BBC Arts and Ideas Podcast: "A Feminist Take on Medieval History"

Podcasts are my jam. I listen to about 15 to 20 podcast shows regularly, and then dip in and out of countless more. A quick check of my aged Classic iPod - you’ll take it out of my cold, dead hands - tells me that I have, at present, 1726 podcast episodes loaded up. And yes, getting down to that paltry figure entails an ongoing, agonizing sifting process. So you can imagine my immense delight when a podcast producer for BBC Radio 3, Luke Mulhall, got in touch with me last month to see if I might like to go on the air.

The BBC, the British national broadcaster, has a partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in order to disseminate high-quality, cutting-edge research to the public at large. One of the means of getting the news out is the BBC Radio 3 podcast, Arts and Ideas. Luke was putting together a show on feminism in medieval studies, a chance to discuss all things, well, feminist and medievalist with general public listening in. Of course, I “nonchalantly” (read: not at all nonchalantly, not in any way nonchalantly) j̶u̶m̶p̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ accepted the kind invitation, and that was that. (Behind the scenes trivia: we recorded in the Women’s Hour studio. This did not help with my nonchalance, not a bit.)

I spent a deeply enjoyable hour or so animatedly talking medieval feminism with show host Dr Shahidha Bari, guest host (and tip-top medievalist) Dr Hetta Howes, and the co-founder of the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), Prof Elizabeth Robertson. Our conversation ranged over a lot of ground. Off the top of my head: rape and consent in the Middle Ages, and in Chaucer in particular; the foundation of the SMFS; the importance of Margery Kempe for feminist scholars; the danger of being an (academic) feminist, online and offline; women’s visibility and the “problem” of women taking up space; Margery Kempe and/as Kim Kardashian West, and vice versa; precarity in the academy; our excited hopes for the future of medieval feminist work. Below, I’ve embedded the episode so you can listen from this page, appended the episode’s vital statistics and provided a list of links to things I bring up on the show. Finally, I’ve worked up a transcript for the whole episode, for people whose preference or need is to read the show. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it, and look forward to many, many more feminist medievalist conversations in future. Big thanks to Luke, Shahidha, Hetta, and Beth for making this happen, and being such gracious, engaged interlocutors.

To listen to the episode, click on the play button in the embedded Stitcher app above.

Podcast title: Arts and Ideas

Producers: Luke Mulhall for BBC Radio 3, the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Episode title: “A Feminist Take on Medieval History”

Listen online:

Download the episode: Search for “Arts and Ideas” and the episode title on iTunes, and all similar podcast services

Episode blurb: “How does Chaucer write about rape and consent? What links Kim Kardashian West & Margery Kempe - an English Christian mystic and mother of 14 children who wrote about her religious visions in the 1420s in what has been called the first autobiography in English. Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and New Generation Thinker Hetta Howes join Shahidha Bari for a conversation about new research and what a feminist take brings to our understanding of the medieval period. Made with the assistance of the AHRC - the Arts and Humanities Research Council which funds research into the humanities and works with BBC Radio 3 on the New Generation Thinkers scheme to make academic research available to a wider audience.”

Hosts: Shahidha Bari (SB), Hetta Howes (HH)

Guests: Elizabeth Robertson (ER), Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH)

Things I mention on the podcast

 Episode transcript

NB. Our conversations on the podcast were informal and fluent: we spoke without scripts or prepared material, and engaged in a fair amount of convivial interrupting of one another. I’ve attempted to capture this tone of the episode in the transcript below. However, for readability, I’ve at times elided typical features of fluent speech, e.g. repetitions of the same word as one follows a train of thought, short “ums” and “ahs”, etc. I am by no means an expert transcriber, so if you spot any transcription errors, please do contact me so I can correct them!

Announcer: This is the BBC.

