Writing Medieval Women’s Lives (The New Middle Ages)

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In their correspondence, he asks her and her community to copy a luxurious book, a major activity that scribes undertook in an era before printing. Eadburga was hardly likely to be the sole writer in her institution; in fact, her pupil Lioba went on to become an abbess of her own monastery, an indication that Minister-in-Thanet may have had a bustling school and scriptorium.

Archaeological and paleographic evidence suggests that St. In many cases, however, writing was a tool to exclude women. Countering this erasure, women literally inscribed themselves into manuscripts. In the Salisbury Psalter , a 10th or 11th century prayerbook, nuns appear to have replaced masculine-inflected words with feminine ones, suggesting that the book was adapted for use by a community of women.

Other manuscripts have shown signs of similar repurposing of male-generated texts. Without writing or re-writing , these women would have been isolated, worshipping from books designed for men. By learning the craft and wielding the tools of book-making, they were able to play roles in the development of medieval thought and society. Hildegard, who received holy visions, directed the making of her books, even if she did not perform the labor of writing. This image from her Liber Scivias depicts her receiving a vision from God in the form of flames, and dictating to a monk, who copies her words while she is making sketches on a wax tablet.

Another well-known example is that of late-medieval English mystic Margery Kempe, who dictated details of her life and conversations with God to a scribe and a priest. The resulting Book of Margery Kempe , is often regarded as the first autobiography in English. With the rise of white supremacists claiming the middle ages as the model of a successful white, male-oriented society, scholars have been mounting a burgeoning effort to highlight the diversity of medieval European life. Rather than occupying a small, confined corner of intellectual life, women as copyists and scribes and dictators were a constant presence in the period.

There is even a high likelihood that the only reason why we have the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf is the labor of a female copyist. Benedict, Kimberly M. New York: Routledge, Michelle P. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Kay and L. McKitterick, Rosamond. Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web.

Women Scribes: The Technologists of the Middle Ages – The New Inquiry

Skip to content. Hildegard von Bingen Received a divine inspiration and passes it on to her scribe Wikimedia Commons Public Domain With the rise of white supremacists claiming the middle ages as the model of a successful white, male-oriented society, scholars have been mounting a burgeoning effort to highlight the diversity of medieval European life.

On two separate occasions, the husband almost catches his wife, but each time, the gossip concocts an excuse for the wife, and the roper accepts it. The wife, however, cannot contain her temptation, and she again goes to the prior. The husband follows his wife into town and watches as she enters the priory. The wife is then crippled and bedridden for some time. Due to the commotion in his bed, the roper wakes to find the couple together, explodes in anger, and takes out his knife and slays the lovers.

The gossip plays the roles of instigator and enabler by persuading the wife to cheat on her husband and then providing her with explanations for her suspicious actions. Before doing so, however, the husband interestingly forges a covenant with a surgeon to heal two broken legs. As a result of her purposeful deviation from the social norms of wifely behavior, Alisoun suffers violence from her fifth husband that first results in bruises and culminates in the partial loss of her hearing.

Notably, as Priscilla Martin has suggested, though both women are defined in terms of their sexuality either the lack or excess of it , it is the excessive sexual nature of Alisoun that is threatening; though the Prioress is feminine and perhaps sexually attractive, Alisoun eagerly acts on her lustful desires. Though Lochrie does not label Alisoun as disabled and does not directly engage disability theory, it is evident that a hypertrophied clitoris was indeed considered to be a bodily defect in medieval culture. For instance, in the medical writings of Soranus and Avicenna, an enlarged clitoris was thought to be dangerous, for it not only appeared penis-like, but it also actively sought out sexual pleasure from other women.

And sometimes it occurs to her to perform with women a coitus similar to what is done to them with men. Within a gendered model for disability, we can examine the intersection of disability and gender as on a continuum. In the middle rests the female, heterosexual, nondisabled, virgin body, and on the other side exists the female, disabled, sexual body.

The female body differentiates from the perfect, male body, while the sexual female body distinguishes from the virgin female body, ultimately rendering the sexually active female body, in its excess, as imperfect. In other words, the perfection of the male virgin body mitigates the perfection of the female virgin body, which, in turn, relegates the sexual female body into the position of Other. As my introduction suggests, medical and scriptural discourse implicitly link the overly sexualized woman and the disabled person. Arguing that the female sexual body is imperfect does not imply that the married woman had no place in medieval society.

Some medieval patristic discourse on marriage, however, outlines a distinct hierarchy of sexual purity. According to religious writers like Jerome, virginity, celibacy, and chaste marriage were clearly the purest options for medieval women. Other writers like Augustine upheld the notion that celibacy was a purer state than marriage, but contended that if such states of perfection were too difficult to attain, sexual intercourse within marriage was the next best option, for it would produce good i. Furthermore, the appropriateness of multiple marriages was an apparent source of anxiety and debate, as the antifeminist discourse that Alisoun alludes to in her prologue evidences.

As such, the prologue marks her deviant body as in need of discipline. At the same time, her prologue acknowledges the narratives that the sexual female body has generated among patristic writers. Specifically, through her own life story, Alisoun demonstrates the male desire to bring unwieldy bodies like hers under control in her synthesis of antifeminist discourse. By questioning patristic interpretations of the superiority of virginity to marriage, she is able to defend her multiple marriages and her affinity for sex.

