The Book of Margery Kempe (1434-1439)1, and The Tragedy of Mariam2 (1613) both have self-titled, central female characters. The presentation of the heroine, in the two texts is flawed and heroic. According to Professor Sally Shutworth, a heroine is a character who ‘demands respect and combines self-control with passion and rebellion3.’ Whilst, the OED defines a heroine as a woman distinguished by the performance of courageous or noble actions; a woman generally admired or acclaimed for her great qualities or achievements4. In this essay, I will explore the extent to which Mariam and Margery Kempe can be considered as heroines, outlining the conflict at play between heroic and flawed attributes.
The flawed heroine is demonstrated in the characters of Mariam and Margery Kempe. Both women exhibit behaviour which is frustrating for the audience or reader alike. Mariam makes racist slurs, whilst Margery’s excessive weeping becomes a source of annoyance.
Kempe’s persistent crying is problematic to the concept of a heroine, due to the inevitable association between female emotion and hysteria. Hysteria is a uniquely female disorder, referring to the contractions of the uterus. It is the first mental disorder attributed to women and has taunted women throughout history5. Hysteria was often linked to repressed sexuality. During the 16th century the most commonly prescribed treatment for a woman with hysteria was increased sexual intimacy6. Kempe’s celibacy, makes such a diagnosis more probable. This is supported by Father David Thurston who shortly after the publication of the text, believed it is without doubt Margery fell victim to hysteria7. Following her conversion to Christianity, Kempe was unable to contain her emotions. Recurrently in the text Kempe is described as having ‘wept violently’ and ‘cried astonishingly,’ much to the confusion of those around her who ‘did not know what was wrong with her.’ The portrayal of an overtly emotional woman, crying without reason is problematic in considering Kempe as a heroine due to the insinuations of hysteria.
Similarly, Mariam demonstrates flawed character traits, posing a challenge when considering her as a heroine. During a conversation with Salome, her sister in law, Mariam exerts her racial superiority over Salome. Referring to her as ‘thou parti Jew, and parti Edomite, Thou mongrel: issued from rejected race.’ Rather than deterring Salome, Mariam instead encourages the revenge that follows and ultimately results in Mariam’s demise8. The racial tension between Salome and Mariam is deep rooted in history. Salome is an Edomite, descendant of Esau who sold his birth right to his brother, Jacob, whilst Mariam is an Israelite, a descendent of Jacob. Esau’s bloodline was considered as inferior as he married a non-Hebrew women. Mariam’s ability to show self-constraint is not provided in this scene, she vows ‘with thy black acts ile not pollute my breath,’ but she immediately follows this with another comment9. Mariam’s absence of self-restraint is her tragic flaw: it encourages Salome to exert revenge, challenging her role as a heroine.
Through the employment of voice, the heroism of Mariam and Margery is conveyed. Mariam is vocal in her reluctance to conform and in making changes. Whereas, Mariam discovers the power of silence, remaining silent in death when anger could have devoured her.
Kempe uses her voice to alter her life, from the domestic to the religious. Judith Bennet describes that ‘The history of medieval women, then, is in part a history of the constraints of economic disadvantage, familial duty, and prescribed social roles. But it is also in part a history of women’s agency within and against these constraints10.’ Society placed Margery and many other women in the role of dutiful wife. Initially, Kempe conforms to this expectation, mothering fourteen children, making her virginal future all the more unexpected and perhaps heroic as it was displaced from the norm. Being a dutiful wife meant having an intimate relationship with a husband. Margery is clearly aware of the difficulty her decision brings, informing her husband that she will continue an intimate relationship with him but she does not consent.
When Mariam persuades her husband to allow her to embark on a life of celibacy, Kempe makes a bold statement: she wears a white cloak. White clothing is associated with purity and virginity. This act was controversial and was met with comments of ‘hypocrisy’ by her community as she clearly was not a virgin. Despite criticism from society Kempe continues her religious quest, certain of her faith. Through her perseverance and revolutionary decision to be different from society’s perceived roles for women, Margery is heroic. This is supported by Michael Wright who stated “Margery displayed remarkable courage and self-direction in the face of patriarchal and hierarchal repression11.”
1 The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. by Barry Windeatt (London: Penguin, 1985).
2 Elizabeth Cary, The Tragedy of Mariam: The Fair Queen of Jewry(Milton Keynes: DoDo Press, 1613).
3 Sally Shutworth, Jane Eyre and The Nineteenth Century Woman(2014)
4 OED, Heroine, n (2017)
5 Cecilia Tasca, Mariangela Rapetti, Mauro Giovanni Carta, and Bianca Fadda1, ‘Women and Hysteria In the History of Mental Health’, Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health, 8, (2012), , in
6 Maggie Hennefeld, ‘Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema’, Differences, 27.3, (2016), 45-92.
7 William Ober, ‘Margery Kempe: Hysteria and Mysticism Reconciled’, Literature and Medicine , 4, (1985), 24-40 (p. 25).
8 Elevlyn Gajowski, ‘Intersecting Discourses of Race and Gender in Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam’, European Woman in Early Modern Drama, 27, (2017).
9 Christina Lucky, “A Moving Rhetoricke”: Gender and Silence in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 152.
10 Judith M. Bennett, Elizabeth A. Clark, Jean, F. O’Barr, B. Anne Vilen and Sarah WestphalWihl (eds), Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages (Chicago and London, 1989), p. 6.
11 Michael J Wright, ‘What They Said to Margery Kempe: Narrative Reliability in Her “Book”‘, Neophilogus, 79, (1995), 497-508 (p. 497).