Shahida Bari (SB): Hello I’m Shahida Bari and this is the BBC Arts and Ideas podcast. In this episode, we’re focusing on new academic research and the producer today told me that we were looking at medieval studies for this programme, and I have to admit that my heart… slightly sunk [Speaker(s) laugh] because I vividly remember slogging through the Riverside Chaucer when I was an undergraduate and I did English. But – I – then he said that we’re doing feminist approaches to medieval studies, and I really remember that the bright spots for me were Margery Kempe wailing [ASH: Yes!] [Speaker(s) laugh] and … the dignified Julian of Norwich, and … [ER: Oh yes] so I am actually really looking forward to this. And helping me with the discussion is Hetta Howes. Hetta, hi.

Hetta Howes (HH): Hi!

SB: Hi! You’re from City University, you’re a medieval scholar, and you’re going to be the Doctor’s, Doctor Who’s assistant to my Doctor Who. [Speaker(s) laugh] What’s the medieval equivalent of that?

HH: Perhaps the Friar Tuck to your Robin Hood, I don’t know… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And the rest of the Doctor Who team or the…Robin Hood’s Merry Women…

Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH): Posse!

HH: Merry Women!

ASH: Poss-ay!

SB: Are Elizabeth Robertson, Beth, you’re down the line from Glasgow, and you’re a Professor of Medieval Studies, is that right?

Elizabeth Robertson (ER): Yes

SB: And in the studio, Alicia Spencer-Hall from Queen Mary University of London

ASH: Hello!

SB: Hello! … Do you all know each other already?

Speakers together: Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: Yes, I think medieval feminist studies is a small and brilliant world –

ASH: It’s a tight-knit, yeah –

HH: And we actually were all on a roundtable recently together for medieval feminist studies

ASH: We were, it was awesome!

SB: Well it sounds it! [Speaker(s) laugh] Hang on, a roundtable of medieval feminist women, did you all dress up? Were you all in wimples and habits? [Speaker(s) laugh] Is that what you’re supposed to do?

ASH: No, but I did have a necklace that said “Feminist” that was, like, as big as my chest. [Speaker(s) laugh] So I felt like, you know, represent!

SB: Yeah! And Hetta, you know Beth’s work quite well

HH: I do, so when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge doing English Literature, I was not hugely enamoured by the medieval course at the time… And then, I happened to come across Beth’s book in the corner of Newnham library, which was my college –

SB: At Cambridge?

HH: At Cambridge, and I picked it up, and it was about…sort of, female audiences of English devotional writing, so religious writing for women and I just thought it was wonderful, and I was like, OK, this is what I want to do. [SB: Awww] So it’s quite special for me to be on this show with Beth today

SB: Oh, wow

ER: That was such a happy coincidence [HH: Oh yes] because I gave that book to the library [guests exclaim in happy surprise] because [SB: Oh wow!] I wrote my book in that library, and I was grateful to it, and then it was just so wonderful that someone years later would pick it up and find it, [Speaker(s) exclaim, wow] and that it would help them in some way

SB: The hairs on the back of my arms are prickling up slightly, how lovely. And Newnham of course is a women’s only college, [HH: Yes] [ER: Yes] one of the last remaining one’s at Cambridge. … So we all know each other, we all love each other [Speaker(s) laugh] [unintelligible]. Beth, I want to start with you because I want to find out about your research and what I am understanding is that you work on ideas of consent in, and consensual relations in, the medieval period. So tell me about that, tell me what you do.

ER: Well, that’s right. I’m finishing a book right now called Chaucerian Consent: Women, Religion and Subjection in Late Medieval England. And the book looks at the role of consent in both marriage and rape law and the ways in which that that role affects Chaucer’s writing in particular. … I can tell you more… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: Yeah, do! Is “consent” a term in the medieval period? What are the terms –

ER: Oh yes, it most certainly is and consent as a legal concept develops in the Middle Ages through the doctrine of consent to marriage, which was articulated in theology and formulated in ecclesiastical law in the 12th century. And it’s a very important doctrine, especially for the development of women’s rights as Mary Wollstonecraft recognised, because underlying the doctrine of consent to marriage is an idea that … both men and women have autonomous and legitimate souls, and therefore the right to choose their own marriage partner.