Later, as she narrates the accounts of her five marriages, she weaves throughout it antifeminist writings by such authors as Jerome, Theophrastus, Walter Map, and Deschamps that attempt to restrain or reform the excess or disorder of the sexual female body. Antifeminist, protofeminist, historical figure, battered wife—Alisoun morphs into an endless procession of roles within critical discourse. Instead, she uses the discourse to indict her former husbands by claiming they spouted such verbal abuse while they were drunk —2. Rather, I seek to exploit her complexity by adding another potential role to her list: disabled woman.

Though Jankin intends the impairment to teach Alisoun a lesson, it is apparent that she does not heed to the message. God lete his soule nevere come in helle! And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe; That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe, And evere shal unto myn endyng day. But in oure bed he was so fresshe and gay, And therewithal so wel koude he me glose, Whan that he wolde han my bele chose; That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon, He koude wynne again my love anon.

Medieval Literature

I trowe I loved hym best, for that he Was of his love daungerous to me. Her tale explicitly fuses the link between sex and violence that her prologue implies by recounting the rape of a nameless maiden. The antifeminism of the book lambasts marriage by rehearsing the innate evils of women. One of the authors included in the book is Trotula, the eleventh-century physician who contributed to the medical treatise known as the Trotula. While most scholars remain puzzled as to why the female author, who offers tempered views on the female body and its functions, is included in a list of antifeminist texts,69 they fail to point out that the physician wrote only part of the text.

Subsequent sections, as my introduction outlines, root stereotypically negative feminine qualities in the imperfect anatomy of the female body. After tearing out the pages, she hits Jankin on the cheek, knocking him to the ground. He then arises and strikes the blow that leaves her deaf in one ear — As Irina Metzler shows, examples of literal deafness abound in medieval medical textbooks and the miracle stories of saints.

Authorities differentiated between congenital and acquired deafness, and though treatments existed, medical experts frequently found deafness to be incurable. The ears, like the eyes, were necessary portals through which to receive important spiritual information. Hearing often symbolized knowledge, while deafness signified a restricted ability to comprehend. Because the ear would be the portal through which Alisoun would learn spiritual doctrine, its blockage would then signify her inability to process such teachings.

Storm fails to read Alisoun closely enough, however. For instance, she deliberately cites biblical passages that support her outlook on marriage and omits those that do not. However, as is everything associated with the Wife of Bath, her sovereignty remains ambiguous. This uncharacteristic obedience to Jankin conf licts with the freedom Alisoun claims to have won, leaving readers to question whether she has dominated her husband or has been dominated by him. The tale she tells her fellow pilgrims is no exception. The rapist-knight marries an old hag—frequently presumed to be an alter ego of Alisoun herself 80 —after receiving from her the answer to what women most desire.

However, such reward is quickly tempered, for, in each case, the wife relinquishes her newfound freedom to the husband. In addition to being able to work, Alisoun is a seasoned pilgrim, having traveled to such famous pilgrimage sites as Jerusalem, Rome, Boulogne, Spain, and Cologne —6 , and she presumably travels without the company of Jankin. As Chaucer reveals, each of his pilgrims is making the trip in order to thank St. By , Jacobus de Voragine included St. Thomas in his compilation of the lives of the saints, The Golden Legend. As Metzler has shown, medieval medical textbooks generally treat deafness, especially congenital deafness and deafness longer than three years, as incurable.

However, as always, nothing is straightforward when it comes to Alisoun. Because she declares that her intentions to go on pilgrimages are not devout, we cannot conclude irrefutably that she is searching for a miraculous cure. Could she, like Dame Sirith and May, be exploiting her disability for personal gain? It is certainly not unwarranted to think so. Alisoun has no qualms about feigning bodily infirmity in order to get what she wants from Jankin; after he hits her ear, she falls to the ground, pretending to die.

Immediately remorseful, he kneels at her side, and she quickly strikes him back, which leads him to relinquish his land and estate to her — Her disability produces her narrative, which is a response to the antifeminist discourse that seeks to limit disorderly female bodies like her own. Therefore, the prologue directly hinges on her sexual body, and the antifeminist discourse woven throughout constantly threatens to limit it.

What happens to the wives of the Book of the Knight and Alisoun, then, demonstrates that narratorial control over unruly female characters is inscribed in the text, and, often, that control takes the form of disabling physical violence. Alisoun, however, attempts to resist such masculine control by turning the violence upon her husband and his book. But, when she crosses the line by attempting to disable a man and his text, she bears the mark of her punishment on her body.

We are left asking whether Alisoun breaks free from male authority by exploiting her impairments, or whether she simply reiterates the cycle present in texts like the Book of the Knight: woman deviates from man, man physically abuses woman, and woman defers to man. We will continue this exploration in the next chapter by considering women who are punished by supernatural sources.

The effect of incorporating a supernatural agent into the narrative is twofold. First, supernatural agents of punishment create an opening in the narrative that allows for a critical assessment of discourses that present women as inherently defective in both body and character.

Second, the supernatural punishments represent an intrinsic narrative drive to control the deviancy that the unruly female character creates. However, instead of neatly concluding the narrative, the bodily impairments caused by the punishment of the character end up producing alternative narratives that challenge common medieval notions of femaleness, femininity, and disability. The supernatural elements, thus, provide a space in each text for a critical analysis of dominant representations of women and ablebodiedness.

