On Margery Kempe and the Bad Art Friend

So, I am like a week later than this than I wanted to be because I got really sick, but have you read “Who is the Bad Art Friend”? You should read “Bad Art Friend”. This will all make so much more sense if you just go read “Who is the Bad Art Friend”. If you do not want to go read “Who is the Bad Art Friend” I will do my best to recap one of the most bonkers pieces of writing that I have read in sometime for you so that the rest of this article makes sense, I guess. It is easier if you go read it though.

OK, a synopsis: a not very successful writer woman used to hang out at a writers’ group in Boston. She was not particularly well liked in said writers’ group but is apparently unable to recognize that fact. She moved to LA and decided to donate a kidney to whoever needed it. She also made a facebook group where she added a bunch of people from the writers’ group and told them all about how she donated her kidney. Then she went to a conference with all of the writers, and no one told her what a special and perfect person she was for having donated a kidney. Here is a direct quote about that experience, “I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation?” Anyway, a more successful writer who was a part of the writer’s group in Boston wrote a short story with a character who donated her kidney because she wanted everyone to tell her she was a special bunny. Turns out this writer, in an early draft of the story, included a letter that the kidney woman had written and given to the recipient of her kidney. The successful writer sued the kidney writer for harassment. The kidney writer then sued the other successful writer for plagiarism, but mostly it seems like the kidney lady is mad because the successful writer lady is not her friend and did not tell her she is a modern hero and saint. It’s a mess. It is glorious. I love it.

ANYWHOO this kidney writer reminds me a lot of Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – 1438). As regular readers of the blog and my patrons know, I am somewhat obsessed with medieval people who are very clearly using their lives to aim for sainthood, but then don’t make it. This is a constant feature of medieval Europe and makes sense in the context of an overtly Christian society. If you are always having saints held up as the ultimate in how humans can be, then odds are a certain section of society is going to emulate that. If that is the case, then there is also going to be a certain section of society that emulates that but then doesn’t make the grade. Think of it like Influencers. For every one person that manages to snag a diet brand endorsement there are hundreds that are out here posting selfies that never make the grade. Same thing with saints, and one of those was Margery.

Margery is an interesting lady because we know about her through her own autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe. This she dictated and used as a chronicle of her many many (many many many) pilgrimages both in Europe and even all the way to the Holy Land. As you might guess from someone who managed to go on God-based holidays all the time and get someone to record what she was saying for her, Margery was born rich. She was a member of the prosperous Brunham familt in Bishop’s Lyn (which is now King’s Lynn” in Norfolk. Her dad was a sometime Mayor of the city and member of parliament, which should tell you what is up. At around twenty, as was normal, she married her husband John Kempe and when on to have something like fourteen children. I use “something like” here on purpose because we don’t really know for sure as it was defo a uterus as a clown car type situation.

A woman in bed after giving birth, the star is a reference to the celestial influences on newborn children. British Library MS Arundel 66 f. 188 r.

Not satisfied with being a rich wife and mother to a Gaelic football team worth of kids, Margery also fancied herself a mystic. After the birth of her first child she apparently experienced a period of visions where she was attacked by demons who among other things encouraged her to dump her husband and kill herself. But at the same time her boy JC also showed up and asked her to return to him and her faith. This kicked off a series of visions where she would chat with Jesus, Mary, and also showed up to witness the crucifixion one time. 

This inspired Margery to really kick things up a notch. She went down the tried and tested methods for sainthood route which, as Jane Beal outlines meant that “[s]he prayed for a chaste marriage, went to confession two or three times a day, prayed early and often each day in church, wore a hair shirt, and willingly suffered whatever negative responses her community expressed in response to her extreme forms of devotion”.[1]

I want you to focus on that last bit there, “willingly suffered whatever negative responses her community expressed in response to her extreme forms of devotion” because this is the thing about our girl Margery – she was A LOT. The sort of a lot that gets you negative responses for your community. Specifically, Margery was a crier. She cried when her husband wanted to have sex with her. (Ouch.) She cried in Church. She cried on pilgrimage. She cried a lot. In her own words: “And this creature had contrition and great compunction with plenteous tears and many boisterous sobbings for her sin and for her unkindness against her maker. …she beholding her own wickedness, she might but sorrow and weep and ever pray for mercy and forgiveness.”