SB: Is it a radical idea, that… [ER: It is a radical idea] … that women have – I mean, I think it must be. I think what’s so strange hearing you, a medieval scholar, talking about consent is that consent in our modern context is such a powerful word, but the idea that consent is invented, it sounds like, it comes about through a set of legal and clerical decisions.

ER: Well, really it comes about through a sort of…I’m not sure that they intended to give women quite so much power, but [Speaker(s) laugh] it came about because –

Speakers: Yeah…

SB: That’s always the way, isn’t it – by accident we get the right to vote! Go on, Beth, you were saying

ER: It came about because of theological considerations [05:00] of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. [Speaker(s) intake breath sharply, wow] Up until the point of the formulation of the doctrine of consent, marriages were made by an agreement to marry, followed by sexual intercourse. But when they came across the marriage of Mary and Joseph, they had to make that marriage legitimate, even though there was no sexual intercourse.

SB: Because of the Immaculate Conception?

Speaker(s): Um-hmm

ER: Yes, so after debating it back and forth, they agreed that the marriage could be made by words of consent alone.

SB: Gosh!

ER: And –

SB: That’s amazing, isn’t it? That the clerics or … the ecclesiastical community – I’m assuming of men – are mulling over how to legitimize the marriage of Mary and Joseph

Speaker(s): Yeah

ER: Yes, and this leads to this tremendous affirmation of women’s rights. Now, I have to say that consent was discussed earlier by Augustine, in a very very important study of the rape of Lucrece. I don’t know how much you know about the rape of Lucrece –

SB: A little bit – I know the Shakespearean version of course, but it’s an old story, right?

ER: Yes it’s a Classical story, and … Augustine … considers the, the events in which Lucrece is raped and then decides that she has to commit suicide and her dead body is used as motivation for the overthrow of the barbarian Tarquins. And … as Stephanie Jed has talked about, this is ultimately a motivation for imperialist humanism.

SB: Wow

ER: But what Augustine gives us, in his analysis is first of all an argument that women should not commit suicide. And the fact that women today still think that they need to commit suicide after rape, or as we saw in Bosnia, women were isolated from the community and full of self-hatred because they had been raped shows that this attitude that women are somehow polluted by an act of rape still persists. But Augustine responded to this by saying that women have precious souls, and they need to protect them.

SB: I can’t believe that we end up having that conversation, that question is one that’s posed – do women have souls? Because that feels like a kind of abstract, philosophical one but here it’s functioning in order to legitimize a woman, to give her … the capability, if you have a soul, you’re capable of consenting or not consenting to it?

ER: Yes, yes, yes.

SB: Is that right?

ER: Yes, and maybe I could just say a few things about why consent is such a problematic term. I think Germaine Greer called it an “insoluble conundrum”, and I think she’s getting at some aspects of consent that are…that shape the way that it appears in the law today. Because on the one hand, consent is dual in nature: it’s both a social act involving a person, you know a person making an agreement either with one other person or even with a lot of persons. So consent is really important in marriage but it’s also very important in rape, or it’s very important in government as well, but … so it’s a social act. On the other hand, it’s an inner disposition. It’s private, indiscernible, and so it has this double-ness. You can’t know where it came from, [SB: Mmmm] but it emerges in the public sphere, and that makes it very very difficult to adjudicate what in fact has happened. Difficult, if not impossible.

SB: Plus ça change, I guess. But that sounds very familiar to me, that for a woman, consent is an internal decision-making process. That in order for it to be meaningful, it has to be in the world, it has to be uttered or at least recognised in some way.

HH: And I think it -

ER: Yes, and then , in –

HH: Yes, and I think the fact that [SB: Hetta] we’re still talking about it today, you know, that – as you mentioned Beth, Germaine Greer kind of has been in the news so much recently on this debate that we’re still, now, trying to figure out what the word “consent” means, and how you can measure it, and where it comes into play, and I think there’s this sense always that the medieval world was so strange and different and far away, and how on earth can we think about it in present day. And actually, you know, the kind of debates that they’re having – in different terms – are reflected in sort of current news stories of today.

