For some reason that has not yet become entirely clear to me, Margery Kempe--a medieval English widow who experienced a religious calling outside of formal religious institutions and is well-known primarily for the memoir written under her name--has become a popular topic among queer studies scholars. While she transgressed a number of social, cultural, and religious norms, within the field of queer studies, she seems to function more as a second- or third-hand metaphor for more centrally "queer" themes. (It's possible that this is simply part of my difficulty in grasping exactly what the central themes of "queer studies" are.) In any event, this chapter is all about Margery Kempe and is hard to fit into the central scope of my Project. Which is not at all to say that she isn't fascinating as a subject.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Chapter 3: Margery Kempe
When Kempe was required to defend herself against charge that included Lollardy, one of the questions thrown at her by the Mayor of Leicester was that she “went in white clothes ... to lure away our wives from us and lead them off with you.” What did that mean? Why did accusations of heresy and sexual deviance get associated with white clothing? Why would wearing white signal that she had intentions of leading women away from their homes? And what was she leading them away for?
Kempe held that she dressed in white because Christ asked her to, but in her memoirs she treated the act as something of a bargaining point. She would wear white if Christ offered her protection in return. She was aware that the color signaled a type of purity (virginity) that she was not technically worthy of, and that others would criticize her for this, so she needed something in return. The garments regularly stood out as unusual and drew down criticism.
The wearing of white clothing may have been associated in England with specific foreign sects that were considered heretical and accused of deviant sexual practices. [Note: Dinshaw doesn’t name the sects specifically.] From accusations of heresy, it was a small step to Lollardy at that time. Thus her clothing may have drawn accusations of Lollady “by contagion” as it were, even though her actions and beliefs were clearly in contradiction with Lollard principles.
Kempe’s status as a widow who adopted the signifier of virginity provokes a discussion of attitudes toward sexual experience and sexual continence. It can be seen as a type of transvestism to use clothing to cross or blur categories in this way.
At this point, I’m going to skim over the long discussion of Kempe’s behavior under questioning. One of Dinshaw’s points here is that Kempe’s habit of answering back and challenging her questioners raises issues of authority and truth. If two people can charge each other with sexual deviance, who has the right to make such a charge?
On multiple occasions, Kempe was accused of “leading women astray.” But what exactly was she being charged with? The language hints at, but does not outright name, same-sex acts.
There is a long analysis of Kempe’s habit of public crying and lamentation over Christ’s passion and how this was considered disruptive. We then move on to a modern work of fiction that uses Kempe as a touchstone in a queer (male) narrative. And then the discussion goes sideways into debates over modern arts and research grants and the uses of accusations over whether particular projects are absurd and unworthy.