Mad for Margery: Disability and the Imago Dei in the Book of Margery Kempe (M.W. Bychowski)

[Transcript of comments by M.W. Bychowski at a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, held this year in Boston. For M.’s bio and website, please click here to see Transliterature: Things Transform.]

“Dixit Dominus ad eum: Quis fecit os hominis? aut quis fabricatus est mutum et surdum, videntem et cæcum? nonne ego?”

—Exodus 4:11

In the seventy-fourth chapter of the Book of Margery Kempe, Margery asks God how she might come into His divine presence. In response, Christ “drow hys creatur unto hys lofe and to mynde of hys passyon that sche myth not duryn to beheldyn a lazer er an other seke man, specialy yyf he had any wowndys aperyng on hym. So sche cryid and so sche wept as yyf sche had sen owr Lord Jhesu Crist wyth hys wowndys bledyng” (Staley, 74.4178-4182). She asks to see the Imago Dei, the image of God, and is shown the disabled. Through the “lofe” and “mynde” of Christ, Margery comes to read lepers and the other unreasonable bodies of the Lazar Houses as images of God’s presence.

After the transmission of Aristotle’s texts during the twelfth century, there was renewed interest in Europe for classical philosophy. Evident in the work of scholastic theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, Faith had to make room, as Reason became the measure of all things; including what it meant to be made in the image of God. By the fifteenth century, the Middle-English word “Mad” had developed into two distinct but not incompatible concepts:  “mad,” meaning “made,” the state of being a creature in a process of creation with social contexts, and “mad,” meaning to be “uncontrolled by reason” or “filled with enthusiasm or desire” (OED). Madness in the latter sense marked differences through exceptions rather than histories, then isolated rather than contextualized these differences from communion with humanity or God.

In Mad for Foucault, Lynne Huffer contends that neither madness nor rationality is a personal state of being but a social product. Huffer credits the development of the Lazar Houses, where lepers specifically and “mad” persons generally were isolated from civilization, propelling the idea of individual subjectivity and sovereignty by inscribing the association of internalized madness and exterior rationality. Reason becomes a byproduct of suppressing private “Unreason” within public thought and government. As such, madness is not the exception but the foundation for Reason. To dwell within the Lazar House or within madness allows for the possible resistance of lying bare the means by which common unreasonableness (e.g. desire, dependency) turns into exceptional thought. In other words, Huffer writes, madness reveals “thought thinking itself.” (103)

While adeptly critiquing the implications of the Lazar House and madness for later human social relations in the Age of Reason, Huffer’s Mad for Foucault does not account for how the workings of “madness” point towards a medieval past with critical, contentious relationships with God. While madness in the fifteenth century not only threatened disability in this life, but damnation in the life to come, with worldly isolation prescribing eternal confinement in Hell, I argue that the self-conscious work of madness in the Book of Margery Kempe not only challenges the rationality of the world but the cosmological order. The implication that the mad were Imago Dei, made in the image of God, and that to go to a Lazar House was to enter into the presence of Christ turns the value system of rational society inside out. Subsequently, I contend that Margery breaks open of madness as being “mad,” i.e. both “made” and “unreasonable,” in the Imago Dei through the making of a spiritual treatise and comforting the poor and marginalized by entering into community, constituting an early form of liberation theology.

The power to create may beg the question the Lazar House attempts to answer: what is the goal of creation?  The demand for an end is essentially a product of Reason. The end serves as the rational justification for the work of creation. When Reason is the standard measure, assessing all things in terms of reasonability, only the reasonable serve as sufficient tools or products. The Lazar House is one such attempt to determine whether or how one contributes to the world. It then isolates the “mad” as those bodies operating beyond Reason’s ability to understand or govern. The problem with this is that reason becomes what G.K. Chesterton calls a “perfect circle” (21). By rejecting all that does not fit into itself, “what a great deal it leaves it out!” asks Chesterton (21).

Anything or everything may turn out to be unreasonable and Creation’s madness, argues Bruno Latour, is evident in the surprising existence of Existence itself.  “Modernists believe they make the world in their image just as God made them in His. This is a strange and impious description of God. As if God were master of His Creation! As if He were omnipotent and omniscient. If he had these perfections, there would be no Creation… God too, is slightly overtaken by His Creation, that is, by all that is changed and modified and altered in encountering Him. Yes we are indeed made in the image of God, that is, we do not know what we are doing either. We are surprised by what we make.” (Latour 287). As a metaphysical sign, the Imago Dei does not govern but creates and revels in madness. Creation in this sense testifies against Reason. “No Creation” is reasonable because it is a closed loop. A self-sufficient perfection does not need to create. Our surprise in what is mad testifies that the Imago Dei is not Reason alone, but the work of creative community.  If the Imago Dei makes and makes without reason, it is most reflected by co-creative “madness” and not self-governing reason.