Ariadne, seated, crying, at the edge of the water. Huntington Library Ms HM 60, f. 52 r.

And the thing is maybe you could put up with that for a while. I mean, sure, someone is very devoted and they are feeling a lot or whatever. It’s a massively Christian society and all that. But here is the thing, “Her weeping was so plentious and so continuing that many people said that she must weep … when she would and therefore many men said she was a false hypocrite and weep for the world for succor and for worldly good. And then full many forsook her that loved her before while she was in the world and would not know her, and every she thanked God of all, nothing deserving but mercy and forgiveness of sin.”[2] In other words, she did it in a way that was just super performative, and it seemed to the people around her that she was specifically doing it so that people would pay attention to her, or for some sort of personal gain.

Obviously, Margery did not see it that way. Margery was very much of the opinion that she was simply experiencing religious ecstasy, which she had no choice but to respond to with absolutely copious weeping. Indeed, she experienced everyone’s dirty looks and direct avoidance of her for being personally unpleasant as a part of her theoretical religious trial. As she said, “She was so used to be slandered and reprieved, to be chastised and rebuked of the world for grace and virtue with which she was imbued through the strength of the Holy Ghost that it was to her in the manner of solace and comfort when she suffered and disease for the love of God and for the grace that God wrought in her.”[3]

And this is where kidney lady and Margery differ, to be fair. Margery experienced the direct disapproval of her community for her whole deal and internalized that as a part of her religious sacrifice. Kidney writer, on the other hand, was attempting to create an online community focused specifically on her donation, not work within an established one. Both Margery and the kidney writer were engaging in performative sacrifice, but Margery was doing it in people’s faces because, well, that was sorta the only choice. Kidney writer’s intended audience was able to disengage when they wished to because she wasn’t near them. They were able to dip in and out and just make fun of her on the low without having to necessarily challenge her in her face. This means that kidney writer didn’t have to face the kind of opprobrium that Margery did. However, it also means that she avoided the sort of push back that may have told her that people don’t like it when you need everyone to know very publicly that you are special and good.

A zodiac man, noting the connections between various body parts and signs of the zodiac. Libra rules the kidneys. British Library Egerton MS 2572 f. 50v.

Miss Kidney never got the direct feedback that Margery experienced, but she did end up engaging in similar justifications for other people’s actions. When the other write sued her for harassment or whatever, and her group chats were made public as a resul,t we get to experience kidney writer’s complete inability to understand what she is being criticised for. The other writer wrote about using kidney lady’s just … incredibly self-absorbed letter to her kidney’s recipient as a part of her story. She texted her friends, ““I think I’m DONE with the kidney story but I feel nervous about sending it out b/c it literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on FB. I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to — that letter was just too damn good. I’m not sure what to do … feeling morally compromised/like a good artist but a shitty person.”

Obviously, this is a direct reference to how bonkers the letter is and how good it is at illustrating that its author is insufferable. Yes? According to kidney writer no. According to her it is evidence that her letter is good writing. She says, “The whole reason they want it in the first place is because it’s special,” Dorland told me. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother.”

This is just incredible. It is so good. I could think about this willful refusal to engage with normal human behaviour for years, and also it is just such a Margery move. Rather than engaging with critiques, the kidney writer just comes out with a justification that makes her the protagonist of all reality. They aren’t making fun of her for being self-absorbed. They are jealous of her writing! This is the 2021 equivalent of Margery refusing to admit that her behaviour is just fucking annoying and that the reactions of her neighbours are justified, and instead repurposing her ostracisation as a holy trial.

