Margery Kempe and The Rhetoric of Laughter1

Karma Lochrie

Department of English

University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu HI



The Preface to The Book of Margery Kempe2 tells the story of a mystical treatise in search of an author. What her reader is about to read, she explains, is a mystical treatise (that no one could be persuaded or coerced to write) about a woman who held no credence as a mystic except with the Holy Ghost and a man who didn’t quite understand English, but who nevertheless earnestly cast her revelations in a gibberish which no one could read except with God’s help. This information is not calculated to make us enthusiastic about reading ffurther, and it is not over yet. We are then acquainted with the four-year old ordeal in which Kempe’s second scribe tries to sort out the English from the German in the first scribe’s version, and then abandons the project because of her notoriety. He wants nothing to do with her or her book. At this point, we may begin to wonder whether we do either. When the priest takes up the project once again, the work vexes his eyesight so that, although he can see everything around him – his pen, his writing table, his other books, the anxious woman leaning over him – he cannot see the written page before him. By this time we, as readers, may be experiencing the same vexation encountered by the priest with the vexed eyesight: namely, how to read The Book of Margery Kempe. While the priest resorts to spectacles – and finally to grace – to make sense of her book, our only recourse is laughter and a little of the second scribe’s persistence.

Modern readers of The Book of Margery Kempe have considered her narrative the produce of a so-called “naive sincerity” which can be both engaging and frustrating. Yet this reading of Margery Kempe’s Book strikes me as itself naive, for it overlooks what is one of the fundamental purposes of both her life and her Book: laughter. Or, in her own words, merriment. Whether she is laughing at herself which, as we shall see, she does more often than we may be aware, or whether she uses humour to teach wayward archbishops and priests humility, Kempe ultimately relies on the power of laughter to convert. As a way of confounding the wisdom of learned clerks of England, laughter serves Kempe’s and God’s plan of turning the hearts of the sinful soul “up-so-doun.” As a way of influencing her reader – as a rhetoric – laughter both implicates and redeems us from the world’s folly. Her ability as an author to play the fool with us – to make us laugh at her, even as she laughs at herself and her contemporaries – is anything but naive: instead, it reveals her cunning, her craft and, strangely enough, her seriousness of purpose.

Margery Kempe takes up the cause of merriment soon after her nocturnal conversion, when the sound of a heavenly melody makes her start right out of her bed and exclaim: “Alas that ever I did sin, it is full merry in Heaven” (p. 11). Kempe’s choice of words here – her use of merry, instead of joyful, glorious, or marvellous – is a significant one which captures the spirit of her experience of conversion. Ironically, here there is nothing like her insistence on telling everyone just how merry heaven is every time she is among friends eating dinner or socialising which effectively puts a damper on the social mirth of the evening.

Nevertheless, Kempe continues to express divine mirth in her laughter both at herself and at others. Laughter is, for Kempe, the human expression of divine mirth and grace. It redeems people from the sin of mirthless pride. Two key incidents reveal Margery Kempe’s laughter and the important redemptive role it plays in her own life.

After her second arraignment before the Archbishop of York and her acquittal, Kempe receives the Archbishop’s blessing and leaves his chamber “with right good cheer.” Her mirthful manner provokes a steward to rebuke her: “Holy folk should not laugh.” Kempe patiently explains as to one who missed a joke: “Sir, I have great cause to laugh, for the more shame and spite I suffer, the merrier may I be in our Lord Jesus Christ” (pp. 134-5). While the joke is
at the poor steward’s expense, Kempe’s reply also reveals the self-reflexive nature of her mirth. That is, she laughs at her own expense, at her own suffering, and at the world’s scorn which are the instruments of her humility and grace. Her laughter, then, is not derisive or contemptuous of the world. It is a way of redeeming her own suffering at the same time that it is meant to confound the steward’s petty pride and narrow conception of the proper behaviour of holy people.

In the second incident, Kempe tells a tale before some sceptical clerks at Canterbury about a man who does penance for his past sins by hiring men to chide and reprove him. One day, as Kempe tells it, he came among great men who despised him; “as you do me,” she interjects – no doubt with a smiling cheer. He merely laughs, smiles, and has “good game” at their abuse until, in frustration, one of the clerks asks why he laughs. His answer provides Kempe with her own good game. “Ah sir, I have great cause to laugh, for I have many days put silver out of my purse and hired men to chide me for remission of my sin, and this day I may keep my silver in my purse. I thank you all” (p. 28). The joke is clearly on the clerks of Canterbury and all so-called great men whose learning makes them proud despisers of the world.

