‘Whan thes good women seyn this creatur wepyn, sobbyn, and cryen so wondirfully and mythtyly that sche was nerhand ovyrcomyn therwyth, than thei ordeyned a good soft bed and leyd hir ther upon and comfortyd hir as mech as thei myth for owyr Lordys lofe, blyssed mot he ben.’ (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 30)
When these good women saw this creature weep, sob, and cry so wonderfully and mightily that she was nearly overcome therewith, then they ordained a good soft bed and laid her thereupon and comforted her as much as they might for our Lord’s love, blessed may he be.
This is one of my favourite moments in The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery is travelling to Rome from Jerusalem and she meets with a woman who has an image of the Christ child in a chest. When they come into cities, the woman takes the Christ child doll out of the chest and places it in the laps of worshipful wives who dress it in shirts and kiss it as though it were God himself. When Margery sees this tender devotion and care for the doll, she weeps and sobs but rather than the women becoming annoyed with her emotional outburst- as we do find elsewhere in the Book– they transfer their care and attention to Margery herself. They tuck her up in bed and they comfort as much as they can.
As well as being one of my favourite moments in the Book– and a moment that I have been working on in my current research on Margery Kempe- this episode for me encapsulates, both academically and personally, the wonderful kindness, compassion, and collaboration that we saw in action at the Margery Kempe conference in Oxford earlier this month. My co-organiser (Dr Laura Kalas Williams) and I will be writing a blogpost about the conference together but I wanted to offer some of my own personal reflections on what the conference generated, both for Margery Kempe Studies in the 21st Century and for the kind of academic scholarship that #TeamMargery initiated, in the three days that we worked together.
Collaboration was both a key theme and a practical activity at the conference. Liz Herbert McAvoy and Naoe Kukita Yoshikawa gave an inspirational collaborative keynote on the influence of Mechthild of Hackeborn’s Book of Ghostly Grace on The Book of Margery Kempe. My co-organiser Laura Kalas Williams revealed the recipe in the Kempe manuscript– for medicinal cough sweets or dragges- and her Swansea colleague Theresa Tyers produced the sweets themselves so that delegates could taste them for the first time in four hundred years. Food historian Ivan Day gave a wide-ranging talk on the history of sugar that introduced us to its importance in the creation of sweets with devotional images imprinted on them, a religious sweetness that you could literally taste and ingest. (Laura Kalas Williams’ article on the recipe and the discourse of religious sweetness in The Book of Margery Kempe will be forthcoming in the next Studies in the Age of Chaucer). And of course the conference itself would not have happened without the collaboration between myself and my Margery partner in crime, Laura. Working together over the past eighteen months to bring this project to fruition has been fantastic and sustaining, and shows what is possible when we work together as scholars and support one another’s work.
Collaboration, cooperation, and kinship between women was also a theme that emerged strongly for me during the conference. In my paper I talked about Margery Kempe’s creation of strong emotional bonds with other women (building on Kathy Lavezzo’s 1996 article on the Book, ‘Sobs and Sighs between Women’) and Anthony Bale revealed the identity of one of Margery’s important female supporters in Rome, known in the Book as Margaret Florentine, as a result of his collaboration with Daniela Giosuè and their work in Italian archives. In her extraordinary keynote, drawing together the major themes of the conference and the new directions for Margery scholarship, Diane Watt began by thinking about her own personal relationship with Margery Kempe and what it means to grow with the Book through an academic career. We were also delighted to have Clarissa Atkinson with us at the conference, author of the first major book on Kempe, ‘Mystic and Pilgrim’, and Clarissa proposed a toast to Margery and the future of Kempe scholarship at the drinks reception, kindly sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).
The personal intersected with the themes of the conference in a number of ways. Both Anthony Bale and Diane Watt outed themselves as the Margery Kempes of twitter and facebook, respectively, and in the light of the entertaining- if also somewhat extreme- reactions of online commentators (and trolls) to Margery Kempe, we began to ask what it might mean to be a ‘friend’ of Margery Kempe, to be #TeamMargery, as our conference badges proclaimed. Rachel Moss gave a moving paper (that grew out of this excellent blogpost) in which she explored what it might mean to see Margery Kempe as a model for a more humane and emotional academy, an academic identity that does not divorce the personal from the public and intellectual. Those of you who were at the conference may remember that my own paper begin with my own almost uncontrollable imitatio of Margery as in the light of Rachel’s honesty and my own personal circumstances that particular week, my emotions surfaced in a way that I wasn’t expecting. But the compassion and support of the conference delegates throughout the three days- for myself but for each other too- was testament to the power that we have as communities to sustain and encourage one another. Laura and I have been most grateful and incredibly touched by the messages of thanks we have received from delegates since the conference, in particular those pointing out the warm, supportive, and inspiring sense of community and for this we thank everyone who attended the conference and hope that the #TeamMargery ethos will continue long into the future!
Creativity is the final theme that arises in my initial reflections on the conference. There was a wealth of creative academic scholarship on display. Papers that explored modern creative responses to the Book (Robert Gluck’s novel Margery Kempe, the poetry of Sarah Law); imaginative new theoretical engagements from queer theory to disability studies; and not least Sarah Salih’s fascinating keynote in which she compared Margery Kempe with the provocative performance artist Marina Abramovic. (To find out more about Abramovic, there is a fascinating interview here) We were also very lucky to witness the performance of the play ‘Marge and Jules’ in the University College chapel by the talented ‘Queynte Laydies’, Sarah Anson and Máirín O’Hagan. The performance staged the meeting between Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich and was a powerful performance of female friendship, talent, and imagination (both that of Marge & Jules, and Sarah and Máirín, whose personal connection pervades their performance and gives it an incredible authenticity). Unsurprisingly, there were moments in the performance that brought a tear to my eye.
Laura and I could not be more delighted by the way in which the speakers and delegates banded together in #TeamMargery for three fantastic days that not only showcased brilliant academic scholarship but also produced a wonderful feeling of solidarity, friendship, and support. At the conference we were thrilled to launch the Margery Kempe Society and we hope to continue the work that the conference started, promoting the study of The Book of Margery Kempe in ever new and more creative ways. Please do join #TeamMargery!
To find out more about the conference, you can find the programme and abstracts on our website here and you can explore the conference hashtag #MK21st here. And please do follow us on twitter, @MargerySociety, and email us via the Margery Kempe Society webpage to become a member.