Despayr in Margery Kempe and Rosenwein

Following the advice of my colleague Olivia Wood, I’ve decided to blog about the contents of my orals lists as I read. I haven’t decided yet whether everything will make it up here, nor whether the contents will stay public after I’m done, but we’ll see. For this week, I read The Book of Margery Kempe (in Middle English) as well as Barbara Rosenwein’s essay “Coda: Transmitting Despair by Manuscript and Print” from the collection Crying in the Middle Ages. All opinions mine, all tears Margery’s (and also mine).

It’s interesting to begin a project on melancholy by reading a text that deals with tears and crying in a devotional context. The Book of Margery Kempe is perhaps best known for its over-expressions, and for the way others react to Margery’s very vocal expressions of devotion. However, it is important to me to distinguish her tears from either melancholy the feeling or the biological term; crying is not synonymous with sorrow.

The distinction I feel it’s especially important to make when reading Margery is between devotion and despair (despayr). Margery’s tears are a gift from God; they come from a spiritual connection she treasures, and are encouraged by Julian of Norwich (after meeting with Julian, Margery begins to weep freely and after going to Jerusalem begins to scream as well as cry). Conversely, when she feels despayr, she is not only not as prone to cry, but is preoccupied with her distance from God; early on, when she is tempted by a man who tricks her into agreeing for sex, she admits that though she has experienced God’s grace before it is now as if she had never felt it.

This temporal devastation (and even confusion, which I’ll get into in a moment) is to me one of the most striking things about Margery’s despair. It is similar in some ways to the effects of her devotion: when she is thinking of Christ, she is pulled out of time and returned to the moment of his death. (I’m sure there is an essay somewhere about Margery and PTSD.) However, despair doesn’t actually pull her out of linear time, so much as render that time meaningless; time without God’s love is futile. In fact, the discomfort of living without her visions of Christ is in some ways a discomfort with living through time in the correct order, unbroken by flashbacks and visions. I think Margery would say that the discomfort comes mainly from the distance from God and the rest of the Trinity, but I wonder if there’s also a discomfort with the usual linearity of time which her visions help her to escape. After all, she tells her scribe her stories out of order, and that’s how we read them.

God’s comfort, later in the text, that his grace is like the sun– not always visible to Margery, but always there– can’t help but remind me of some Instagram infographics about what to say to the depressed or grieving. (I know this is a flippant comparison but I see a lot of infographics these days.) The fullness of time is an issue for Margery, especially if it doesn’t include God’s grace. This realization is both sudden and recurring; each time she becomes aware of the loss (or really the potential for loss) of her visions or connection with God, life becomes so empty she can’t imagine the future.

In all honesty, while I’m interested in Margery’s tears (and the words for them, incl. “globes”) I am much more interested in her despair, and in how any social reactions to her despair are different from or similar to those expressed at her weeping. I think it’s difficult, though, to completely separate the two. When Margery cries for her friend, a preacher, who is dying (ll. 3480) the other priests ask her “what eylith the woman? We knew hym as well as thu” (ll. 3488) to which her reply is that she’s thinking of Christ’s passion. The confusion the priests express over Margery’s temporal “confusion”– why is she so sad about this even though it happened centuries ago?– is met with the response that for Margery, Christ’s death is as fresh as if it had happened the same day, and that it should be the same for everyone present. One wonders (or I wonder, anyway) how much of this is only about Christ, and how much about the friend. Of course there’s no way to know that; how can we separate out tears for a friend and tears for Christ?

More broadly speaking, I have an extreme desire to read Margery as what we’d call neurodivergent now– not because I don’t think her devotion is legitimate outside the context of her mental health, but because of the flavors of experience around her devotion and her own attempts to deal with other peoples’ responses to it. Outside the disdain she faces for being a suspected Lollard and being overly dramatic (i.e. better at affective piety than you) she also genuinely tries to keep herself from crying and screaming, over and over, in church and elsewhere, because she recognizes that it makes other people uncomfortable.

I hope my eventual project will utilize material sources (i.e. manuscripts) and I’m fascinated by the prospect of tracking emotion and emotional expression through text and illustration (doodles, cross-outs, variants, etc.) I dove in to this a little last year while working on a project about manicules in scientific manuscripts at the NYBG. So I was pleased to hear about the essay “Coda: Transmitting Despair by Manuscript and Print” by Barbara Rosenwein, which is a recent addition to my list.


London, British Library, Additional MS 61823

Rosenwein is interested in tracking material expressions of despair in manuscripts of the Book of MK and a 17th-century protestant named A.O. (I’ll focus on Margery here for obvious reasons.) I started this essay with some skepticism because of the points I laid out previously: mainly, that I see despair and devotional weeping as two separate but related emotions in MK, and it seemed like Rosenwein was collapsing the two. However, I quickly realized this was incorrect. Rosenwein is responding to previous scholars, namely Andrew Cole’s reading of Margery’s shame and the usual focus on her devotion, by focusing on the moments in the text when Margery feels or expresses despair at being far from God, most of which deviate from but still connect to what we might consider hallmarks of despair today (she doesn’t cry, but she does feel a deep sense of hopelessness).

