Throughout The Book of Margery Kempe the narrow roles for medieval women that were codified by the Church and more generally, the patriarchal society, were hardly negotiable. There were a set of strict expectations defining a woman’s duty both inside the home and within a marriage and for a woman who strayed from these expectations, there would be harsh social and perhaps legal or religious implications for disobedience. Women were expected to bear children and nurture them while also remaining obedient to their husbands and taking care of domestic matters.
What makes Margery so interesting is that she went against all of these social codes and systematically violated each one of them. While her intentions for disobedience were for religious purposes, this still did not relieve her of her duties to her children and husband and she faced a great deal of criticism, both from her peers and the Church for this perceived rebellion. In sum, The Book of Margery Kempe tells modern a great deal about the expectations placed on medieval women and the problems they might face if they go against the highly regulated social codes for gender roles.
The narrator describes Margery in two particular contexts that deviate greatly from the norms of medieval women and in both cases there is punishment of one form or another to follow. Margery is described as being very proud and wore the finest fashions with gold tippets and purple cloth as well as elaborate headpieces and adornments. During this time she went away from the traditional expectations of medieval women and became a brewer and the reader gets the impression that this was mostly her enterprise—not her husband’s.
Almost as punishment though, after a few years the business fails and Margery attributes this to her “pride” and associate its failure with God’s doing (it should be noted that she is recalling this after her conversion). In the second case, Margery decides to forego sexual relations with her husband and the two make a “chastity agreement” that allows Margery to don white and do what she pleases. The punishment for this is social, and when she is in front of the Archbishop, he asks her whether or not she is a virgin since she is dressed in white. She answers, “No sir, I am no virgin, I am a married woman” which elicits a strong response from the hierarchy since women that were wives should not wear white. It is necessary to point out that medieval women did not have many choices and they almost had to choose between being chaste nuns or wives and mothers. For Margery to go against this and take on the appearance of one while being another was sensational and this did not help with her relationship to the greater society.
Although they do not figure into the text in any significant way, it should be remembered that Margery has given birth to fourteen children. Until her “conversion” it can be assumed that she did take care of her offspring as well as serve her husband, thus adhering to her carefully prescribed role as a medieval woman. Childbirth in medieval times was dangerous and could be deadly for a weak woman and it seems as though Margery, as well as woman she assists with her after-birth madness are suffering from what might be a result of labor and subsequent depression and delirium. Throughout her illness, Margery is beset with awful visions of hell and to a modern reader, this sounds more like the effects of a mental illness (especially one associated with post-partum depression) rather than a brush with the Devil.
At one point in the plot of The Book of Margery Kempe, the narrator describes Margery’s fit, stating, “She would have killed herself many a time as they stirred her to, and would have been damned with them in hell, and in witness of this she bit her own hand so violently that the mark could be seen for the rest of her life. She also pitilessly tore the skin on her body near her heart with her nails, for she had no other implement, and she would have done something worse, except that she was tied up and forcibly restrained both day and night so that she could not do as she wanted.”
Although there is a religious nature to what follows, these same symptoms are seen in the case of another woman who has just gone through complicated labor. This woman’s illness seemed to be quite similar to Margery’s and the reader is told, “Then she was taken to a room at the furthest end of the town, so that people should not hear her crying. And there she was bound hand and foot with chains of iron, sothat she should not strike anybody.” For women in medieval times, childbirth and its associated dangers could produce mental illness and since so much of their culture was committed to images of a suffering Christ as well as other religious iconography, it seems only natural that they would try to transpose the suffering of Christ or those described as hell pains onto the awful feelings of depression or post-birth psychosis. For society, the only solution left was to bind their hands and feet, treating them as insane or perhaps even possessed, thus it is clear that was little understanding about childbirth and perhaps even its strains.