A page from the original manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe, British Library Add MS 61823

The final Margery/kidney overlap is, of course, in the fact that we know about both of these women and their OTT desire for you to see them as special because they absolutely insisted that their lives be made a part of public record. Margery hired a scribe to record her oral testimony about her life so that now, hundreds of years later, I can talk about how she was an absolute nightmare person. Kidney lady tried for years to get someone to write about this. She wrote to podcasts, she pitched repeatedly, and then she finally managed to get a NYT writer to take the story on. (Gotta say as a writer myself I don’t really understand why she needed someone else to write her own story, but hey ho!) Neither of these women could accept that maybe they are just sorta weird and annoying and they moved heaven and earth to make sure that they will go down in posterity as just that. It’s incredible. I love it. I love it so much.

This is of course a deeply hilarious thing to think about, but I also think it is an important one from a cultural standpoint. People like to act as though we live in a uniquely self-absorbed era and that this level of personal regard is new. It is often argued that medieval people, in contrast, lacked a sense of self that only the modern era was able to provide. Obviously, that is not the case. People have been acting like self-satisfied jerkoffs since time immemorial and these two women are absolutely prime examples of that.

Keep that in mind and also just never trust the sort of person who needs you to know all about their volunteer work. Honestly.

[1] See, Jane Beal, “Margery Kempe.” British Writers: Supplement 12. Ed. Jay Parini. (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2007), pp. 167-184.
[2] “And this creatur had contrycion and gret compunccyon wyth plentyuows teerys and many boystows sobbyngys for hir synnes and for hir unkyndnesse ageyns hir maker. Sche bethowt hir fro hir chyldhod for hir unkyndnes as ower Lord wold put it in hir mende ful many a tyme. And than, sche beheldyng hir owyn wykkednes, sche mygth but sorwyn and wepyn and evyr preyn for mercy and forgevenes. Hir wepyng was so plentyuows and so contwnyng that mech pepul wend that sche mygth wepyn and levyn whan sche wold, and therfor many men seyd sche was a fals ypocryte and wept for the world for
socowr and for wordly good. And than ful many forsokyn hir that lovyd hir befor.” Lines, 290-300 <https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/staley-book-of-margery-kempe-book-i-part-i&gt;. Accessed 13 October 2021.
[3] “Sche was so usyd to be slawndred and repreved, to be
cheden and rebuked of the world for grace and vertu wyth whech sche was indued thorw the strength of the Holy Gost that it was to her in a maner of solas and comfort whan sche sufferyd any dysese for the lofe of God and for the grace that God wrowht in hyr. “, Line 33 – 37 , Ibid.

For more on medieval women, see:

On constructing the “ideal” woman
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Women and Work
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
On the Ideal Form of Women
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

8 thoughts on “On Margery Kempe and the Bad Art Friend”

  1. I think the most dismissive thing I ever read about Margery was that she was a ” para-mystic…” you know, like a paramedic. if a doctor isn’t there, I guess it’ll do but it’s not the real deal. All I know is that reading her is a wild ride but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go on a pilgrimage with her. lol

    Liked by 1 person

      1. lol. right? If I can remember the source, I’ll post it. Title/author is just escaping me atm.


      2. I *think* it was “enduring grace” by Carol Flinders but I’m not 100% sure. I just know it was for the popular press. pretty sure this is the one. Para mystic. ouch.


  2. I slogged through the Times piece, I guess because I expected one or the other of the two women to convince me they had the better of the ethical dispute, or of the good-writing competition, or both. But it didn’t happen. Didn’t happen with the Times writer either, though their keen judgment of prose was treated as axiomatic. Mostly I got really tired of the meta-meta-meta-ness of it all: Here I am (I thought, with mounting irritation) reading an article about an article about an article, all by people I never heard of before and would probably find wearisome in conversation. Why didn’t I spend that time watching a Helen Rennie baking video on YouTube.?


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