[read this and this first]
When Jeffrey invited me to guest-blog here at ITM, I sent him an email outlining my post on medieval disability studies. At one point in the email, I brought up Margery Kempe and whether or not she could be considered a legitimate source in terms of understanding disability in the medieval period, as she tends to be one of the most common sources that people think of when I tell them I am working in medieval disability studies.
Scholars who work in medieval disability studies cannot avoid her: she must at least be acknowledged. I think that Kempe herself should not count as an actual disabled person, but is more representative of what disabled people were thought to be like in terms of their position in medieval thought; in other words, Kempe’s (auto)biography demonstrates that disabled women (assuming Kempe was indeed mad) had a socially acceptable ‘position’ in medieval society if they so chose to avail themselves of it, that of being a mystic. In this way, Kempe reminds us that disability could be perceived as having positive connotations, namely in that she was ‘blessed’ by having a special communion with Jesus that was beyond the ‘normal’ experience of a Catholic in this period.
That having been said, I cannot give Kempe as much value as other scholars may think – or wish – that I should. There is the question of whether her (auto)biography is a genuine (auto)biography, particularly in that it fits within the established framework of mystic literature at that time. (As Jeffrey legitimately pointed out in his reply to my email, it is possible that this work could be an elaborate fiction, as per Lynn Staley, but that does not mean that it was [entirely] fictional.) The second difficulty is the question of ‘translation’: did her clerical ghostwriter modify Kempe’s experiences in order to make them more understandable to his/Kempe’s audience? If so, we must consider the possibility that Kempe’s ‘disabled experience’ was modified in order to make it more approachable or understandable to the audience, for instance.
Jeffrey also remarked upon the issue of Kempe’s aging and her “unwanted role as caregiver to an incontinent, almost immobile husband.” (Jeffrey’s comment.) This raises another question: was a distinction made between congenital and sudden-onset disabilities and disabilities that came about as the result of old age? Were disabilities in the latter category perceived as disabilities, or were they described more as infirmities, frailties, the product of old age, as opposed as being described (and understood) as something ‘different’ or ‘abnormal’? Even though Margery did not want to care for her husband, did she make a distinction between her situation and that of her husband? This question reveals why, at least for me, we cannot perceive Kempe’s (auto)biography as a strong source for medieval understandings of disability: how can we ask Kempe to compare her position, which is based upon religion and mysticism, an extraordinary and to some degree unnatural experience, to what is a perfectly ordinary and natural experience for her husband and even for herself in the later stages of her life? Was Kempe even capable of making this distinction in relation to herself, particularly in terms of her increasingly frail body, a common thread in her (auto)biography?