In her Prologue to the Lais, Marie claims to be converting the original oral Breton tales into written text 33— Although evidently educated in addition to writing in AngloNorman French, she demonstrates knowledge of Breton, Latin, and English in her translations , Marie takes great pains to prove not only her ability, but also her suitability as a woman writer. In other words, a disabled body is always already both the producer and the product of narrative. As chapter 2 demonstrates, frequently this narrative drive presents itself as a masculine force that employs male agents that use crippling physical violence in order to restrain the feminine deviance—usually represented by an unruly woman—in the text.

This is not a question I seek to answer here. As a result, such a form of writing is not dependent upon the sex of the author since it is not a product of authorial intention. In Bisclavret, Marie recounts the tale of a well-respected nobleman whom she calls Bisclavret, who just happens to turn into a werewolf for three days every week, and his wife, who just happens to be terrified of werewolves. Meanwhile, Bisclavret, in his werewolf form, befriends the king and becomes a beloved pet of the court. When he sees his wife sometime later, he viciously attacks her, tearing her nose from her face.

The king then exiles the wife and many of her female offspring are born without noses. However, I also side with Bruckner in detecting a paradoxical undercurrent in the tale that, I argue, exposes the illusory nature of both the perfect body politic—the unified, all-male court—and the perfect female body which, ironically, must be rendered imperfect in order for the male bonds of the court to survive.

She begins the tale by describing the horrific nature of werewolves as a group: Garvalf, ceo est beste salvage; Tant cum il est en cele rage, Hummes devure, grant mal fait, Es granz forez converse e vait. The real violence of the metamorphosis is in the loss of humanity, the transformation into not only the other, but the opposite.

Moreover, Holten notes that the wolf was commonly associated with criminals, sexual deviants, and even lepers, all of which, because of their physical aberrancies, were frequently exiled from their communities. While voluntary werewolves choose to take on their bestial forms at will, involuntary werewolves are victim to their lycanthropic states. Holten explains that only involuntary werewolves possess the ability to successfully repent and thus be restored to their human forms.

What worse thing could he have done to her? The closest female equivalent consisted in [sic] cutting off the nose. As Pickens suggests, bodily violence produces text in the lai. In a similar fashion, I contend that we can read the end of the tale as an example of feminine text produced through violence. According to Mitchell and Snyder, the gap created by a deviant body produces narrative that seeks to close the gap, usually through the cure, expulsion, or elimination of that body. Thus, the narrative cannot conclude; it must infinitely repeat.

As Judith Butler has explained in her study of gender, endless repetition does not have to be repressive. These exceptions allow space for subversion that calls attention to the arbitrary and illusive nature of particular identities. Butler writes: The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects.

If the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility, i. Lanval leaves the court with his lover, ultimately rejecting the court for the fairy world. Though Lanval does not explicitly incorporate female physical impairment in the way Bisclavret does, its fourteenth-century English redaction Sir Launfal makes it central.

As in Bisclavret, a supernatural agent here punishes an unruly woman through physical violence that results in permanent impairment. As several scholars have noted, the changes Chestre makes to his sources in both form and content ref lect the new middle-class consciousness characteristic of the end of feudalism in the late fourteenth century. Because of his fall from royal favor, however, the mayor can only offer Launfal a shed outside of his home 85— Launfal is only able to reconcile his status as an outsider among other outsiders, the fairy women of the forest.

Here, in a space outside of the court, Launfal finds wealth, love, and acceptance. Haughty and manipulative, Gwenore actively subverts her proper gendered role and at times seems more powerful than her husband, whom Chestre casts as passive. Everych knight she gaf broche other ryng, But Syr Launfal shce yaf nothyng— That grevede hym many a sythe.


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In other words, inhabitants of lands outside of what was considered England became associated with negative physical and social characteristics. Some argue that the blinding operates on a metaphorical level. Tokes notes that, as a tale transforms into a more popular form, it often becomes focused on guilt, the law, and the proper punishment of guilty parties.

If Chestre wanted to undercut the power of the court, then why is the queen punished? Why not Artour? And, just why is Gwenore punished by Tryamour, a supernatural figure, instead of by the court leaders? At the request of Sir Valentyne, Launfal travels to Lombardy and, with the help of his assistant Gyfre, slays the giant and all of his lords —, As noted in chapter 1, Lombards, like Jews, were money lenders, a practice deemed unnatural by Christian law. As such, medieval Christians sometimes viewed Lombards derogatorily—both in character and in body.

Moreover, because Jews were associated with blindness, sexual promiscuity, femininity, and bodily excess, Lombards could be subject to similar stereotypes. By asserting his masculinity over the Lombards, Launfal further feminizes Artour and his men. If the text already deems Artour ineffectual, then, as a consequence, the body politic that he heads is rendered incomplete.

Without a fully functioning body, Artour and his kingdom are imperfect. As such, in the logic of the text, it does not seem effective to punish Artour; impairing Artour will only further impair the kingdom. On the other hand, Gwenore, who has eschewed her femininity in favor of blatant masculinity, comes to represent the force within the kingdom that must be extracted in order to restore the kingdom to its proper status.

