Margery Kempe’s husband: humiliation of sexless married men

In Margery Kempe’s early-fifteenth-century English spiritual autobiography, Margery’s husband is a marginal figure. He followed and supported her in her travels, yet his words hardly appear. Of his desires, wants, and aspirations, only one is reasonable clear: he enjoyed having sex with his wife. Yet like too many husbands today, Margery Kempe’s husband had his marriage transformed into a sexless relationship and a source of personal humiliation.

frozen Artic: Laptev Sea

Hearing heavenly music prompted Margery to no longer desire to have sex with her husband. How exactly such music was produced isn’t known. Others apparently didn’t hear it. But her sense of hearing heavenly music profoundly affected Margery:

from this time she never desired to have sex with her husband, for the sexual obligation of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any sexual intercourse, except only out of obedience. And so she said to her husband, “I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.” He would have his will with her, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing that she might not live chastely. [1]

Margery explained to her husband that excessive lovemaking displeased God:

she counseled her husband to live chastely, and she said that she knew well that they often had displeased God by their inordinate love and the great delight that they both had in sexually using one another, and that now it was good that they should, by both their wills and consent of them both, punish and chastise themselves willfully by abstaining from their lust of their bodies.

Margery’s husband had a more naturalistic understanding of God’s will:

Her husband said it was good to be chaste, but he might not yet; he would when God wished it. And so he sexually used her as he had done before; he would not abstain. [2]

To chastise herself, Margery began to wear a hair shirt through day and night. Her husband patiently ignored that extraordinary behavior (she implausibly claimed that he didn’t notice). He continued to have sex with her despite her wearing a hair shirt and behaving erratically. Margery claimed to have had fourteen children, including more than one after she had sought to end sexual relations with her husband. Amid detailed descriptions of her extensive travels and spiritual turmoil, Margery wrote almost nothing about her care for her children.[3]

Margery’s account of how she ended sexual relations with her husband encompasses both divine action and human bargaining. According to Margery, Christ made her a promise and acted to bring it about:

as this creature {Margery} prayed to God that she might live chastely with the permission of her husband, Christ said to her mind, “You must fast on Friday both from food and drink, and you shall have your desire before Whitsunday, for I shall suddenly slay your husband.” Then on the Wednesday in Easter week, her husband sought to know her sexually as he typically did, and when he came near her, she said, “Jesus, help me,” and he had no power to touch her at that time in that way, nor never after did he sexually know her.

Whitsunday is seven Sundays after Easter. Elsewhere Margery indicated that she and her husband stopped having sex about May 5.[4] That date might have occurred before Whitsunday, but it’s too late to be the Wednesday before Easter. Margery’s claim that Jesus physically suppressed her marital sexual activity has some factual problems.

Margery Kempe’s husband experienced sexless marriage not only as unexpected deprivation, but also as personal humiliation. Consider what Margery said to him on Midsummer Eve in 1413. That night in medieval England was associated with revelry and joyful sexuality. Margery and her husband were walking together. She was carrying a bottle of beer; he, a cake. He asked:

“Margery, if there came a man with a sword and would slice off my head unless I should have sex with you as I have done before, tell me the truth from your conscience — for you say you will not lie — whether you would allow my head to be sliced off or allow me to be intimate with you, like in the past?”

“Alas, sir,” she said. “why do you bring up this issue, when we have been chaste for the past eight weeks?”

“I want to know the truth of your heart.”

And then she said with great sorrow, “Truthfully, I would rather see you be slain than that we should turn again to the impurity of sexual activity.”

Those are cutting words for a husband to hear from his wife. Margery Kempe’s husband replied only, “You are not a good wife.” Margery then taunted her husband, and he admitted that he was afraid:

then she asked her husband why he had not been intimate with her for eight weeks, since she lay with him every night in his bed. And he said he became so afraid when he touched her that he dared not do more.

Husbands today might not have sex with their wives for fear of being accused of rape. Husbands might endure a sexless marriage for fear of being deprived of custody of their children through anti-men gender bias of family courts. Margery recounted Christ’s promise that her husband would be suddenly slain. That connects to the husband’s hypothetical about the man threatening him with a sword. As Margery understood, being deprived of sex was for her husband similar to being killed.

