dissent and visibility to myself and others. That’s why we cry; there is definitely need to do so.