The Book of Margery Kempe
She slandered her husband, her friends, and her own self. She spoke many sharp and reproving words; she recognized no virtue nor goodness; she desired all wickedness. . . [S]he bit her own hand so violently that the mark could be seen for the rest of her life.
Margery Kempe, Book 1: Chapter 1 (p. 42)
Now, blissful Jesus, remember your manifold mercy, and fulfill your promises that you have promised me. Show you are truly God, and no evil spirit, that has brought me here into the perils of the sea, whose counsel I have trusted and followed for many years, and shall do, through your mercy, if you deliver us from out of these grievous perils.
Margery Kempe, Book 2: Chapter 4 (pp. 273-274)
The Book of Margery Kempe explores an abundance of positive themes of Christianity, such as asceticism and sainthood. Yet a more singularly interesting motif of everyday Christians’ lives explored in this text is negative: doubting the existence and goodness of God. In moments of the book, Kempe shows shades of the sinfulness that lies beneath her saintly surface. Instead of allowing these moments to serve as examples for why readers should doubt Christian teachings, Kempe uses instances of her own weaknesses to ridicule the ludicrousness of questioning God. Blasphemy, she argues, is not just morally wrong, but it is also illogical and unintelligent.
The events of the first selected passage are a direct result of Margery Kempe meeting a priest for confession. The priest scolded her for a sin that she confessed, and because of this, she began to fear that her eternal soul would be damned. Soon she started to lose faith, and as the passage states, she “slandered her husband, her friends, and her own self” and “spoke many sharp and reproving words” (42). Her husband and friends were definitely not to blame for her mistrust of God, and she was in the wrong to take out her anxiety for her shortcomings on her loved ones. That she spoke against herself indicts her even further, and it proves that she cannot be trusted to cast judgments on others. She had no authority to reprove others cruelly as she did.
Furthermore, she got to the point where she could “recognize no virtue or goodness,” and she instead chose to “desire wickedness” (42). For Margaret to believe that there was no good in the entire world is unrealistic. It is ridiculous that one would desire wickedness over virtue. Kempe uses her momentary nefariousness to show that separating oneself from God causes one to invert his or her values from good and logical to bad and wicked.
Her view of the world in this moment is so exaggeratedly evil that it is clear to readers that her perspective was flawed. Kempe was filled with insane rage, and she “bit her own hand so violently that the mark could be seen for the rest of her life” (42). The primal, savage act of Kempe biting herself shows that she is clearly going overboard, especially because she had a permanent bite mark. It seems almost comically absurd that Kempe would harm herself to that extent. She does not prove anything to show God’s nonexistence by biting herself, but only makes herself appear foolish. This is exactly Kempe’s point as the author of this work: she believes that spiting God is foolishness, and in doing so, people act in ways that make themselves look stupid. To Kempe, assuming an attitude of hatred toward God is not just wrong—it is daft.
The second passage only adds to the idea that denying God’s wisdom is idiotic. During a massive sea tempest that threatened to obliterate her ship, she demanded favors from God: “Now, blissful Jesus, remember your manifold mercy, and fulfill your promises that you have promised me” (273). She barked commands at the Lord instead of treating Him with humility as she had before. She explicitly told Him to remember that He promised to be merciful toward her. This is clearly an insult to God, who she heretofore viewed as omniscient. She seemed to believe that she could tell an all-knowing God something He did not know, which makes no sense because there is nothing God does not know. Instead, her attempt to expose His ignorance backfired and actually proved her own irrationality. Instead of humbly praying, she had the audacity to order God to be merciful. As a result, she comes out of this incident as the ungracious one and not God.
Then she further spoke against God: “Show you are truly God, and no evil spirit, that has brought me here into the perils of the sea, whose counsel I have trusted and followed for many years, and shall do, through your mercy, if you deliver us from out of these grievous perils” (273-274). Again, she gave orders to God, this time telling Him to prove that He is God, which is disrespectful. She even not-so-subtly implied that He was acting like an evil spirit would. If God is omniscient, it only follows that He would know best how to be God. Telling God to save her life undermines his ability to make decisions because God knows more than man about how to decide if a person should live or die.
Kempe also reminded God that she had trusted in God’s counsel for her whole life, and would continue to do so—but only if He kept her safe. In essence, she admitted that her adoration for Christ is conditional: she will only continue to praise Him if He saves her—if being the key word in this scenario, because it shows that God must obey her command before she will obey His. That suggests that if He were not going to help her quickly, she would return to the kind of sinfulness she exhibited in the first passage for the rest of her short life. She makes a fool of herself by threatening to disavow God as a way to make God come to her aid. This makes no sense at all, because God had no incentive to assist someone who tells Him, the maker of the whole universe, how to be God. Not only is this a disgraceful act of blasphemy, but it is also an illogical act of ignorance.
The two passages contain a multitude of examples of Margery Kempe’s affronts toward God in times of peril. In each of these situations, Kempe made herself look senseless. Her reason for doing this is to demonstrate that she knows from experience what people look like when they question God’s authority—buffoons. By making herself look idiotic and exaggerated in each of these examples, she illustrates her opinion that one cannot doubt God for intelligent reasons. Instead, separating oneself from God can only happen when people are not thinking logically and acting wisely.
Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe, Trans. B.A. Windeatt. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.