General Topics Teaching/Links/Research or Seminar Projects

Research or Seminar Projects (graduate and undergraduate). Most of these projects develop logically from one of the short assignments and can make extensive uses of the Mapping Margery Kempe site. Most would also benefit from outside research on such topics as lollardy, female literacy in the Middle Ages, female sexuality and sanctity, or 15th century commerce. 

Saints: Throughout the Book Kempe repeatedly names Saints Margaret, Catherine,and Mary Magdalene. Compare and contrast her Book with the lives of any one of these saints as well as with the genre of the saints· life. To what extent does her book follow the model of a saint·s life? How does it diverge? 

Saints: Kempe names as specific "role models" Bridget of Sweden and Mary of Oignies. Working with their vitae and with selections of Bridget·s Revelations, explore how Kempe uses these models in constructing a autobiography that can also be considered a unique and hybrid form of a saint·s life. 

Sexuality and sanctity: Many saint·s lives negotiate in a complex way between the eroticized body of a young virgin and a sanctified body that is preserved from male predation and violence. How does Kempe·s Book also use sexuality and sanctity? A feature of Kempe·s Book that differentiates it from most lives of female saints is her own acknowledgment of sexual desire. In relation to her own project of "revirgining" herself, explore Kempe·s construction of a sexualized and bodily persona. An interesting context for this project would be the vita and iconography of Mary Magdalene, one of the saints Kempe names most frequently in her text. 

Status and selfhood: Lynn was one of the most important centers of commerce in late medieval England, and was able to claim unique privileges for its burghers through an ongoing struggle between lay authorities and the clergy. How does Kempe·s Book, the record of a lay woman in conflict with powerful male clerical authorities, play out similar conflicts? How does Kempe reveal her own awareness of the importance of public status? What role does the construction of a public persona play in her Book? Taking a slightly different approach, this project could explore Kempe·s uses of commercial transactions in her Book. How effective is she as a negotiator? How does the language of money and exchange figure in the text? 

Christ: Explore the nature of the figure of Christ as he appears in the Book. Christ is a powerfully realized confessor-figure who in effect replaces her husband in Kempe·s desired spiritual marriage. Consider the persona that Christ takes on in relation to iconographic traditions of the Man of Sorrows or the Christ of Pity, as well as the relationship to Christ that is advocated in Rolle·s Meditations on the Passion. For images, see especially the Long Melford "Virgin of Pity." 

Motherhood: It has often been remarked that Kempe says almost nothing about her own 14 children. Nevertheless, she evinces a powerful identification with the Virgin as a mother. Working with several contemporary images of the holy family, such as the nativity alabaster at Long Melford and the windows at East Harling, explore Kempe·s transformation or re-imagining of her own motherhood. 

Parish space: Kempe repeatedly describes events or visions as occurring in specific places within churches, which she also identifies by name. What is the effect of her attention to place within churches? What is the relationship between the types of occurrences and the privilege of the spaces in which they occur·e.g., chancel, nave, choir, high altar, prior·s chapel, etc? Does Kempe name privileged clerical space in order to domesticate those spaces and claim them for herself, or in order to structure the events of her Book according to the types of spaces in which events occur·or both? 

St. Margaret·s Church: Much of the Book records experiences within St. Margaret·s Church. Explore this relationship and its proprietary nature. Consider Kempe·s response to the petition for independence from St. Nicholas· Chapel: what conclusions can be drawn from her position in this conflict? Consider as well the specific nature of visions and experiences that she records as locational events: why is she so careful to map these events and to name where they take place? 

Breaking bread: Meals pepper the Book of Margery Kempe. Repeatedly she describes events as occurring over meals. Explore this motif in the Book. Why do meals seem so important to Kempe? To what extent is protocol and hierarchy important at meals? Meals seem to be a site where she reveals her keen awareness of hierarchy. How? Explore, in connection with this assignment, the Braunche brass from St. Margaret·s Church in Lynn, with its illustration of the feast for Edward III. Kempe would doubtless have known this monumental brass. 

Costume: Kempe·s choice to wear white subjects her to repeated harassment from all sectors of society, archbishop to her fellow travelers. Why? What is the significance of white dress for a married woman? What or whom is Kempe attempting to emulate? Kempe·s own imperatives here, and the social reaction they prompt, can also be considered in relation to general attitudes about dress and status in late medieval England. 

Literacy: Explore Kempe·s relationship to literacy and the role that her own marginal literacy plays in her interactions with male authority figures in her Book. How literate is she, in fact? How do we know? Is she anxious or confident about her own authority to speak? Might we consider her bouts of loud crying a form of language? 

Lollardy: Margery Kempe as a "false lollard": Is she? Much of her Book is a retrospective refutation of charges of heresy that dogged her life. Weighing the evidence, how does it stack up? The charges against her seem to stem chiefly from her predilection for preaching. Contrasting Margery Kempe to Lollards John Oldcastle or William Sawtre, one of whom Kempe names and the other of whom was certainly familiar to her, would you let her off or make her burn?