As the medieval period progressed, so too did its representations and understanding of women. Females were less frequently presented as being either completely good or evil and instead were more independent. This is because although they were still confined, they were becoming more assertive. One of the best examples of this blending of the confined and unconfined woman can be seen in The Book of Margery Kempe. With this woman, there is a mixing between the more traditional medieval views of women with a new understanding of how women could cross the boundaries and be both free, even though still confined by their society.
It is difficult to deny that Margery Kempe has a flair for the dramatic, especially when one examines passages about her clothing. Before her religious conversion, she was described as being a rather gaudy dresser, which brought criticism upon her, even though, “all her desire was for to be worshipped of the people" (Kempe 247). Given that she was heavily invested in other people’s attentions on her and how they perceived her, there is an undercurrent of falsehood surrounding this text, almost as if everything she does is more for show than from a sense of true religious ecstasy. Even when she switches her attire from gaudy to virginal white, there is something equally theatrical about her choice of a maiden’s garb since it is in such sharp contrast to her previous “sinful" manner of dressing herself. While Guenevere was an ornamental figure and dressed to show off her delicateness and status as a confined and kept woman, Margery Kempe dresses to achieve a different end—she wishes to show herself as independent of traditional influences and thus is asserting herself as an individual, not simply a married woman. Much to the dismay of her husband, Margery, before undergoing her religious transformation, is a literal “showboat" of female sexuality through her clothing. “She wore gold pipes on her head and her hoods with the tippets were dagged. Her cloaks were dagged also and laid with divers colors between the dags that it should be more staring to men’s sight and herself be more worshipped" (246). It is obvious in this passage, especially when viewed in connection with her desire to be admired, that she has a keen sense of the weaknesses of men, therefore, she flaunts her clothing (thus sexuality) freely. Despite her later conversion, this description is still fresh in the reader’s mind and it is difficult to forget that she is has the ability and knowledge of the feminine manipulation she is capable of—even if she supposedly isn’t using it any longer. In some senses, her style of dress can be called “affective sexuality" and her knack for invoking responses through her garments and outer showing of her desires is a theme that is recurrent and infused with feminine overtones. While her switch to the white of virgins can be seen as a sort of “affective piety" it is nonetheless a dramatic change and in itself can be seen as a gaudy gesture of true faith. In other words, religion, which has hitherto been part of the influence that confines women, is part of what allows Margery to express herself as an individual. Through her self-presentation she is able to walk the border between traditional medieval womanhood and something that allows for more freedom, even if it means she will be shunned by some.
When keeping in mind the above description on Margery’s attire, it might be a little difficult for those who are suspicious of Margery’s acts to stifle a laugh when she appears before the archbishop wearing virginal white. This is not necessarily laughable because we already know she isn’t a virgin, but rather, because of the dramatic shift in her appearance. Dress and appearance are important elements to the females depicted in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in some ways, through ornamentation these women are defined. In this case, however, we see that Margery is using feminine dress conventions to manipulate (as opposed to conforming to) responses—male responses in particular. She attempts to use her clothing to incite a sympathetic response to her as a “mother figure" dressed, like the Holy Virgin, in pure white. When the Archbishop asks her why she is dressed so and whether or not she is a maiden, her reply is dramatic and produces the response she is looking for. “Nay sir, I am no maiden, I am a wife" (269). The text states that as she says these lines she is “kneeling on her knees before him", the very picture of a virginal humble subservient female. Margery obviously knows how to shift her personality, in particular her feminine side, to adjust to her surroundings and although it is difficult to judge whether this performance of virginal grace actually saved her from being burned, it is easy for the reader to think it did.
Along with her pious attire and behavior for the Archbishop and his men, Margery’s language changes and becomes much more wise sounding, as though she has become a sort of sage. Strangely though, this shift in her rhetoric is coupled with this very weak and submissive front she puts up when she first encounters the Archbishop. At first, she is weak and on her knees all dressed in maidenly white. This seems to invoke a response in the males since they don’t have her executed right away, but before the proceedings can go any farther, she breaks down and begins one of her famous crying fits. “At last she cried loud therewith that the Archbishop and his clerks and much people had great wonder of her, for they had not heard such crying before." Here she has made a spectacle of herself, but not without reason—to a suspicious reader of The Book of Margery Kempe , it would be perfectly feasible to think that this crying fit was planned in order to not only incite pity, but to listen to her once she’d gotten the attention necessary to say what she needed to. It’s an interesting question to pose whether or not this could have been the only way for a woman to receive the intellectual attention of the male authority and if so, then in some ways, Margery has succeeded in making her voice heard. In other words, Margery Kempe realizes the power of traditional images of confined women and seeks to present herself as such while actually behaving according to its opposite. She is both the “crone and the coquette" and through skillful manipulation of her image she is able to walk to the line.