As in Bisclavret, here an unruly woman must be excluded in order to cement male unity. Let us now consider why Gwenore is blinded in the first place. After losing all of his fortunes, Launfal chances upon Dame Tryamour, a beautiful fairy who offers her body and her money to Launfal as long as he keeps their relationship secret. Gwenore soon sets her sights on procuring Launfal as her lover. Anhongeth worth thou hye and hard! That thou ever were ybore! Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the— Thou were worthy forlore! Gwenore informs Artour of the insult to her beauty, and Launfal is brought to trial and forced to produce Tryamour in order to prove his boast.

Throughout the history of the medieval West, the use of blinding as punishment has been linked to a demonstration of power over an inferior person or group. Early Christians often suffered blinding as a penalty for their beliefs, and the punishment became a symbol of martyrdom. For instance, The Book of Sainte Foy reports that the saint repeatedly punished a man with blinding in one eye when he sinned and then restored his eyesight when he repented.

As a result, the public often considered both groups in physically deviant terms, linking them to greed, sexual impropriety, sexual impotence, femininity, and willful ignorance. Any child of the queen is a child of her marriage, and an illegitimate child in the royal family subverts the proper succession of the crown and opens the possibility of political chaos. The bodies of Guenevere and her literary successors like Gwenore thus simultaneously take on the mutually exclusive but equally threatening conditions of infertility and the ability to bear illegitimate offspring.

Her punishment of blinding symbolically castrates the power that her promiscuous sexuality represents. Significantly, it is an outsider to the court that squelches the threat that Gwenore poses. The tension between monarchical and feudal interests, corruption at all levels of judicial administration, and the threat of mistreatment and exploitation undergirded an established antagonism towards the king, his royal representatives, and local enforcement officials. Though the two are clearly connected, they are also decidedly different.

On the contrary, Tryamour is as hypersexual as Gwenore. As oft thou puttest the hond therinne, A mark of gold thou schalt wynne In wat place that thou be. Frequently, writers like Chaucer manipulated the technique in order to draw attention to particular body parts. Marshall Leicester, Jr. Although Launfal may periodically reenter the courtly sphere in order to joust with other knights, our narrator asserts that he is rarely, if ever, seen or heard from: Thus Launfal, wythouten fable, That noble knight of the Rounde Table, Was take ynto Fayrye; Seththe saw hym yn thys lond noman, Ne no more of hym telle y ne can, For soothe wythoute lye.

Here, two female bodies, one disabled, one disabling, work together to demonstrate two drastically different interpretations of the female body. Saturn and Cynthia decide to punish her blasphemy with leprosy. When she awakens from her dream, she finds that she has indeed contracted the disease. Upon her death, she writes her will, leaving a ring to Troilus.

Troilus, saddened by her death, makes a stone monument for her. For instance, Marion Wynne-Davies asserts that, through her contraction of leprosy, Cresseid becomes a catalyst through which she and other women can gain access to a female form of piety. As chapter 1 mentions, boundaries between the self and Other blur in the process of abjection. This may be due to the uneasy boundary between disease and disability in the field of disability studies in the humanities and at large.

I tend to side with Susan Wendell, who contends that the line between illness and disability is indistinct because many illnesses may disable a person just as some disabilities may result in illness. Thy cristall ene mingit with blude I mak, Thy voice sa cleir unplesand hoir, and hace, Thy lustie lyre ovirspred with spottis blak, And lumpis haw appeirand in thy face: Quair thow cummis, ilk man sall f le the place.

Department of History

This sall thow go begging fra hous to hous With cop and clapper lyke ane lazarous. In the Middle Ages, the notion of leprosy could indicate both the disease we know today as leprosy as well as skin lesions of any kind; thus, the medieval category of leprosy was much wider than our modern notion of the disease. Biblical instantiations of the disease, however, refer to any wound or laceration upon the skin.

Leprosy seems to have been most common in the high Middle Ages from around the eleventh century through the fourteenth century. Scotland, however, had large numbers of lepers until the eighteenth century, especially in the northern part of the country. However, the high number of leprosaria in medieval Europe from the twelfth century on suggests that the disease was quite common. As a result of these exclusions, medieval lepers not only suffered physical symptoms of their disease, but also became outcasts in their communities.

Not only does it ravage her beauty, but what is more, because leprosy was commonly understood to be a venereal disease, a consequence of lust, it makes her past sinfulness apparent to her and to all who see her. Thus, even though the disease was connected to sex, the medieval public often saw leprosy not as a punishment for a carnal sin, but as a punishment for such spiritual sins as envy, anger, or greed. Henryson implies that her sexual actions are linked to her acquisition of leprosy, but the gods clearly punish her for her blasphemy against Venus and Cupid.

By reducing the number of sins to just one, lechery, critics fail to take into account the varied meanings medieval authors have tried to express. Old Testament stories particularly identify leprosy as punishment for spiritual sins that transgress divine hierarchy.

In the book of II Chronicles, God strikes Uzziah with leprosy because he burns incense in the temple despite the fact that only priests have the authorization to do so 16— Leprosy, furthermore, struck those who blasphemed or committed heresy or those who, through greed, wished to move up in the social structure. The outward marks of leprosy on the body, thus, were thought to reveal the inward diseased soul and to identify the leper as sinful. Like Riddy, I find it unnecessary to pinpoint one sin for which Cresseid is punished.