Margery Kempe’s husband made the best marital bargain he could under the circumstances. Margery wanted him to make a vow of chastity before a bishop. That would add the weight of sin to challenging her sexual rebuffs of him. He countered with three requests:

  1. You resume having sex with me like we did before you imposed sexlessness on our marriage.
  2. You pay pay off my debts before you take your trip to Jerusalem. Under the oppressive medieval law of coverture, a husband was responsible for his wife’s debts.
  3. You eat with me on Fridays like you did in the past, instead of fasting and leaving me to eat alone.

Margery insisted that she would never again eat with her husband on Fridays. Since this was before non-forcible martial rape (sex that one spouse doesn’t want) was criminalized, her husband declared in response that he would have sex with her. As if she were about to be executed, Margery asked to be allowed first to say her prayers. In that prayer, Jesus urged her to bargain with her husband. Jesus declared that he would permit her to eat and drink with her husband on Fridays. Margery thus offered her husband a bargain:

  1. I’ll eat and drink with you on Fridays, and
  2. I’ll pay off the debts you owe on account of me and you, if
  3. You consent willingly to renounce any further interest in having sex with me for the rest of your life.

Margery’s husband, who may well have been heavily indebted as a result of her trips and her failed business ventures, agreed to this marital deal.[5]

Margery’s husband faithfully fulfilled the terms of their marital deal. He took a formal vow of chastity before a bishop. To quell gossip that they were still having sex, after a while they moved to separate residences.[6] Margery regarded her husband as a good man:

he was ever a good man and an accommodating man to her. Though he sometimes out of panic and fear left her side, he always returned to her, and had compassion for her, and defended her as much as he dared for fear of the people. … her husband was always there for her when all others failed her and he went with her wherever our Lord would send her

Both in his sexlessness and his subordination to his wife, Margery Kempe’s husband uncannily anticipated the modern ideal husband.

Margery heard God telling her that other wives would like to have a sexless marriage. According to Margery, having sex with their husbands prevents wives from loving and serving God. She recounted that God told her:

if you knew how many wives there are in this world who would love me and serve me very well and properly, if they might be as free from their husbands as you are from yours, you would say that you were very much beholden to me. And yet many wives are put off from their wills and suffer fully great pain. They shall have very great reward in heaven, for I receive every good will as for the deed.[7]

Medieval Christian understanding of marital sexuality included the concept of marital debt. That meant that both spouses owe each other sex. In modern secular societies, spouses aren’t considered to owe each other sex. Modern societies thus provide better conceptual support for sexless marriages.

Although Margery stopped having sex with her husband, she lusted after other men for years afterwards. She could not quell the natural yearnings of her body:

for so long she was tempted with the sin of lechery despite her efforts to avoid it. She often went to confession; she wore a hair shirt and did great bodily penance and wept many a bitter tear and prayed fully often to our Lord that he would preserve her and keep her so that she would not fall into temptation. She thought she would rather be dead than consent to lechery. And in all this time she had no sexual desire for her husband, and the thought of sex with her husband was very painful and horrible to her.

One evening a man that Margery desired told her that he would like to sleep with her. Margery, in emotional turmoil, said little in reply. But her mind was filled with lecherous thoughts about that man. Later that evening, she approached him and sought to accept his proposition:

she went to the man so that he should have his lust, as she thought that he had desired, but he reacted so ambiguously that she could not know his intent, and so they parted asunder for that night.[8]

Not able to free herself from her lust for him, Margery approached him again:

At last, through irrepressible temptation and lack of discretion, she was overcome and consented in her mind and went to the man to learn if he would then consent to her. And he said that he wouldn’t for all the good in this world; he would rather be chopped up as small as meat for the pot. She went away all shamed and confused within herself, seeing his stability and her instability. [9]

That’s a harsh rejection of her sexual overture. But it’s probably not as emotionally wounding as being continually sexually rejected by one’s spouse. Margery was “constantly troubled with horrible temptations of lechery and despair for nearly all the next year.” Scholars have failed to appreciate Margery’s sexual complexity. Margery regarded Mary Magdalen as the worthiest person to be with her soul.[10]

Very few medieval texts document men’s sexual deprivation within marriage. A medieval scholar has described Margery Kempe’s book as “a precious work for anyone interested in the history of gender, subjectivities, and English culture.”[11] He rhetorically questioned:

could it be that at least some of her struggles resonate in our domestic culture and have not been transcended?