This overly piteous female weeping sequence in which the reader can easily imagine Margery sprawled on the floor, looking helpless and much like a victim is followed by the true impact of her “performance". She dries her tears and is instantly ready with a sharp tongue to take on the questions of the bewildered Archbishop and does so gracefully and meaningfully. What is so great about this is that they were expecting a very pathetic weeping female to weakly respond to their questions, but instead were greeted by the “old, pre-conversion Margery Kempe" who responds to the question by shooting them right back. For example, the first question she turns back on the male authority is when they ask her why she weeps so mournfully. Margery responds with a very quick and thoughtful, “Sir, ye shall will some day that ye had wept as sore as I." There is no response from the Archbishop nor any of his clerks to this and immediately, as if to strengthen himself, he asks the articles of faith. Margery s able to respond to this “male" authority knowledge and again, this has such an impact because of her hyper-feminine performance followed by her sharp wit.
Margery’s use of language and rhetoric is showcased again when the Archbishop says to her that he’s heard she is a wicked woman. Instantly, and apparently without thought, she responds with, “Sir, so I hear say you are a wicked man." Here, and in the conversations between her and the male religious authority, the distinct difference of her feminine manipulations are most apparent since this intellectual religious debate was preceded by her “weak-woman" performance and display of feminine vulnerability (Powell 7). While some may not think Margery s sincere, she is, at the very least, able to make an impact and perhaps this is what is most striking about her. She plays the martyr for just long enough to get her point across and does so using her femininity (and traits typically associated with females such as clothing, virginity, and weeping—at least for this period).
The only other time the reader is given a sense of other representations of female piety is with the description of Julian of Norwich. Oddly enough, despite the heavy emphasis on appearances of Margery throughout the text, Julian of Norwich s described only as an anchoress. Instead of thick descriptions of her outer image, she is represented by words instead of images. This is certainly a turning point in The Book of Margery Kempe not only because it allows the reader to see what intellectual/religious heights Margery is aspiring to, but because we are given the chance to make a comparison in gendered representations of piety.
Julian of Norwich is female, but seems to be taken out of all gender contexts within the text because she is educated. Margery, whose presentation in the book is a very gendered character and what is most important about his difference is that Margery relies on emotion whereas Julian is focused on education. Julian quotes saints and scripture and has a deep understanding of the Bible, whereas Margery’s appeals, particularly to the Archbishop, rely on emotional tales and pleas. What is interesting as well about this comparison is that Julian of Norwich has been de-feminized, perhaps because she is educated and pious, while Margery has been hyper-feminized, perhaps because her emotion is her piousness (Gastle 123). The Book of Margery Kempe offers modern readers a unique chance to view how the scribe of Margery’s story may have subconsciously used gender as a literary way of depicting how women practice their faith. If one were to look at Margery alone, they would come away with the impression that women’s faith is based on emotion, men (such as the Archbishop) base their faith on knowledge and learning of the “laws" of the Bible and God, but strangely, Julian of Norwich doesn’t fit into either of these categories. She is learned, but she is also not emotional, not prone to the same displays of affective piety that Margery is given over to. While gendered representations of piety are on the central questions of the text, it is impossible to look at Margery as a lone example of female piety—especially since there was no one that the reader saw that was behaving in quite the same way. Still, looking at the way men and women practice and uphold their faith seems divided and is certainly worth further exploration, especially as far as the question of where Julian of Norwich fits into this puzzle of gender and faith.
After earlier medieval texts, representations of women as seen by the example of Margery Kempe become a little more rounded and developed. While women of earlier texts seemed happy to be ornaments who were confined, eventually there is a sense of dissatisfaction with this. As a result, there are more detailed and fuller pictures of women and they are interesting because of who they are rather than because of their role in influencing male affairs as peace weavers or ornaments.