It is enough to know that she has sinned and that, in the tale, her sins are clearly linked to her body, a body that is coded as inconstant and threatening to masculine stability. The use of the gods as the agents of her punishment makes unquestionable that her leprosy is meant to punish her for her sins. As Stearns and Parr have found, the choice of Saturn and Cynthia as those who decide her fate is particularly appropriate. According to Parr, the use of the two gods together coincides with medieval astrological understandings of the disease, noting that aff lictions of leprosy were thought to be numerous when the moon is in Saturn.

Saturn, with his sunken cheeks, droopy eyes, and cold temperature, has both the features and humoral balance of a leper. In addition, lepers depended on the healthy for survival. As noted above, leper hospitals were common, especially in urban areas. The existence of such hospitals functioned as a way for the general public to actively participate in acts of charity.

In addition, many lepers begged for alms in public, sounding their bells and clappers in an effort to warn the well of their advance. Thus, though actively excluded, the leprous were an integral part of a religious economy in which the act of charity was exchanged for salvation. As a result of this spiritual economy, lepers, though excluded and marginalized—in fact, because of their exclusion and marginalization—became sites of access to salvation through charity. Additionally, through their ties to Lazarus though Lazarus is never directly identified as leprous , lepers became associated not only with wretchedness and poverty, but also with the promise of divine redemption.

The leper figure was further linked to Christ in the depictions of his miraculous cure of a leper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke 8: 2—4, 1: 40—45, 5: 12— Later, the leper himself or herself begins to represent a Christ-like figure.


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  7. The book of Isaiah associates Christ with the leprous, noting that his wounds will heal the sins of humankind Medieval hagiographers often employed this construction of the leper as a figure in need of divine charity in order to demonstrate the saintliness of their subjects. Though Troilus recognizes or at least remembers his former lover, Cresseid only learns of his identity from a fellow leper. Even today, many victims of leprosy suffer eye ailments that might obscure their vision or lead to blindness. Because leprosy affects the nerves around the eyes, some lepers are unable to blink.

    Moreover, Henryson alludes to the wide, unblinking stare of the leper in the recognition scene between Troilus and Cresseid: Than upon him scho kest up baith hir ene, And with ane blenk it come into his thocht That he sumtyme hir face befoir had sene, Bot scho was in sic plye he knew hir noct; Yit than hir luik into his mynd it brocht The sweit visage and amorous blenking Of fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling. Does he blink and remember his former love, or does Cresseid blink, causing him to remember her?

    It is probable that Troilus is the one who blinks here, and Cresseid is unable to. It is not implausible, then, that Cresseid does not recognize Troilus because her vision is obscured or completely gone. Medieval medicine purported that the moon inf luenced the start and f low of the female menses. As I discuss in my introduction and chapter 1, contradictory medical and cultural understandings of menstrual f luid often characterized the menses as important to reproduction yet harmful to the male body.

    Some women know how subtly to inf lict a wound on men when they have sexual intercourse with them in the last state of the moon, and from this wound many incurable illnesses arise if remedies are not taken immediately. Menstrual f luid was thought to cause bodily injury to men not only through its excretion during sexual intercourse but also through its emission from the eyes, which could then travel through the air and infect susceptible victims, especially babies.

    Menstrual f luid, the element by which a female body is deemed disabled in medieval medical and scriptural discourse, is also a prime example of the abject since it is excreted by the body and therefore deemed as not part of the self. Thus, menstrual f luid signals the intrinsic connections between the female body, the disabled body, and the abject body. Though Henryson opens his poem with the weakening body of the narrator, the three female characters soon supplant him, as all the three are connected to disability in some way.

    The inconstancy that endangers this stability gets coded as femininity; the leprous Cresseid becomes the embodiment of this dangerous femininity. In a carnivalesque inversion of patriarchal authority, Cresseid is able to make her own will, a right medieval lepers generally lost. Taken in this sense, it seems Cresseid may now view her disease as a reward rather than a punishment.

    The question that we are left with, as a result, is whether the inconstant Cresseid ever really learns her lesson. Has the punishment that the gods inf lict upon her actually tamed her unruly body? Sen scho is deid I speik of hir no moir. These voices—or counternarratives— are made perceptible only by locating the unconscious slippages that arise from the supernatural elements in each text. These slippages create a dissonance that not only produces counternarratives within the texts, but also allow for critical readings that contradict dominant medieval discourses of gender and ablebodiedness.

    The Book is a sprawling account of the spiritual journey of Margery Kempe, a wife and mother from the English city of Lynn, and has been the object of fervent scholarly attention. Now considered an important part of the medieval canon, the Book and its author occupy an uneasy position within medieval studies. As this chapter will demonstrate, female bodily difference is linked to sexual and textual re production throughout the Book. Ultimately, I will argue that Kempe exploits the discourses of femaleness, femininity, and disability in order to produce her text and further her spiritual goals, particularly through a recasting of her own female bodily experiences not as disabling, but rather spiritually enabling.

    Lochrie begins with the medieval theological separation between f lesh and spirit, noting that the female body becomes aligned with the f lesh, or excess. She is a painful reminder of inf lux alienating body from soul. Mystical discourse, however, causes those boundaries to collapse by bringing together into language bodily acts, such as imitatio Christi, that draw on the powers of the f lesh and spirit.