ASH: Absolutely, and I mean that’s a massive thing in my research, is looking at patterns of feminist or proto-feminist being in the Middle Ages, and talking about how it relates to now. So, the thing I was thinking of with consent is really relevant to me because [10:00] it’s also, it’s not just about sex. It’s also about being in the world, and being, say, robbed, are you, you know, are you going to be criminalized as a woman for showing yourself in public?

SB: Well can I ask about that, because rape – I’m an 18th-centurist, so I don’t think of the rape of Lucrece but I think of Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’, and rape can mean different things in your period, [ER: Yes indeed] in the medieval period. Doesn’t – Do I understand that right?

ER: Yes, that was…there was another double-ness about consent that I wanted to say first [SB: Sure] Which is that, … buried in the word itself is both an active and a passive meaning. Cause on the one hand, it means to actively agree – or actively to agree, not to split an infinitive [Speaker(s) chuckle] [ER laughs] – or to comply passively. So you have an active sense and a passive sense, and I think that really problematizes consent. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] But historically, and this is a bit tricky to explain, but in rape law, consent figures in rape law in the Middle Ages but rather differently than we might expect [SB: How, how?] because consent might be the very act that would determine your being charged with rape: i.e. a couple who agree to run away with one another, consent to run away with one another, then get charged with rape for having violated the wishes of their parents or their lord or the king.

SB: Oh wow, so if you are capable of consenting … to sexual relations, you’re also capable of exercising will in other ways [ER: Exactly] that might be contrary to… [ER: Exactly] Gosh, that’s such a bind, isn’t it? [Speaker(s) laugh] To have the capacity to consent… Can I push you a bit more on rape, the idea of rape. [ER: Oh yes] Well, partly because – medieval news flash here –

[Speaker(s) laugh] Chaucer, who we haven’t yet mentioned but we should do, Chaucer was accused of rape too. I vaguely remember that it was sort of like a footnote that, “ha ha, the Wife of Bath” and doesn’t he love women, and women have sexuality, but there’s a footnote to Chaucer’s life, that he was accused of rape.

ER: Oh yes, there’s quite a bit to say about that. [Speaker(s) laugh] I’m actually about to give a big talk on that soon, because I’ve been working through a lot of the documents associated with the case. I think, and there’s been a lot of online traffic about it as well, with people saying, “Well we know Chaucer was a rapist”, and we certainly do not know that Chaucer was a rapist and it’s very very important that we be clear about what we do know. What we know is that Chaucer was released from a charge of raptus. [SB: What’s “raptus”?] That is the document. Well, let me just re-state that, because I want to get into this, the fact that it is Cecily Champagne who releases him from a charge of raptus, and it’s very important that her important that her name is there and that she be remembered as part of this event. I think Germaine Greer said that women want to own their narratives about rape, and I think we have in this historical document an actual name and a record of someone who brought a case forward against Chaucer.

SB: What was her name?

ER: Cecily Champagne. Cecily Champagne. Now, the charge itself is ambiguous, because we don’t really know what – you asked, what does the term “raptus” [mean], well “raptus” might mean, just in its base meaning, it means “seizure”. But it might mean “sexual assault” or it could mean simply “abduction”, abduction with the consent of the woman involved as I said before. But if you look carefully at these documents, and the way they’re … the form they take, you will find that this particular release tells us that the original charge clearly was a charge of sexual assault. Because that was the only occasion when, well there are two occasions on which a woman could bring an appeal forward in the Middle Ages. One was at the death of her husband, and the second one is if she were raped. So the fact that it is in Cecily Champagne’s name tells us that this originally was a charge of sexual assault. However, does that mean Chaucer was a rapist? No. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] All we know is [that] he was released from the charge. [SB: Gosh] So something, something happened and, you know, generations of critics have tried to brush this event under the rug. I mean, some call it a “strange escapade” [Speaker(s) laugh] or they…

