Hagiography to autobiography: Generic conflation in ``The Book of Margery Kempe''

Date of Completion

January 1991


Literature, Medieval|Biography




The Book of Margery Kempe has been variously described as a mystical treatise, an autobiography, and even an exercise in hagiography. The very notion of genre is problematic, especially in the medieval period, and The Book of Margery Kempe reflects this complexity; it does not conform to the expectations dictated by a single genre. It conflates, instead, the formal properties of these objectively defined genres and functions as a synthesis of all three kinds. For example, Kempe presents herself according to the conventions of hagiography, yet her narrative lacks the authoritative status provided by a third-person hagiographer. Similarly, the text locates Kempe historically in time and space, but this location does not add up to our modern notion of autobiography. Rather, The Book of Margery Kempe constructs a self or subject which is modelled on figures from other vitae, such as those of Marie d'Oignies and Bridget of Sweden, and which conflates the historical Margery Kempe with a "Margery Kempe" created intratextually. We find a fusion of fact and fiction, sacred and secular, of internal and external location in The Book of Margery Kempe as the text collapses genre to create its own space among disparate traditions. The self thus inscribed becomes a female subject fashioned not only from tropes lifted from texts by women, but also from those by men. Kempe's tears, her most notorious trait, provide a paradigm for this process. They seem "feminine," but their sources are found through the Psalms, the New Testament, the writings of the monastic theologians as well as the Middle English mystics. Kempe confers authority on her textual "self" by co-opting the weight and force of these tropes as her Book manipulates the tensions between different genres and traditions. ^