Sex, Sensuality and Religion in The Book of Margery Kempe
Baron Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, a 19th century German psychiatrist, was quoted as having said, "We find that the sexual instinct, when disappointed and unappeased, frequently seeks and finds a substitute in religion." This may have been the condition of Margery Kempe when she desired to cease all sexual activity with her spouse because of her devotion to God. Instead of performing her duties as a wife, she chose instead to spread her knowledge of God to her community and did so not only in speech, but also in literature. Whatever her motivation for creating such descriptive language, it is evident that her faith in God conquered both her fear of public opinion and the constraints placed upon all women during the period. Living in the 1400s, she steps out of a woman's role and into the territory of a man by living her life publicly, abandoning her position of mother and wife, and recording her life in writing. Fortunately, because she was writing for religious reasons, her work was both permitted and accepted. In The Book of Margery Kempe, she describes her experiences with brilliant imagery, some of which is sexual, all of which is sensual. By using her own senses to portray her spiritual faith, Kempe permits the reader to understand the transcendent quality of her relationship--a woman's relationship--with God.
In The Book of Margery Kempe we see many instances where she expresses her religious faith through her senses. For example, evidence of her extreme inspiration exists in her sense of touch. Like other devotees, primarily male, when she first began to commune personally with God, "she did great bodily penance" (20). Along with wearing a hair-cloth beneath her skirt, she also "gave herself up to great fasting…" (20). Showing repentance through a willingness to undergo bodily harm was a sign of true faith, but was not usually exhibited by women to the extent we find it in Kempe. In addition, after her first personal heavenly message, she renounces sexual activity with her husband for God, saying she would rather "[eat]…the muck in the gutter than consent to any fleshly communing" (20). Although he does not agree to heed her wishes readily, after many years and fourteen children he agrees to respect her vow of celibacy. By secretly wearing such a horribly uncomfortable cloth, not eating, and refraining from sexual contact--all decisions which translate the literal feelings of the physical body to the spiritual--she expresses her religious faith through her senses.
Kempe also experiences spirituality through her hearing. When first she comes to realize her sinfulness, she hears beautiful music. In fact, it is this music--which she alone can hear--which sparks her conversion. In Chapter 3, she says that while in bed one night, "she heard a sound of melody so sweet and delectable, that she thought she had been in Paradise" (19). By these sudden sounds, she...