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This presentation studies The Book of Margery Kempe, the first known English autobiography, through Kempe's position within a patriarchal society: Kempe's postpartum depression/psychosis, the repeated sexual assault at the hand of her husband, John, resulting in the conception of her fourteen children, her religiously mandated celibacy, and several religious pilgrimages across Europe. Such experiences were primarily under the wing of Kempe's religious rebirth as not only Jesus' wife but as a "spiritual mother" in the footsteps of the Virgin Mary, emphasizes Tara Williams in her article, "Manipulating Mary." Kempe's writings, as autobiography, are immediately groundwork for which Judith Butler's concepts of gender as a "stylized repetition of acts through time." These roles of religious wife and mother as performance uniquely position Kempe within the patriarchal world as a resistant commodity, both as a gendered body and a sexual object. Finding herself trapped in a male-dominated society with little—if any—bodily autonomy, Kempe attempts to break free of the patriarchal ball and chain, utilizing her celibacy, bodily and religious agency, and prioritized female sexual pleasure. An analysis of The Book of Margery Kempe shows a fragment of history in which women were expected to accept that they deserved each and every instance of punishment they received, every time they received it. In this text, women fought for agency in a patriarchal world by using the tools at their disposal to survive. Whether it be the collective feminine or the societal protections of marriage, motherhood, and religion, women sought freedom and autonomy from the patriarchal ball and chain, putting themselves at the center of their stories. Produced in English 415: Queer Theory and Pre-Modern Literatures with Dr. Michelle M. Sauer

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Grand Forks, ND


Margery Kempe, bodily autonomy, Medieval Queer Studies, marriage and motherhood, Medieval Religious Studies


Presented at the Spring 2024 UNDergraduate Showcase in Grand Forks, ND, May 2, 2024.

Sex, Sisterhood, and Survival in The Book of Margery Kempe