    As with many other medieval women-religious, it is after a bout of physical and mental suffering that Kempe comes to desire a spiritual life. Moreover, Kempe begins to have violent, physical reactions to images of Christ. As Caroline Walker Bynum has explained, praying for or even causing their own physical distress allowed women to participate in an act of imitatio Christi, to become the suffering body of Christ. When she returns to Lynn, her neighbors react to the fits by trying to explain them away, calling them an illness, demonic possession, or the side effects of too much wine Early interpretations by scholars such as Herbert Thurston and David Knowles often categorize her as a hysteric, and some, such as Sigrid Undset, label her a psychopath.

    The first scribe dies before finishing the text, but his corrupt form of German and English proves unreadable to the next scribe, a priest. A third scribe attempts to decipher the text, but is unable to, so Kempe takes the text back to the priest, who, through divine intervention, is finally able to read and transcribe the text. Wendy Harding finds that, in collaborating with a scribe, Kempe creates with her text a dialogic writing that blurs the boundaries between illiteracy and literacy, the bodily and the spiritual.

    Calling the Book an autobiography is inherently problematic, as autobiographical writing as we define it today did not exist in the Middle Ages.

    How clean were Medieval people?

    Each choice seeks to limit the text, which does not neatly fit one category, and to close Kempe within a stable subject position as autobiographical writer, hagiographic exemplar, or creator of the fictional character Margery. Thus, like Julian Yates, I consider the Book a hybrid text that includes elements of autobiography. Following Mitchell and Snyder, I have argued that, in medieval literature, the physical difference—or social difference rooted in the defectiveness of the female body—of a female character frequently produces narrative.

    Usually, the narrative drive of the text attempts to limit the deviance caused by an unruly body by curing or even eliminating characters with physical abnormalities. In some cases, female characters use their excessive bodies to enable their own desires. If fictional narrative remains profoundly dependent on difference, which can take the form of disability, then how does disability affect the narrative of a text with autobiographical tendencies? Moreover, life writing establishes individuals as persons worthy of study.

    In addition, as we will discuss in more detail later, her physical care of the impaired becomes, for Kempe, a way to display her love for Christ. However, Kempe herself frequently threatens to overshadow Christ throughout her Book. Bridget, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and Mary of Oignies and past saints like St. Margaret and St. At the beginning of the third chapter of her Book, Kempe describes her feelings of disgust for participating in sexual intercourse with her husband, John.

    Her husband, however, is unwilling to have a chaste marriage with his wife at this point. Finally, Kempe is able to finagle a business deal with John: she will pay his debts if he will allow her to remain chaste in their marriage Here, Kempe gains control over her body and her husband and upsets her conventional wifely role by evading her part in the conjugal debt. Despite remaining married to her husband and having had fourteen children, Kempe also begins dressing in white as a sign of her virginity and devotion to Christ, a decision that generates protest from her Lynn neighbors and Church authorities.

    Covering the same body that gave birth to fourteen children in white clothing makes tangible the profound contradiction of her spiritual status as a woman both in and outside of the world. As noted above, her first major bout of disabling illness instigates her conversion to a spiritual life. Her conversion does not happen right away—Kempe attempts to remain completely in the world by continuing to dress ostentatiously and starting and failing at two businesses—but she soon learns the error of her ways and chooses to lead a spiritual life. By denying or even causing injury to her body, Kempe is able to take part in the same kind of suffering that Christ endured on the cross.

    This bodily form of piety, often viewed as an orthodox practice for women, fits within spiritual practices of other female saints and mystics from the later medieval period who relied on the body as a means through which to access the divine. This progression from bodily to more spiritual acts of piety, including enduring the slander of her enemies, continues throughout the Book, but Kempe is never fully separated from her body.

    Salih contends that Kempe reinterprets the bodily, feminine piety accepted as orthodox in England with the more spiritual practices she picks up abroad, ultimately reshaping those bodily practices to uphold the spiritual. For instance, when a famous friar visits Lynn, he prohibits Kempe from attending his sermons due to her intense sobbing. Due to the slander and bodily weakness that her crying fits cause, it is clear that her tears are both socially and physically disabling.

    However, Kempe casts her tears, which so many view as an annoyance, as spiritually enabling throughout her Book. Kempe clearly places her fits of crying within a tradition of accepted medieval piety, pointing throughout her Book to her own connections to other saints and mystics who shared a similar gift of uncontrollable tears, including Mary of Oignies and Angela of Foligno. In a vision, St. In addition to allowing Kempe to place herself among an esteemed company of religious women, her roars and sobs are also able to articulate emotions that do not easily fit into the parameters of language.

    But they are also, at the same time, themselves language. Responses to her tears abroad are strikingly benign when compared with those she receives at home. For example, when she meets the maidservant of St. Bridget of Sweden in Rome, she is unable to converse with her without a translator Later, a visiting priest asks to speak with Kempe. Upset by the scene before her, Kempe begins to alternately cry and pray. Soon, the town is hit with a snowstorm, which helps to contain the fire. Again, I turn to contemporary scholarship on life writing and its connection to the body.

    Throughout her Book, Kempe casts the verbal abuse she endures from others as comparable to the torments Christ suffered during his arrest and crucifixion. During a period of arrests and trials for Lollardy, Kempe suffers much slander. The social disabling that occurs as a result of her bodily difference, then, actually succeeds in furthering her spiritual goals. As my introduction outlines, medieval medical discourses construe the female body as a defective male body due to its colder, moister nature and its reproductive organs, which are often viewed as unformed, and therefore imperfect, male organs.