I was confused, then, to see that Rosenwein ends her first exploration of Margery’s visions of damnation and rending of her own skin during childbirth with the announcement that “We would be wrong to consider this as an episode of despair (or, worse, of postpartum depression), full stop.” (251). Why? I’m aware anecdotally of at least one essay reading Margery as a sufferer of postpartum depression, and if the hesitance here is a reluctance to diagnose, it seems to rush in the other direction and say that because this episode isn’t referred to as despair directly, even though it conforms with some of the other episodes in the text, it can’t be seen as any kind of related mental phenomenon. Even if this event is not despair per se, I am interested in reading it as related because of the actions MK undertakes– harming herself, visions (non-productive and distressing, as opposed to her comforting visions of Christ) and most of all a profound hopelessness. She is “labored with spiritys”, she contemplates suicide, and she is tormented by the idea that her confession was illegitimate and that she is removed from God forever (in other words, the “grace” of confession is removed from her and there’s no hope in her future– sounds a little like a kind of despair.) Her “steryngs” are absolutely in the realm of despayr, even if they aren’t despair itself (it feels anachronistic but important to note that today, we recognize depression and anxiety as frequently co-occurring.)

I was wondering if I’d misunderstood what Rosenwein is saying here. Looking through the next episode she discusses (MK’s temptation from the man she “loved” which I mentioned above) she notes that the word “despair” is repeated three times, highlighting MK’s feeling in the text. This episode, Rosenwein argues, is what leads to Margery being granted the gift of affective piety via tears by Christ, and what allows her to gain an antidote to despair (her piety and visions). I’m not sure I agree, however. While weeping and despair rarely overlap, I see weeping as blocked by despair, rather than despair being washed away by weeping. Margery is on several occasions unable to pray effectively until she recieves a vision from Christ, which then causes her weeping which (having demonstrated her closeness to God) fixes her despair, a process which must occur over and over (if Margery no longer despaired, and therefore no longer needed to prove her closeness to God, would her visions still serve a purpose?). Devotion is attendant to pain, compassion, and remembrance; despair comes along with hopelessness, self-interest and an inability to connect with others (Christ, but also other people) in the way that Margery would like to. Rosenwein does note there’s an “affective sisterhood” (Margery leading other women to weep for their sins, and occasionally other men as well) but again, this is only true for her devotional expressions. I can’t think of a time when Margery finds companionship in despair, because despair is anti-communal as well as anti-devotional (for MK anyway).

Rosenwein closes her section on Margery by calling attention to what she calls MK’s process of “overcoming despair” (despair + vision + tears). Noting that both Langland and Chaucer mention an equivalent emotion called “wanhope” (like sloth or acedia), she concludes that despair was one way to reach at devotion in the Middle Ages, and that it would have been recognized, though not necessarily shared, by others.

This leads to what is the most interesting part of this essay to me: textual history. I’ll quote from Rosenwein here:

The manuscript of Margery’s amanuensis is not extant. Rather, we have a copy, probably made without an intermediary and quite close to the date of the original, by one Salthows, who was very likely from the same diocese (Norfolk) as Margery… How was Margery’s despair transmitted at that point? The answer is that it was echoed and remarked upon by the monks at Mount Grace. Salthows’s manuscript was quite certainly read and even busily annotated there by at least four monks. [A] commentator marked the places where Margery’s experiences reminded him of other—male—mystics. The commentator also repeated in the margins particular words of note to him… the second was the word “despair,” marking the first time that the word appeared in the manuscript in its noun form. (64-5)

This is fascinating annotation and speaks to the emotional impact of despair through time. I’m so interested to know that a fifteenth century monk had exactly the same note-taking strategy that I did. However, I’m still unsure where despair shows up in the physical text beyond the word “despair” and its annotations, and furthermore why its transmission is especially effective.

Ultimately it is an interesting thesis that Margery’s weeping isn’t (only) a genuine expression but also a kind of accommodation, designed to help her keep despair away. But this essay doesn’t define despair enough to convince me that there actually is a salient experience of “despair” that Margery experiences that is disconnected from all her other bodily experiences. It also treats despair as a condition Margery overcomes with the insertion of divine accommodation, when I think it’s arguable that Margery never really overcomes her despair– to use the language of chronic pain, she learns to manage it and is not always completely able to do that.

I’ll conclude with the essay’s conclusion, the extremely interesting (to me) declaration that although we have plenty of opportunities for self-expression of our own despair nowadays, “let us not imagine that a tweet is comparable even to the testimony of A. O., let alone the lengthy musings of Margery Kempe” (260). This for me is the heart of the confusion I had with this article; if despair transmitted through text is inherently effective through time, especially (as with MK) when it’s transmitted with a highly specific context of devotional practice, then why the reservation about connecting it to modern expressions of despair, depression, postpartum, etc? Why woudn’t we wish to affectively connect our experiences to MK’s? This is especially true given the Margery Kempe twitter page; it turns out Margery’s lines actually make extremely good tweets.

Until next time, it’s ful mery in hevene!