The Book of Margery Kempe, like this story, is full of gaming with both Kempe’s own contemporaries and her readers. She is partial to two games in particular: those which expose the pride and folly of the learned men of England and those which expose herself to ridicule. The first kind, which I call clerk baiting, is found throughout Kempe’s encounters with English authorities. She engages in riddles, equivocations, and jokes with the bishops and stewards of England, giving cause for surprise and offence, as much for laughter. Although the book contains numerous examples, I have time to relate only two. In the first, Kempe is brought before the Bishop of Worchester to be interrogated on her faith. Upon entering his chambers, she is greeted by the extremely well-dressed assistants to the Bishop – “the most worshipfullest men in town,” as she calls them. Instead of greeting them, she blesses herself. The Bishop’s men are baffled by her gesture, since it is usually used to ward off devils, rather than to greet the “worshipfullest men in town.” When they ask her what devil ails her, she answers them, “Whose men are you?” Still confused, they reply, “the bishop’s men.” Kempe shakes her head: “Nay, you are more like the devil’s men.” The Bishop’s men respond with all the anger of people who are embarrassed because they have unwittingly had a joke played on them. While they take offence we, as readers, are able to appreciate Kempe’s joke as she once again smites sinful men with her holy mirth. Even the Bishop’s men are soon converted by her joke however. They end up thanking her for her lesson in their own ”misgovernance.”

In a second example, Kempe has just appeared before the Archbishop of York for the first time, to be questioned on the Articles of Faith and to be begged by the Archbishop to leave his diocese. When she is accused by one of the examining clerks of telling the worst tales of priests ever heard, she proceeds to confirm the accusation. Her tale is about a wayward priest who, lost in a wood, rests one night by a flourishing pear tree. Soon a bear appears and greedily devours fruit and flower of the tree. To the priest’s horror, the bear then turns his tail-end to the priest and, in Kemp’s words, “voids the fruit out again at the rear part.” The priest is understandably repulsed and baffled. He does not understand what this might mean until a palmer explains that the priest is himself the pear tree, flourishing when he serves Christ. He is also the bear who violates the fruits and flowers of his soul by living a life of sin and performing his office without devotion. In the crudeness of the tale at the false priest’s expense lies its humour. It is hard to imagine that the people of York who had gathered to observe the interrogation did not laugh at the priest’s squeamish horror and the bear’s crude irreverence. One doesn’t have to read Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale” to recognize the appeal of scatological humour directed at false religious figures, nor its effectiveness. Nevertheless, Kempe’s tale is offensive just as she intends it to be for, as she explains to a priest who is smitten to the heart by her tale, “Those who are evilly pleased with my tales, mark it well, for they are the guilty ones” (p. 128). Once again, Kempe’s humour tests the souls of her listeners, as well as her readers, finding those who laugh innocent, and those who take offence guilty. The power of her humour to convert, then, is derived from her ability to give offence.

Perhaps the most disturbing humour of Kempe’s narrative – disturbing, at least, for readers – is that which makes us laugh at her. Like a modern anti-hero, the creature of Kempe’s treatise is continually plagued by misadventure and misunderstanding. From the very beginning when the barm refuses to stand on her brew, Kempe (“the creature”) becomes the source of her own good game. A few examples will suffice to evoke the comedy which accompanies the tribulation she experiences along the “way of high perfection.” The serious problem of Kempe’s conflict between her duties as a wife and her aspiration to be a bride of Christ is humorously evoked in a conversation between herself and her husband. On a hot midsummer’s eve, as John and Margery bear cakes and ale homeward from York and John is chafing under Margery’s demand that they not sleep together, he hits upon what he imagines the perfect trick to elicit Margery’s devotion to him. He tries the old hypothetical situation. “Margery,” he says, “if a man came along here with a sword and vowed to smite off my head unless I communed naturally with you as I have done before, tell me the truth of your conscience – for you say you will not lie – whether you would suffer my head to be struck off or else suffer me to meddle with you.” Perceiving the threat to their agreement to live chaste, she begs him not to ask such questions. He, confident of his purpose and her answer, insists. She answers, “I’d rather see you slain.” “You are no good wife,” poor John cries out. Which is true, as even modern scholars like to point out but, as Kempe was well aware, goodness really has nothing to do with it. The way of high perfection, she might have replied to John, is not peopled with good wives.

Another crisis in Kempe’s journey along the perfect way occurs during her two periods of temptation sent by Christ, in both cases to punish her for her pride. Now, temptation in itself is not necessarily the stuff of mediaeval humour. However, when a devil presents religious flashers in a vision and tells Kempe to choose from among the exposed members which she would like to meddle with first, only the most phlegmatic mediaeval reader would need to search for cause to laugh. While Kempe suffers great shame because the devil accuses her of preferring some of the bared priestly members to others and she cannot deny it, we can appreciate her embarrassment as she retells the story. I cannot imagine her dictating this part of her treatise about the tempting priestly genitals to her priestly amanuensis without smiling and a sense of good game at her own expense.

