Dec 8 | Kathleen Smith on Margery Kempe

Please mark your calendars to join the Friends of the Saints on Friday, December 8, at 7 p.m. in the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study (Room 5105) of the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave.) for the following paper and our customary pot-luck refreshments:

Kathleen Smith
Assistant Professor, Department of English, American University

“The Legal and Literary Limits of Intention in the Book of Margery Kempe”

This paper will examine four scenes from The Book of Margery Kempe from the perspective of emerging theories of the relationship between mental state and crime and sin.   By placing Margery Kempe and her work outside of the usual frameworks—of women’s literature, mystical literature, and saints’ lives—we may encounter the narrative self she creates within a newly contentious world of legal and theological discussions of intent.  In late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, changing ideas about intent and morality were being codified, debated, legislated, and engineered, often within Margery Kempe’s social sphere.  By reading the Book of Margery Kempe from the perspective of debates about crime and sin, I aim to shed further light some of the more difficult aspects of the work as a literary and as a religious text.

The paper will test two interrelated theses: 1.) Margery’s conversion is specifically a result of her sin in intention and this is in fact essential for understanding the structure of the Book and its theoretical underpinnings.  And 2.) Though a number of studies have understood the move toward interiority in the Book as part of the contemplative models of religious practice that emphasize meditation, the Book’s unusual emphasis on intention may in fact be understood through mutually-influential changes in legal culture and pastoral manuals that began to reshape England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.  In this way, The Book of Margery Kempe offers a case study of how conversion narratives and especially life writing may in fact be more actively engaged with legal narratives than was previously imagined.

Please let us know whether you will be coming (affirmative RSVPs only).  We look forward to seeing you then!

Leah Hanlon
Secretary, Friends of the Saints

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