    As I note above, women with spiritual aspirations had to go to great lengths to prove their spiritual worth, particularly by protecting their chastity and demonstrating their control over their bodily desires. Medieval medical associations of the female body with moisture required the female body to seek out ways in which to purge excess moisture. Because of the moist and cold natures of women, the female body needed to balance itself by extracting heat from the male body during intercourse. Excessive intercourse with women, which depleted male bodies of a special life-giving f luid called spiritus, could lead men to blindness or even death.

    As Elizabeth Robertson demonstrates, medieval medical texts often underscore the similarities among bodily f luids such as blood, tears, milk, semen, and other f luids that the body exudes. For instance, Galenic notions of blood stipulate that superiorly purified blood becomes semen, whereas menstrual blood becomes milk. The suffering body of Christ thus allowed a woman not only to pity Christ but to identify in him her own perceived suffering body; moreover, union with his suffering body would allow her to realize her perceived biological needs.

    Excess moisture is thus redemptive, and thereby so is femininity itself. Told that she has too much moisture, Margery cries excessively. The very excesses of her writing, her extremes of tears and sensual expressiveness, suggest a destabilization of those assumptions. And whan thorw dispensacyon of the hy mercy of owyr Sovereyn Savyowr, Crist Jhesu, it was grawntyd this creatur to beholdyn so verily hys precyows tendyr body— alto-rent and toryn wyth scorgys, mor ful of wowndys than evyr a duffehows of holys, hangyng upon the cros wyth the corown of thorn upon hys hevyd, hys blysful handys, hys tendyr fete nayled to the hard tre, the reverys of blood f lowing owt plentevowsly of every member, the gresly and grevows wownde in hys precyows side schedyng owt blood and watyr for hir lofe and salvacyon—than sche fel down and cryde wyth lowde voys, wondyrfully turnyng and wresting hir body on every side, spredyng hir armys abroade as yyf sche schulde a dyde and not cowed kepyn hir fro crying and these bodily mevyngys, for the fyer of lofe that brent so fervently in hir sowle wyth pur pyte and compassyon.

    And as a dove ursued of an hauk, yf she mow cache an hool of hir hous she is siker ynowe, so, swete Jhesu, in temptacioun they woundes ben best refuyt to us. Than that precyows body aperyd to hir sight as rawe as a thing that wer newe f layn owt of the skyn, ful petows and reful to beholdyn. And so had sche a newe sorwe that sche wept and cryid ryth sor. The image fully feminizes Christ by equating him with f lesh, even meat. She also finds in her own body a direct link to Christ, for just as his wounded body becomes a spectacle in her mind, her body becomes a spectacle for those around her.

    Christ thus becomes pure moisture, while Kempe simultaneously melts into an effusion of tears. Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women, figure prominently throughout her Book. As I note in chapter 1, considering female infertility and reproductive ability through a gendered model for disability allows for a reading of reproductive inability as a form of disability since medieval medical, biblical, and religious discourses predicate the physical and moral imperfection of women on the perceived defectiveness of the female reproductive system.

    The pregnant woman, with her monstrously changing body and her potential for producing monsters, clearly connects to other abject figures whose bodily differences threaten the boundary between self and Other. The abject nature of the pregnant or birthing woman, moreover, holds the potential for jouissance, a powerfully disruptive celebration of the breakdown of boundaries and the proliferation of excess. After marrying and giving birth to her first child, Kempe suffers a bout of physical and mental illness.

    Kempe thus explains that she suffered a terrible sickness after conception; that sickness, in conjunction with the pain she experiences in labor, leads her to fear that she may be close to death. Kempe confesses to the physically disabling effects of pregnancy and birth when Christ asks her to travel to Norwich soon after the birth of one of her children. Having given birth to fourteen children, Kempe spends ten-and-a-half years of her life pregnant, an extensive amount of time to endure the disabilities of pregnancy.

    The sexual ideal for spiritual women was not compatible with the procreative female body. Elizabeth, often abandon their own children and family. In this way, birth and death become inextricably linked [. Kempe seems to fully understand the hindrances of being a mother to her spiritual goals. Kempe grudgingly confirms his statement and worries about how to care for her child now that she has embarked on her spiritual life.

    In addition to demonstrating the very real logistical problem of finding childcare, this scene reveals the anxiety Kempe feels about her own inability to reconcile her sexual and spiritual statuses. Nerthelesse it is to me gret peyn and gret dysese. Upon her return to England after traveling overseas and after her procurement of a chaste marriage , a monk accuses Kempe of having just had a child. The monk, however, has trouble believing that Kempe has not borne a child and, consequently, finds discomfort in her decision to wear white clothing.

    God eventually advises Kempe not to accept the monk as her guide. In fact, her imitatio Mariae is perhaps more pronounced and thus more central to her body and text than her imitatio Christi, for it allows her to recast her own painful experiences of childbirth as painless and spiritual.

    Women and Disability in Medieval Literature (New Middle Ages)

    Anne and St. Indeed, her f lailing body and loud cries closely resemble a woman in the throes of labor, while the weakness she feels afterwards mimics the feebleness she describes after the birth of one of her children. Kempe thus not only recasts birth as a painless experience in her retelling of the labors of Anne, Mary, and Elizabeth, but also re-enacts her own experiences with childbirth, turning what were for her physically debilitating and potentially fatal experiences into a highly spiritual one.