A more troubling kind of humour which occurs late in her book involves her vision of the death of the Blessed Virgin. As the apostles surround Mary asking her for grace, Kempe begins to weep sorely as is her custom. Instead of being rebuked by her exasperated contemporaries this time, it is the apostles who turn around and, in effect, tell her to shut up. This is as surprising as it is disturbing, for the apostles essentially “break vision” when they turn to admonish her. Unlike her colloquies with Christ and the Virgin, this vision turns on its visionary in much the same way as characters in modern novels, plays, and films can turn on their authors. More importantly, the vision casts a good-humoured glance at Kempe’s violent weeping, perhaps causing her readers to wonder why we should tolerate Kempe’s weeping if it tries the patience of an apostle of Christ.

Furthermore, readers might begin to have doubts about how seriously we may be expected to take Kempe, when so much of her experience and even her visions cause us to laugh at her. It is one thing to make us laugh at the learned clerks of England and quite another to make us laugh at this creature who is supposedly an example to all people and the authority of her narrative. This crisis in our reading, however, depends upon our assumption that Kempe is unconsciously funny, that we are laughing at her while she takes herself quite seriously – even too seriously. This is the assumption I would like to dismantle by suggesting that Margery Kempe not only expects us to laugh, but that she laughs with us in her narrative.

Essential to the humour of Kempe’s narrative is her distinction between herself as subject of the Bookand herself as author. By referring to herself in the third person as “this creature,” Kempe maintains a crucial narrative distance which allows us to separate author from the subject of her tale. As with her tale about the man who laughs at unsolicited scorn, Kempe is, in her Book, both teller and subject of her tale. Her good game exploits this duality. In addition, the more than twenty-five years which stand between her conversion and the writing of her book reinforce the narrative distancing of author from her work. The laughter which she invokes is thus a retrospective one which keeps separate what she calls the “trewe sentens” of her book and the “experiens.”

As we have seen, the spirit of Kempe’s conversion and her mission in the world depends on heavenly mirth and worldly good game. In fact, she uses good game to restore the wayward and spiritually negligent to God’s grace and His mirth. Christ calls her a “mirror against men” in that her weeping reminds them of their own unregeneracy. In the same way, her laughter serves to mirror their foolish wisdom and pride. What I am suggesting, then, is that Kempe is a fool of God, that she consciously and deliberately renders “the creature” of her book the object of our laughter. Like the fool of St. Paul, she assumes the task of confounding the wisdom of the world by earning its despite as well as its laughter. In the world of the holy fool, according to St. Francis, the wisdom of the world is the gravest folly, while the divine folly of the fool is the highest wisdom. This is the paradoxical way which is the fool’s way to high perfection. Margery Kempe, in her life and in her book, assumes this burden of the fool – of turning the world upside down, just as Christ does her own life, in order to restore it to Him. While she suffers both ridicule and laughter, she is only as laughable as she is capable of laughing. This is the ultimate test of her humility and that perfection which she so often equates with tribulation.

Even her opening account of the mystical treatise in search of an author affords a lesson in grace, for it is finally grace and not spectacles which restores the priest’s eyesight to him. For readers of The Book of Margery Kempe, laughter at the hapless treatise and vexed priest becomes a kind of grace. Like the creature herself, Kempe’s text plays the fool with us, testing our wisdom in our ability to laugh, even as she is tested in her ability to endure our laughter. At the same time, our laughter makes us complicitous in her suffering. The disease which results from Kempe’s rhetoric of laughter is bound to offend us, even as it offended her own contemporaries. But like the Bishop’s men whose anger at the joke she plays on them turns to gratitude, readers of The Book of Margery Kempe may learn something about pride, humility, and the making of books from our own laughter.

Margery Kempe’s laughter finally places her outside the usual categories of mysticism in which she is placed. We cannot trace her origins to any group of laughing female mystics of the Middle Ages. There is, however, a story from the second century A.D. which I would like to pose as a kind of apocryphal model for Margery Kempe. The story goes that at the Last Supper as Christ blessed the bread and cup, signing them with the words “This is my Body and Blood” Mary, the sister of Martha, laughed. The same Mary who comes to represent the contemplative life in meditational literature laughs at that most crucial moment in the Last Supper. While this version of the Last Supper was told by early Christians to explain why women should not be allowed to become priests (“holy folk should not laugh”), it may also be read as a story of the mystic for whom laughter is both celebratory and irreverent. To those who claim with the clerks of England that holy folk should not laugh, the stories of Mary and Margery teach not only that holy folk should laugh, but that the way of perfection requires nothing less than the supreme act of laughter.