Margery Kempe. Extract from Book 1.11.

After giving birth to fourteen children, Margery wants to take the vow of celibacy (at this point my students usually say “small wonder” or something to this effect). However, her husband is not particularly keen on that idea and she has been campaigning for it for three years. This passage describes them returning from York on foot on a hot summer Friday afternoon, she carrying a bottle of beer and he a cake. At some point Margery’s husband asks her this rather startling question: “If a murderer threatened to chop off my head unless you had sex with me, would you do it?” Margery sorrowfully says she’d rather see him dead than again return to “our uncleanness”, to which he answers, unsurprisingly, “Ye are no good wife”. Margery then asks him why he hasn’t had sex with her for the last eight weeks, even though she continues to share his bed, and he admits he’s been afraid. She asks him again to let her make a vow of chastity, but he doesn’t want to do it, arguing that now sex with her is not a sin, but if she took the vow, it would be. She meekly answers that she prays he would consent if such is the will of Holy Ghost.

As they are passing a roadside cross, Margery’s husband sits down and tells her that he will consent under three conditions: she is still going to share a bed with him, she is going to pay his debts and she is going to eat with him on Fridays (until then she abstained on every Friday from all food and drink, claiming it was Jesus’ wish). She doesn’t want initially to break her Friday fast, but after she prays to Jesus for advice, he answers her that she is now free to do it – he asked her to fast in order to obtain through God’s grace her husband consent, and now when her husband agrees to her vow of chastity, there is no point in continuing the fasts. Margery says that to her husband, they pray together under the cross and then eat and drink together.

Two interesting points here: Margery and her husband when talking about their marital sex, use the terminology of debt and obligation. In medieval law sex was something one was due to one’s spouse, and refusing to grant it was like trying to avoid paying debts – that pertained both to men and women. Margery’s husband relieves her from her debt, making her body “free to God”, but in turn she pays his debts, so in a way she buys off her body from him. I would like to emphasize that she has her own money – the economic position of medieval women was in many respects better than in the 19th century. Progress does not always come in a straight line.

I have just learned form this Guardian article that the only existing MS of Margery’s book was found by accident by a guy looking for a ping pong ball. My favourite bloggers make a lot of fun from the fact that in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham, when asked by a guest “I’ve heard you have a Gutenberg Bible” answers casually “Oh yes, it’s here somewhere”. But as this story shows, there is always a chance of a priceless manuscript or early print lurking somewhere in a drawer in an English castle, among old school essays and ping pong balls.

Fortunately, now you don’t have to travel to an English castle to see this manuscript, as it’s been digitized by the British Library.


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