SB: Well, that – that in itself sounds very familiar [15:00] [ASH: Yes], that someone, a man might somehow escape the scrutiny, might get away with –

ASH: But also [ER: Yes] that his genius forgives any of these kind of, you know, “youthful indiscretions”, euphemizing things. [SB: Yeah] [ER: Yes] And silencing women from the record, which is why, Beth, I love the fact that you’re so insistent that we should name this woman, and that that in itself is a part of feminist praxis, is to name these women who never really get much purchase in history, right?

HH: And to talk about the fact that however, however much we might not know the exact terms –

and I think it’s so important to make that distinction – we, we you know – as you say Beth, critics have debated [it], and all we know is that he was released from rape, but that should still come up in discussions. You know, so many people have read Chaucer at school, at university, know of him, you know, programmes about him. And quite rarely does this charge come up, because it’s an uncomfortable one, isn’t it? The father of English literature, it doesn’t sit well with our idea of that.

SB: And with all the usual caveats, that we don’t know what happened, and that we’re sort of piecing together a story retrospectively. But, why is it that that part of Chaucer’s life is such a footnote to his work? Why is it that, I, Cecily Champagne is … she’s marginalized in history. Why don’t we know about this [ER: Well], more than we should?

ER: Well, I think we do now know about it. I think it was Hetta saying that it’s very difficult for people to think about a canonical author as somehow rather suspect in that way. But I wanted to say something about the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Chaucer’s writing, because once you start thinking about rape in Chaucer, you will find that it’s there everywhere in his writing. And he has, perhaps because of his own experience, but also there are other experiences that could well have shaped his understanding of rape. For instance, his father was raped, i.e. abducted as a child, he himself was involved in another abduction case, and in the court of Richard II, there were many high-profile cases of raptus that he would have known, such as the rape of Joan of Kent and also of Agnes [L…?] and these were much talked about, and also Chaucer was present in parliament when some of the documents concerning these cases were formed. But to go back to his writing, I think it’s important, people tend to remember – and I think it came up – that the Wife of Bath’s prologue, this lively lusty woman [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] who talks about her many marriages and very few people actually look at the tale. And Chaucer’s tale about rape is a very important – I think it speaks directly to the kinds of issues that are coming up today around consent, because there are two aspects to it. One, raised I think by Germaine Greer, is that question of the punishment of the rapist, and in Chaucer’s vision, the rapist is not punished or rather, he’s given the opportunity to save his own life by finding out what it is that women want, and this requires him spending an entire year travelling around asking women what they want. [SB: Right] Which of course goes directly against the very act he performed, when he raped a woman without asking her what she wanted.

SB: I think that’s how I was taught Chaucer, that he’s sort of fond of women, that he’s…interested in all of life, and that…that the most interesting thing about the Wife of Bath – apart from the gap between her teeth – is that she has a free sexual appetite, that’s what I was taught, so…

ER: Well, that’s … [SB laughs] I’m not sure about that, because there’s controversy in the prologue about the degree, about her real interest. You may remember that she says in “bacon” [i.e. older men, lacking in sexual virility] she has no delight, [SB: Riiiight] but … I wanted to say something else about why I think Chaucer is interested in this. Gavin… Chaucer’s interest in women has been observed for centuries, Gavin Douglas called Chaucer “woman’s friend”. From my perspective, I think what Chaucer is interested in is not the condition of women particularly, although his own experiences with rape may have made him aware of these conundrums around rape. But I think he’s interested in the nature of free will. [SB: Right] And the condition of women who are clearly under constraint gives him an opportunity to consider the potential for free will.