The account of Margery Kempe’s husband provides vital insights into men’s lived experiences. Sexless marriages, like anti-men bias in child custody decisions and forced financial fatherhood, are fundamental injustices that our domestic culture has not transcended. Struggles with these injustices are scarcely even acceptable to notice.

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Notes:

[1] Book of Margery Kempe 1.3, from Middle English my translation following closely Staley (2001) p. 10. I refer to passages in the Book of Margery Kempe by book.chapter and page number in id.

The only surviving manuscript of the Book of Margery Kempe is viewable online. A well-edited representation of the Middle English text is available online in Staley (1996), and with additional metatext at the Mapping Margery Kempe site. Staley (2001) has the benefits of being a closely literal translation, but includes archaic words and awkward constructions. Skinner (1998) is a highly readable translation, but not accurate enough for close analysis. Bale (2015) is the best close rendering into fluent modern English. Here are summaries of the book’s chapters.

The text is written as Margery’s account related through a scribe. The third-personal references to “this creature” and “she” may reflect Margery’s self-references. Above I often refer to Margery Kempe as Margery. Her contemporaries would have referred to her as Margery, not Kempe.

Margery never mentioned her husband’s name. He was John Kempe of Lynn. His name (as John) occurs only in the Bishop of Lincoln’s address to him questioning whether he consents to a chaste marriage (1.15, p. 26). I don’t use Margery Kempe’s husband’s name above to reflect his subalternity within the Book of Margery Kempe and within the dominant, gynocentric medieval scholarship on that book. For a gynocentric review of the gynocentric scholarship on the Book of Margery Kempe, Mitchell (2005).

Subsequent quotes from the Book of Margery Kempe are from: 1.3, pp. 10-1 (she counseled her husband …; Her husband said); 1.9, p. 17 (as this creature …); 1.11, pp. 18-9 (Margery, if there came a man …; then she asked her husband … ); 1.15, p. 25 (he was ever a good man …); 1.86, p. 154 (if you knew …); 1.4, pp. 12-3 (for so long she was tempted …; she went to the man … ; as last through irrepressible temptation … ; constantly troubled …).

[2] Margery’s husband echoed the prayer of Augustine of Hippo, “Lord, make me chaste and celibate – but not yet!” Confessions 8.7.

[3] A pregnant Margery asked God what she should do about caring for her forthcoming child. God responded, “I shall appoint a care-taker.” 1.21, p. 36. Subsequently Jesus told her to have no more children. 1.17, p. 29. In response to the Mayor of Leicester’s inquiry into Margery’s adherence to the articles of faith, Margery stated that she has fourteen child (1.48, p. 85). Margery at other times also reported fourteen cryings in one day and staying fourteen days in various places. Margery “bore children” during the three or four years after she sought a sexless marriage and before she achieved that (1.3, p. 11). Margery referred only to one of her sons (2.1, p. 161). She discussed his actions as an adult. Some scholars regard the Book of Margery Kempe to be a self-fashioning fiction. See, e.g. Staley (1994). Staley’s book, like scholarship on Margery Kempe more generally, largely ignores Margery Kempe’s husband and her children.

[4] On Midsummer’s Eve in 1413, Margery stated that she and her husband had been chaste for the past eight weeks (1.11, p. 18). Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated in medieval England on June 23.

[5] The marital deal-making is narrated in 1.11, pp. 19-20.

[6] “They parted asunder with respect to their meals and sleeping quarters.” 1.76, p. 131. Margery’s commitment to eat with her husband on Fridays may have been nullified by these new living arrangements. Others regarded these separate living arrangements as contributing to a serious injury that Margery’s husband experienced as an old man. Gravely injured, he was first helped by neighbors. Id.

[7] Margery perceived in prayer other husbands’ sins. When Margery told a widow that her husband was in purgatory, the lady objected:

the lady was displeased and said her husband was a good man; she believed that he was not in purgatory.

1.19, p. 34. Margery told another widow that her husband would spend thirty years in purgatory unless he benefited from effective prayers for intercession. 1.19, p. 35.

[8] Margery’s redundant use of “asunder” in conjugal and sexual contexts may indicate conceptual influence from biblical teaching, e.g. Mark 10:9, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

[9] Margery latter used the same figure, “chopped up as small as meat for the pot,” in prayer:

If it were your will, Lord, I would for your love and for the magnifying of your name be chopped up as small as meat for the pot.

