Monday, 4 May 2009

Margery and Alisoun - two sides of the same coin

Please note that the link in the title to this entry will take you to the essay about Margery Kempe on my Internet site - don't miss the quotations. I'm assuming anyone with the patience to regularly visit this blog is already acquainted with my old friend Geoffrey Chaucer.

Recently, I've been thinking of adding a few new essays to my Internet site. My site is not truly scholarly - it is intended more as an introduction and overview for certain medieval subjects, mostly spirituality. At present, the only two essays on Chaucer are about the Prioress and the Miller... why I feel I know those particular characters so well probably stems from how I love the earthy quality of the latter and loathe the affected 'lady-like' ways of the former. (There - I said it and I'm glad. Be forewarned that I'm in one of my restless moods, and shall have to discipline myself if I want to save my satire on being 'lady-like' for another day... whether I'm capable of such discipline at the moment is anyone's guess.)

The problem with preparing any essays on Chaucer (and I fell in love with The Canterbury Tales decades ago, a love which has deepened with the years) is hardly a lack of ideas. Rather, his references are so rich and clever - incorporating direct mention of or allusions to scripture, mythology, classical thought, great literature of his own time, canon law, liturgy, and so forth - that one wonders where to stop. :) I find myself alternating between laughter (his humour was exceedingly dry and wry), mentally preparing a sermon, going off on a tangent, whatever. The 'courtesy books' and sermons of Chaucer's day (...and a few I saw or heard in my own youth...) valued silence as a feminine virtue - I suppose I'd have had no more chance to be the first female Franciscan canonised as a Doctor of the Church then than now...

But I digress. I've been considering preparing an essay on the Wife of Bath, whom I consider a delightful character for her sheer honesty. For all our differences, I can see myself enjoying sharing a tankard of ale with Alison, because Chaucer creates her as one who has no need to fit into conventional expectations (nor do I... for a split second, I found myself envying the freedom one would have if she'd inherited from five husbands and was warming up for another... despite my thinking it quite fortunate that I never had even one husband of my own...). Granted - few women, in any day, wanted the 'woe' (Alison's word) of marriage five times in succession, and I doubt Alison would endear herself to most pilgrims by the ending benediction which wishes women husbands who drop dead. Yet I'm sure that those who struggle to be conventional and acceptable could not help but inwardly envy not only her wealth, her freedom to travel about, and her not caring a fig for whether others think this 'old crone' (past 40 - the age when anyone then was supposed to be totally concerned with the spiritual in preparation for death) mind her wearing her red stockings and looking for another man to bed.

I had the oddest thought come to me as I reread the Wife of Bath's prologue and tale, though I've done so many times. She reminds me very strongly of Margery Kempe, and not only because both had a taste for pilgrimages. Alison and Margery, if you'll forgive the cliché, are different sides of the same coin. Both consider experience to be greater education than wisdom handed down traditionally. (In their day, not only was study of the classics reserved to men, mostly clergy or those in minor orders, but it was based on learning texts in order to use them in arguments. They were not questioned or really explored in most cases.) They are women of means (Alison from both inheritances and being a master weaver - Margery from owning a brewery), who have to have mastery (Margery's of her confessors. The only one who lasted long with hearing her daily confessions, tellingly, was the one who understood only German.) Both must always have their own way. They are incapable of embarrassment - in fact, Margery's description of some of her temptations make Alison's outright talk of 'how pitifully she made her husbands work at night' seem downright modest by comparison.

Alison's red stockings have a counterpart in Margery's religious garb. Margery had only one husband (and 14 children), but, when she decided she was the greatest mystic of her century, she wanted retroactive status as a consecrated virgin. (The confessor who thought it inappropriate for a married lady to go on pilgrimage in such garb was cautioned that Margery would reveal his sins if he kept her from this choice. Where Alison's ways of distinguishing 'counsel' from 'commandment' actually show sophistication - and her overall references make one wonder if some interesting pillow talk led to quite a degree of learning - whenever I read of Margery's manipulation of her directors I wish someone could have taken the rocks out of his head to plug the holes in hers.) Alison is aimed at being an adequate, not perfect, Christian - the everyday dish of brown bread. (She displays yet another form of sophistication in her admittedly accurate assessment that a man won't be unable to light his candle if others use the same lantern.) Probably most of those en route to Canterbury would have sincerely felt much the same way - but the clergy and nuns undoubtedly would not have admitted this, though nearly all of them show a deficiency in virtue which make a merely lusty woman seem superior if only for her honesty.

Chaucer's tales show no adulation for the bliss of marriage, to be sure. Alison at least is honest about her avarice. Margery Kempe thought herself a great saint (and wore companions out making sure they knew it as well), but her avarice, equally intense, is more subtle and therefore harder to spot. Margery's was a spiritual avarice. She was totally focussed on increasing her bank account of merits - totally self absorbed, her acts of devotion show no love of neighbour beyond what she can do (even for her own husband during his terminal illness) to raise her stock value for heaven.

There is another, perhaps more subtle, similarity I see between the two. (I must add this - the pedantic among you may have noticed that I refer to both the all too real Margery and the literary character of Alison as if they were 'real people'. So be it. Any exceptional fiction includes a huge amount of truth, and there were and are many an Alison... one even meets a reasonable facsimile of the 'real' Margery here and there.) In Alison's descriptions in the prologues, and in her tale, women desire mastery indeed - and including an authority to teach, based on experience which often is a far better indicator of truth than arguments based on total adherence to classic works. Note how, in her tale, the women who do get authority are the source of a good end! The young knight is a rapist - the queen and her ladies are the ones who save him from execution. The old crone he weds (for giving him the true answer to what women want most - dominance), probably a witch since she can take the form of youth and beauty at will (and he gives her the choice of which to assume), not only saves his life but effectively transforms a rapist into a good husband.

Margery took on all too much authority to teach! (One wishes she had the wisdom of Alison, at the least. One doubts that the priests she consulted had many gifts of wisdom in the first case, but one must allow for that they'd have toppled into a brewery vat at the effort of trying to get a word in edgewise...) Her faith was true, but her versions were unquestionably of her own minting. She could learn nothing because she already had all of the answers. Equally as lusty as Alison (though within a perfectly respectable marriage, not multiple marriages which, at the time, were tolerated for widows only as a concession to weakness, and were seen as far from the Christian ideal), Margery informed her husband that the Trinity would make him drop dead so she could revert to 'virginity' (somehow, Alison's wanting wealthy husbands to die to get their money is a step short of that...), and sought her 'consecrated virgin' status as an asset in her spiritual bank account.

The qualities I admire in both (even while shuddering at the thought of the manipulation and sheer greed both display) are sheer honesty and the courage to admit to what others undoubtedly felt - but would have refrained from admitting, out of respect for convention or perhaps some worries about censure. Some of their ways are deplorable, and, were I in the company of either for long, I probably would find them insufferable (even if I'm an 'old crone' who wore purple, pink, and orange stockings within the past week - and net ones to the Sunday Eucharist, though my Tau cross was about my neck as always). Yet Chaucer's clergy and religious (though I dare say that, then as now, many good people were in both categories... and more than a few close cousins to Chaucer's crowd though less entertaining) largely are far from honest - whether in blatant manipulation of others or, as with the Prioress, in affected self-deception.

Still, I'll leave my readers with a thought that I undoubtedly shall ponder. Avarice is at the root of many of our failings, and spiritual avarice can be the more dangerous because we're unlikely to recognise it for what it is.

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