Margery Kempe: mother, mystic, mentally ill? Throughout The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery is burdened with the gift of tears. To onlookers, her behaviour seems erratic and threatening; strangers and acquaintances often wonder if devils possessing her cause her passionate wailing. Margery is often questioned about her tears, and isolated from people who fail to understand that she is one of Christ’s “chosen souls” (24). Margery sees these social difficulties as trials of her faith, and says, “For ever the more slander and reproof that she suffered, the more she increased in grace and in devotion of holy meditation” (Kempe 4). Even when her community berates her, she maintains that her tears are a gift and a form of penance, that her communications with Christ are genuine, and that she is not inspired by devils but inspired by the Holy Ghost. Her beliefs fit with her contemporary cultural context, as demonstrated by those who believe her, but Margery’s dissenters also have a point. Margery’s excessive tears are peculiar and frightenging, and her communication with God is indemonstrable except by her own word. Margery considers herself a healthy and holy woman, but were she alive today, one might consider her mentally ill.
Before beginning my argument I would like to clarify the current criteria for diagnosing mental illness. First, the patient must show “clinically significant detriment” (Gray 578). This could be shown by way of “distress (painful feelings) or impairment of functioning (interference with the ability to work, play, or get along with people” (578). Second, the distress must have “an internal source… in the person’s biology, mental structures (ways of perceiving, thinking, or feeling) or learned habits) – and not in the immediate environment,” (578) although the environment may well be a trigger of the distress. Third, the distress must “not [be] subject to voluntary control” (578). In all of the instances that I will examine, Margery fits at least two of the three criteria. Her behaviours demonstrate distress and/or impaired function, and a lack of voluntary control. It is debatable whether her source is or is not internal – I certainly cannot judge whether her visions, for example, were inspired by an external divine force or created within the construct of her mind. However, there is one instance in which it is more likely that Margery fit the third criteria.
In Chapter One, Margery describes an eight month period after the birth of one of her children which gives very much the impression of post-partum depression, a relatively common modern psychological disorder. During this period, she went “out of her mind” (Kempe 7). She describes this experience:
“devils cried upon her with great threats and bade her that she should forsake her Christianity, her faith… and all her friends. And so she did. She slandered her husband, her friends and her own self… she knew no virtue or goodness; she desired all wickedness; just as the...