The Book acts as such a self-conscious Imago Dei, opening and closing with descriptions of its making, proudly proclaiming, “this boke was mad” (Staley, 17.873; 89.4245).  This recursion deepens in the only two instants in the Book where madness explicitly means unreason. The Book quotes the Pryke of Life’s author confessing to being “ovyrcome thorw desyr, begynne for to maddyn, for lofe governyth me and not reson… thei seyn ‘Lo, yen wood man cryeth in the stretys,’ but how meche is the desyr of myn hert thei parceyve not” (Staley, 62.3638). Likewise, Margery admits that “crying and roryng” for God makes her a “mad woman” (80.5489). In both cases, the writers testify that their madness arises from acts of making that exceed reason. The Book is a mad machine, “thought thinking itself” that suggest what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation” or “Creation creating itself.” (Huffer 103). The Book, draws us to glimpse God’s “madness” making itself. The difference between the circular logic of Reason and madness’s recursion is critical. Reason functions by maintaining the exclusivity of what is inside and outside its parameters. It is fundamentally conservative. Madness functions by the creation of difference and so affirms what Huffer calls “co-extension” (29).

Turning again to Margery’s prayer for God’s presence, readers stand witness to how the Imago Dei in the “mad” bodies of the Lazar House inspires acts of liberation. Receiving her revelation, Margery “went to a place wher seke women dwellyd whech wer ryth ful of the sekenes and fel down on hir kneys beforn hem” (Staley, 74.4292-4193). Margery challenges the exclusionary logic of the Lazar House by crossing its threshold with a gesture of community. Seeing madness from the inside, Margery offers no rational answer to the woman’s ills, but remains with her, “Comfortyn hir” (74.4204). Coming from the Latin, “comfort” means: “to strengthen (morally or spiritually); to encourage, hearten, inspirit, incite” (OED). Comfort is an act of community making, as the pre-fix suggests the strengthening be done “together, together with, in combination or union” with others (OED). “Comfortyn” incites a collective act “To confirm, corroborate” our togetherness (OED). By comfort, Margery confirms that they are “mad” together. “Creative power,” writes Reynolds “is essentially a relational power.” (180).  The encounter with the madness of the Imago Dei breaks a barrier for Margery that prevented her, like the walls of the Lazar House, from finding comfort. “In the yerys of werldly prosperité,” Margery regarded “no thyng mor lothful ne mor abhomynabyl …than to seen er beheldyn a lazer” (Staley, 74.4186-4187). The Book uses “abominable,” like the Book of Leviticus, to mark things excluded from the community. It aligns the logic of exclusion with “worldly prosperite,” suggesting that the Imago Dei could not be present until she accepts her own madness. Only then could she find and give comfort.

Margery finds herself most drawn to a woman “labowryd wyth many fowle and horibyl thowtys” (74.4201-4202). Subject to visions of her own, the woman Margery ministers to mirrors herself, “a mad woman, crying and roryng” (1.80.4588-4589). Entering the Lazar House, Margery not only finds comfort for the leper, but for herself.  The drive to comfort does not excuse the violence and isolation governing madness but seeks co-creation and co-liberation by a communal sharing of strength (physical, social, spiritual). Disability, writes Reynolds, marks how all things are mad “contingent in an open universe subject to elements of unpredictability, instability, and conflict” (177-187). As things are formed as disabled, they get pushed to the margins, but the Imago Dei of the Book of Margery Kempe gives a call to seek each other and make a co-creative community. Instead of being mad in isolation, we become mad for each other.

Works Cited

“com-, prefix.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

“comfort, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

Chesterton, G. K. “The Maniac.” Orthodoxy. Ed. Sheridan Gilley. South Orange, NJ: Chesterton Institute, 2008. Print.

Huffer, Lynne. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “”The Slight Surprise of Action”” Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

“mad, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. Print.

Staley, Lynn, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in Association with the U of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan U, 1996. Print.

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