SB: Do you think he’s more interested in women precisely because free will is a question for them, much more perhaps than the – [20:00]

ER: Yes, yeah yeah, I would think that, yeah

SB: Yes, that’s really interesting

HH: I wanted to say something about that actually, more generally because, I mean, this is a programme about sort of new approaches in research and I think as feminist scholars reading medieval literature – and Beth, you’ve written about this yourself – there’s a lot of challenges that we face, and one of them is that a lot of the writers, a lot of the edited writers are male, and there’s lots of great work being done to make more editions, make women’s writing more available, but traditionally [ASH: Absolutely] it’s been largely men. And second of all, and so you’ve got two directions as a feminist scholar – either you can… try and do some editions, bring sort of unknown women writers to light. Or you can try and do some new feminist readings of canonical texts and I think one of the amazing things about your work Beth, that you’ve been doing – I got a sneak peek at your book [Speaker(s) laugh] – is that you’ve drawn attention to something that scholars have missed, which is that actually so much of his writing is about consent and rape, which is something that hasn’t been, you know, you’re shedding light on the writing in that way which is a way that we can kind of say, OK Chaucer is a really important writer, we need to think about him, but in this new way.

ASH: But I think that what’s interesting, in my work, when I kind of bring out the feminism in texts I work with, is that there’s often a backlash to do with [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] – “But you can’t do that to Chaucer! You can’t prove he raped anyone. Oh no!” [Speaker(s) soft laughter, affirmative murmurs] Centuries, literally centuries – like Beth said – of work on Chaucer is basically, I mean [he was] presented to me as an undergrad, as sort of your warmly paternalistic uncle.

ER: Stephanie Trigg has done [ASH: Ah yes, yep, yeah] a wonderful book called Congenial Souls, which explains some of the reasons why generations… There are two things that I think have happened in criticism, one is to make Chaucer “one of us”, [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] i.e. with men in a men’s club –

ASH: That really rings a bell, because a lot of my research quite recently is to do with talking about fandom. And I really like the opening of the show [with the reference to] Doctor Who, so it’s like who is a fan of Doctor Who –

SB: Well let’s talk about your work because we mentioned your new book, Beth, but Hetta said to me earlier [HH laughs] Alicia that your new book might be called Medieval Twitter? [ASH: That’s my second book actually!] [Speaker(s) laugh] which blew my mind, so tell us about your work

ASH: My first book is Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience and it just came out last December, with Amsterdam University Press.[1] And in that basically, I’m trying to blow up some pre-existing ideas about, on the one hand, holy women from the medieval time who basically, you know they see God a lot and it’s really intense, and sometimes they have sex with God [Speaker(s) laugh] and it’s kind of awesome –

SB: [Laughing] You say that so casually!

ASH: To me because, to me in my work, it’s like, “Well a bit banal, isn’t it, you know. Whatever.” [SB: Yeah] And then on the other hand, my point is to try and draw attention in the academy generally to pop culture [SB: OK] and so I’m very much moving against intellectual gate-keeping. My point is: we make better scholars, both like whatever stripe, medieval modern or in between, if we take, kind of, our personal life seriously. [Speaker: Yeah] So many people have come up to me after I’ve given a talk, you know I talk about Margery Kempe as Kim Kardashian West in my book –

SB: Well the producer said to me I didn’t need my Riverside Chaucer, but I needed this, to have this [latest] edition [ASH: Absolutely] of Closer magazine [ASH: You really do]. What’s Kim got to do with Margery Kempe? [ASH: Aaaaah] Sell this to me!

ASH: Come into my parlour –

SB: I mean, she – Margery Kempe has a “K” name… [ASH: True, so it’s you know] So she can almost –

ASH: So it’s a nice, smooth title for a conference paper, but mainly it’s the idea that I like the internet a lot, I like gifs a lot. There’s this famous gifset called “ugly crying”, of Kim Kardashian West just crying, in, apparently, in an ugly way

SB: Because she does it a lot on [ASH: She does] Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which is the reality show –

