The Insanity Offense

This is to answer the question “Wasn’t Margery Kempe was just crazy?” Interestingly, this is a question few articles or books on the subject ask of her; it only really comes up in undergraduate classes. The point of this post is, for that audience, to explain why she is not, and some ramifications of the question.1

The initial problem with this is that it’s basically unprovable. Her story was recorded by someone else, for one problem. One scholar compellingly argues that “Margery” is a fiction created by Kempe, which would kind of neuter the whole possibility. If this doesn’t settle the issue, there are two issues at stake here: let me call them A and B.

A. About her. “Insanity” is not a clinical, or even a clear, term. Today it’s only official context is in court, to mean that a person isn’t responsible for something they’ve done–kind of like an irreparable drunkenness. It’s awfully vague even in this context, but I assume that it implies the loss of an ability to understand or respond to the world in a way comprehensible to others.

For the sake of argument, let’s fly with this notion for a minute and posit that she suffered from a mental illness. Since she says that that she suffered her first fit after the birth of her first child (1.1), let’s say that she suffered a postpartum episode of what the DSM-IV calls major depression. Let’s say that this caused her to lose control of her emotional gyroscope. Let’s say that the illness had psychotic features, so that she had hallucinations so vivid that these visions became a kind of reality for her. Let’s say that all of this came back in fits over her life, propelling her to seek relief from or understanding about all of this emotional turmoil in pilgrimage and the eucharist and confession, the only avenues readily available to her. (I’d note, as an aside, that if this is the diagnosis, she would also have fantasized about the spiritually interdicted sin of suicide, which is notably not present in the narrative.)

Ok: and now, after all of this: So What? None of this would mean that she wasn’t brilliant, or culturally adept or insightful, or able to form close friendships, or sensitive to others and to what she sees and hears around her–or that we cannot learn from her story.

The real problem with this argument is not the attempt at a modern diagnosis (which, again, I’d argue is pointless), but that using a vague word like “crazy” conflates this with a kind of loss of the mind, as if the person had no sense of herself or the world around her. First, such a lack of awareness is clearly not characteristic of Kempe. She is, I think obviously, very aware of her surroundings–she even dictates an autobiography about herself in which she repeatedly returns to how other people see her, and how she sees herself in contrast: this is extremely self-aware. Would that all of us were so.

Second, people with this are not “insane.” In fact, the accusation actually stigmatizes mental illness, something that those who understand it have been arguing against for decades. Innumerable women and men who’ve contributed immense benefits to our world have suffered from major depression, whatever its origin.

Van Gogh
He cut off his ear; he must be crazy.
I’ll mention (and then sidestep) one possible implication of the accusation, which is that “she’s just hysterical”–the implication being that women are especially prone to becoming nonsensical. I hope that just drawing attention to this is enough to repel interest in it. We don’t dismiss van Gogh’s otherworldly “Starry Night” as crazy, even knowing about his self-mutilation, nor do we dismiss Hemingway for the decline which led to his suicide. So let’s not dismiss her visions because we think we know something that, in fact, we don’t.

People may have emotional experiences so vivid that they see them, and they may go on creative fits and exhaust themselves to be true to what what their emotions feel to be real. This is not a lack of control or awareness; in fact, this is actually not at all uncommon for humanity. Kempe also ran a business, and (at times by herself) traversed thousands of miles of medieval Europe, and talked to and faced down both ecclesiastical councils and some of the most powerful churchmen of her time–even winning their favor. She was very aware of the nuances of social and cultural interaction.

B. About her culture. She’s crazy because: she sees the host seem to come alive (1.20), she wants to have a chaste marriage (1.11, 15), she cries in howling fits (1.28, et seq.), she hears sounds (1.17), she has a vision in which she marries Christ (1.35), she sees devils (1.1), she fantasizes about kissing leprous men (1.74), and on and on.

To study medieval Europe is to learn about another culture. It’s a bit like studying modern China. Our cultural norms, biases, even profoundly held beliefs, don’t apply. Unlike studying China, however, medieval Europe is the direct antecedent to our culture, to which we refer constantly, consciously and otherwise. This problem–it’s so different, but it defines us–makes the middle ages both challenging and important to study. Devils were real; vows of chastity were not an unusual devotional practice for those who wanted to live a “mixed” life by blending the devotional ideals of monastic practice into their public lives; there are stories told in plays and chronicles that describe how the host would bleed when it was tortured, or even come to life: all of the images she uses occur in contemporary culture. Kempe’s story gives us an especially vivid and creative depiction of one woman’s use of what was around her to seek an understanding of her (medieval) self. They represent learning, insight, and interpretation, not loss.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that she wasn’t “crazy” brings these two points together: many people, including a core of folks who knew her very well, did not see her so. She certainly made people uncomfortable: that is not the same thing, though, as being incoherent or delirious or whatever “crazy” means. Her husband accedes to her wish for celibacy; her bishop grants it. This is a very curious moment for us; for them, and for this culture, it worked.

iven all of this, the issue behind both A and B becomes not Kempe, but the limit of what kind of difference we can tolerate. This is an academic rather than personal tolerance: are you willing to enter into a dialogue with–to study–someone who is this different from you? Academic inquiry does not ask you to believe in her visions; it asks you to explore them (considerately) and then interpret what they might signify to your peers. Her world was very real for millions of people for many centuries. And some people today still believe in devils. Scholarship insists that you not mock them. Instead, ask: what and how can we learn about this? How can we wrap our minds around that reality? How does it affect ours? Let’s discern its values, and not write off those who believe them off as “insane,” even if you don’t agree with them.

Academic inquiry doesn’t ask for belief in the object of study, but for a commitment to explain it. To accomplish this you don’t have to believe in what Kempe did, but you do have to lend her intellectual respect.

1. It doesn’t really help here that the selections in the Norton mostly tell of her tears and visions, not of (for instance) facing down a council accusing her of Lollardy; the selective impression these leave tell of a woman who moves through the world always seeing Christ through tears, which isn’t very accurate. The Longman includes some of these legal scenes.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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