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Cover for the book Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions

Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions

Lynn Staley
  • Copyright: 1994
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 240 pages
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-01030-4
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02579-7
“Staley has used and made advances on the best recent writing on Margery Kempe, and her book is a consolidation of the new position that has been won for the Book in English literary culture and history. Her distinction of ‘Kempe’ and ‘Margery’ will become the standard mode of reference, I think, and her argument concerning the narrative purposes and ‘fictional’ status of the story, and its implication in questions of authority, in the broadest sense, will be generally accepted as definitive.”
“In this extremely original study, Lynn Staley argues that the Book of Margery Kempe is an exploratory and subtle work, exploring the communities, practices, and values of her fellow Christians. It turns out that this exploration is far more searching and critical than any studies of Kempe’s work have appreciated. In elaborating the relevant arguments, Staley offers a range of fascinating readings of Kempe’s relations to Lollardy, to the vernacular, to received rhetorics of gender, and to issues of national identity and its sacralizing construction in the reign of Henry V. Not only is the Book far more critical of late medieval church and of mercantile life than existing scholarship has suggested, it develops a radical investigation of the dominant social institutions and forms of relationship in late medieval England. Furthermore, Staley argues that Kempe produces a vision of a new Ecclesia, one shaped by women and women’s relations, in the face of a fragmented but habitually violent and persecutory set of ruling institutions and practices. This book is a major contribution to medieval studies.”

Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions, a contextual and historical study of the Book, focuses on Kempe’s ability to construct a fiction that exploits the conventions of sacred biography and devotional prose as the means of scrutinizing the very foundations of fifteenth-century English society. Thus, though the Book is cast into a communally sanctioned "female" form, Kempe uses the very conventions that tended to define that form to test its outer limits. In producing a text whose apparatus locates it in a communal context, she signals her grasp of the relationship between both gender and genre and genre and public, but her underlying technique works to dissolve the very community she thereby constitutes. In so doing, she creates a work that is open to radically opposed readings.

Each of the book’s four chapters considers a key aspect of Kempe’s fiction: her manipulation of the tropes of authorship; her exploitation of the conventions of sacred biography; her use of the language of gender as a means of exploring the issue of spiritual authority; and her handling of such important contemporary issues as vernacular translation and nationalism. The conclusion addresses the issue of community that is radically opposed to contemporary views of the English body politic.

In situating Kempe in relation to contemporary texts and to contemporary issues, such as Lollardy, Lynn Staley provides a radically new way of looking at Kempe herself as an author who was fully aware of the types of constrictions she faced as a woman writer. As the study demonstrates, in Kempe we have the first major prose fiction writer of the Middle Ages. Her Book is a tribute to her keen understanding of conventional forms and modes and thus to her ability to reshape traditional materials. It is also a tribute to her understanding of the ways in which she might exploit the conventions and values of a patriarchal society to her own ends. Rather than Margery, the hysteric, Staley insists on Kempe, the controlling author, who, like Chaucer and Langland, creates a fiction that dramatizes the weaknesses of the social and ecclesiastical institutions of her day.

Lynn Staley is Professor of English at Colgate University and author of The Shepheardes Calender: An Introduction (Penn State, 1990) and The Voice of the Gawain-Poet (1984).

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