    Despite her inclusion of the spiritual in the very physical act of childbirth, Kempe never lets the two collapse. Instead, she maintains a tension between the physical and the spiritual—the same tension we see throughout her Book—using her bodily deviance to call forth the spiritual, but never allowing one to take over the other completely. The ultimate end and purpose of motherhood is [sic] loss. In imitating Christ and Mary through her fits of tears, Kempe revises the definition of the procreative body, moving it from the physical to the spiritual realm.

    By aligning herself with Mary, Kempe recasts herself as a spiritual mother who simultaneously brings others to Christ while also advancing her own spiritual status. Primarily, Kempe provides charity and care to those with impairments, nurturing them with company, food, and even medical attention and thus demonstrating her motherly affection. Moreover, her treatment of such impaired figures succeeds in further demonstrating her singular spiritual reputation, both in the eyes of Christ and others.

    Recently abandoned by her fellow English pilgrims, Kempe bemoans her lonely state, and Christ assures her that her travels will be completed safely. Kempe asks Richard to guide her to Rome, and despite his protestations of not having a weapon to protect her, he finally agrees when she assures him that Christ will look after them and she will compensate him for his efforts.

    Richard appears when Kempe is most vulnerable and marginalized. Her English companions have deserted her, annoyed by her newly acquired fits of tears. Kempe, thus, finds company with a fellow outsider, one that she makes clear is not only impaired, but also from a foreign country.

    Kempe makes reference to his tattered coat twice, and he must leave her each day in order to make his living as a beggar. While walking with him in the forest, Kempe encounters two Grey Friars and a woman carrying a chest that holds a doll in the shape of Christ. The passing of the Christ doll among the wives connects the women, forming a female community that unites both Christian devotion and the experience of motherhood. The text here places the ritual of these women coddling and kissing the Christ doll as akin to the real birth and childhood of Christ.

    Furthermore, their mutual comforting of one another establishes the importance of providing care for others who are marginalized. As a result, charity, embodied difference, and maternity become closely connected in this scene. The doll, a representation of Christ, foreshadows the spiritual children that Kempe will care for throughout the rest of her text.


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    If to care for the doll is to care for Christ, then to provide charity and comfort to others is also to serve Christ. As we will see, many of the figures Kempe provides care for are impaired. These works were divided into Spiritual Works, such as prayer and forgiveness, and Corporal Works, such as feeding and clothing the poor and sick. Although Kempe participates in the Corporal Works, she clearly subordinates the physical to the spiritual. As a result, she spends the length of her Book attempting to transcend the physical, a feat that, as we have seen, proves difficult, if not impossible, for Kempe to achieve.

    Because bodily acts of charity were more accessible to laypeople particularly laywomen than spiritual acts, Kempe often fuses bodily works with the spiritual, such as when she provides physical care to Mary in the spiritual realm of her vision. As I note in chapter 3, medieval discourses on the leprous were ambivalent, marking those with the disease as either sinful or Christ-like. Kempe here draws upon the common association of the leper as a Christlike figure. Kempe draws a clear distinction between her spiritual state at present and when she was more concerned with earthly matters.

    Her new love for the leprous body, then, signifies her spiritual progress; what was once disgusting is now desirable. Though Kempe identifies lepers with Christ, her text reveals conf licting discourses on the leprous. Thus, as with the Christ doll above, Kempe embraces and kisses the women, who function as substitutes for Christ.

    Moreover, Kempe offers comfort and counsel to the women, a form of care that further highlights her maternal affection for the women. Her actions clearly do not cure the leper women; instead, they reinforce her own ability to debase herself and, through such debasement, to receive spiritual reward. By debasing herself through the act of kissing those with bodies that elicit repulsion and disgust, Kempe emphasizes her own humility and singularity; the kiss, consequently, benefits Kempe more than the leperwomen.

    In the chapter immediately following her kissing of the leperwomen, Kempe cares for a woman who suffers from physical and mental anguish after the birth of her child. While in the church of St. Sche roryth and cryith so that sche makith folk evyl afeerd. Kempe accompanies the husband to his home and meets with his wife. The woman, however, finds no such solace in anyone else. In addition to seeing visions of devils, the woman [. Than was sche had to the forthest ende of the town, into a chambyr, that the pepil schulde not heryn hir cryin.

    And ther was sche bowndyn handys and feet wyth chenys of yron, that sche schulde smytyn nobody. This doubling allows Kempe to rewrite her own difficult experience with childbirth. Like Kempe, the woman recovers from her ailments through divine intervention. Kempe, thus, rewrites her initial experience, placing herself as mother- and Christ-figure to the woman in need. Rather than playing the role as patient, the mother who suffers the physical and mental anguish of childbirth, Kempe steps in as divine physician, the mother who is able to nurse her spiritual child back to health.

    At this, Kempe takes on the role of full-time caregiver for her husband. While Kempe embraces, prays for and counsels the leperwomen and the wife, she must feed John, wash him and his clothing, and clean up his excrement, all the while managing the household. In Chapter 77, as I note above, Kempe doubts the power of her tears, begging Christ to take them away from her. Christ, however, assures her that her tears are meant to cause others to repent for their sins and devote their lives to him —6.

    The following chapter describes a series of fits of tears that Kempe falls into during a Palm Sunday service.



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