1.57, p. 105. This figurative echo might be interpreted as an implicit rebuke to the lover she sought. Margery imagined herself as the wife of Christ. She imagined Christ being in bed with her and being physically intimate with her. 1.14, p. 24; 1.36, p. 66.

Margery’s sexual values, desires, and behavior are complex and ambiguous. The mayor of Leicester called her “a false strumpet, a false Lollard, and a false deceiver of the people.” 1.46, p. 82. Margery subsequently declared to the mayor:

I take witness before my Lord Jesus Christ, whose body is here present in the sacrament of the altar, that I never had part of a man’s body in this world by actual deed by way of sin, but only of my husband’s body, whom I am bound to by the law of matrimony

1.48, p. 85. Within her Christian faith and medieval English culture, Margery could not have made a stronger statement about her chastity. Moreover, her qualifier “by actual deed” indicates careful phrasing. Cf. Matthew 5:27-8.

A secret sin initiates the Book of Margery Kempe. Shortly after she had her first child as a young wife, Margery suffered greatly from a guilty conscience:

she sent for a priest, for she had a thing on her conscience which she had never confessed before that time in all her life. For she was always hindered by her enemy, the devil, constantly saying to her that, while she was in good health, she needed no confession but could do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven, for God is merciful enough. And therefore this creature often did great penance in fasting on bread and water and other deeds of alms with devout prayers, except that she would not show this sin in confession. And, when she was at any time sick or troubled, the devil said in her mind that she should be damned, for she had not confessed of that sin. Therefore, after her child was born, she sent for a priest, wanting to confess fully as nearly as she could. And when she came to the point to say that thing which she had long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said her intent, and so she said no more no matter what he said.

1.1, pp. 6-7. Margery apparently never revealed the tormenting thing on her conscience. In context, the thing seems to be related to marriage, sex, and childbirth. In any case, she heard Jesus telling her that he has never forsaken her. Her conscience was then freed from its burden and she began her extraordinary spiritual life.

[10] Book of Margery Kempe 1.86, p. 153. In a prayer, Margery heard God comfort her with holy examples:

Consider, daughter, what Mary Magdalene was, Mary the Egyptian, Saint Paul, and many other saints who are now in heaven; for unworthy I make worthy, and sinful I make rightful.

1.21, p. 37.

[11] Aers (1988) p. 74. The subsequent quote is from id. According to one scholar, among Margery Kempe’s struggles was “battling an uxorious husband.” Mitchell (2005), p. 133.

[image] Ice hummocks in Laptev Sea, off northern cost of Siberia, Russia, on 27 April 2013. Thanks for Aerohod and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Aers, David. 1988. Community, gender, and individual identity: English writing, 1360-1430. London: Routledge.

Bale, Anthony Paul, trans. 2015. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, Marea. 2005. The book of Margery Kempe: scholarship, community, and criticism. New York: Peter Lang.

Skinner, John, trans. 1998. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe: a new translation. New York: Image Books/Doubleday.

Staley, Lynn. 1994. Margery Kempe’s dissenting fictions. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Staley, Lynn, ed. 1996. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Staley, Lynn, trans. 2001. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe: a new translation, contexts, criticism. New York: Norton.

4 thoughts on “Margery Kempe’s husband: humiliation of sexless married men”

  1. “Sexless marriages, like anti-men bias in child custody decisions and forced financial fatherhood, are fundamental injustices that our domestic culture has not transcended.”

    I just rolled my eyes so hard I saw my brain.

  2. ? Is this a joke? She was clearly mentally ill, and the institution of marriage in this time period allowed for rape, and you are saying her husband should be pitied, that he should be humiliated??

    1. Margery Kempe has been widely admired through the centuries. She is now honored as a saint in the Church of England.

      Marriage in Margery Kempe’s time didn’t allow “rape”. Marriage at that time assumed that spouses would generously seek to fulfill each other’s sexual needs even when they didn’t feel like it.

      Marriage today doesn’t work like that. Sex even within marriage is now subject at all times to serious criminal charges, with strong bias toward criminalizing men.

      Sexless marriage at least helps to limit the number of men incarcerated.

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