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Abstract

A late medieval mystic prone to violent bouts of sobbing, Margery Kempe suffers a range of verbal abuse in her titular text, ranging from simple rumors, to outright accusations of heresy and possession. While we might accept such accusatory speech as indicative of the era and Margery’s controversial role as a public “holy woman,” further investigation reveals a narrative strongly driven by the notion of “suffering by slander,” and the weight attributed to the spoken word. The Book of Margery Kempe shows us an oral culture filled with “deviant speech,” and within its own rhetorical construction as a text, elevates daily verbal abuse to a heightened form of spiritual suffering. In her own words and those of Christ within her soul, Margery’s life of public scorn becomes comparable to a religious passion, or even an imitatio; an earthly trial she endures for the sake of total faith. In place of the physical violence found in most martyr narratives, The Book is seen to evolve as its own unique iteration of a traditional female Christian hagiography. Margery is battered, maimed, and threatened by malicious speech, is put on trial, but is always bolstered by the words of a watching God who is pleased with such ascetic devotion. We are encouraged to see than that “deviant speech” goes far beyond mere gossip or talk of the town: it is a dangerous and visceral entity that harms the soul, and is a worthy breed of suffering.

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