ASH: Yeah, and there’s, in one episode, one of her sisters says, “Oh I can’t help it when Kim cries, she’s just got this ugly face and it’s funny”. [Speaker(s) laugh] And that launches this meme that is much shared, you know, at least on my WhatsApp list. And then when you approach Margery Kempe, the one thing people know about her is that she cries [SB: She wails, yeah!] and it’s annoying and she cries some more [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: I really love in your book that you suggest a show, “Keeping Up With Kempe” [ASH: Yes, exactly] [Speaker(s) laugh] rather than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, that –

ASH: And my point really is to say that, well look at these women [Margery and Kim] who actually are bound by such a very, you know, a throwaway thread, “oh, ugly crying” – but you look at the way that… people, not even critics, react to Kim Kardashian West taking up public space. She’s supposed to be “talentless”, … you know, she’s not a “real” star –

HH: Yes, you talk about, kind of celebrity-making, don’t you [ASH: Yeah] in your book, quite a lot. And I love that phrase, and I have to say similarly, you know, when I, so I read, so I first came across your work when I was reading your keynote for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, which is a very important conference for any feminist scholar [working] in the medieval period. But I was thinking, “Really?? Kim Kardashian and Margery Kempe??” And yet, then I read your work, and it’s so convincing [ASH: Thank you] that actually these are two women who are self-making [ASH: Absolutely] themselves, and, you know, your take on Margery as a sort of a “try hard”, you know she’s trying so hard [ASH: Yeah] to fit herself in the ranks of these other celebs

SB: She’s like a reality TV wannabe, I guess

ASH: Absolutely, and that’s my point. But why do people react to that?

ER: Could I, could I just say something about crying? [ASH: Oooh, yes Beth! Bring it on] [ER laughs] I love the idea of [25:00] all these pilgrims travelling with Margery Kempe, and sitting down for a nice dinner at the end of a long day of walking and suddenly having Margery Kempe burst out into tears, and lament Christ’s suffering [ASH: She’d be so irritating!] Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh] And I do think that’s the point, is that – and to me, I always read that in terms of Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman in terms of mimicry –

SB: Luce Irigaray, the French philosopher we should say – although, so the Belgian French philosopher

ER: In her view, mimicry means taking on attitudes towards women, and I think this applies to the Kim Kardashian example, that women are expected to behave in a certain way, but when they do so excessively, all the assumptions about who women are get destabilized.

ASH: Absolutely. [SB: Yeah] I mean, in my book I talk about the genius of Kim, in that she manufactures herself. My point being is that if you actually look at these media texts or people with a rigorous scholarly eye, a whole vista unfolds of how knowing this is, how talented she is. She packages herself, and in a way I think, whether or not Kim Kardashian claims herself as a feminist, she is showing how, kind of, the woman system is made. You know, her life, as the kind of media icon – always with her smartphone – isn’t that what all of us are subject to? Either penalized for doing, or, you know, empowered for doing?

HH: Yeah, I just kind of wanted to ask you about that, because one of the things you talk about in your research is how scholars have found Margery Kempe quite relatable [ASH: Absolutely, yeah] and that, you know, the medieval world isn’t the same as the modern world, but we can see a lot of revealing parallels, and in the same way we were talking about consent, what does it do for our current conversations to think about the medieval context? What – why do you think Margery Kempe is so relatable? And why do you think it’s useful to read her through someone like Kim Kardashian?

ASH: I think that’s a really big question that because so many academics have such personal relationships to Margery, I think, kind of, every answer would be slightly different. [HH: Yeah] But for me, I’m basing it on an amazing blog post by a feminist, Clarissa W. Atkinson [HH: Ah, yeah] who talks about discovering Margery, and so you know – in the 80s, it’s sort of hard to imagine now, but in the 80s there weren’t really any women in the canon of medieval studies, and you had, you know, the first really important feminist scholars coming through, saying “What? Hello! We…” It might just be Chaucer [on reading lists, on the canon], [SB: “We’re here!”] so “where are our people?” So then you see Margery Kempe who was not legitimate yet in the academy. Also, Margery Kempe’s text is fairly new, you know, it was discovered in the 1930s, so it’s not what –

HH: And people were disappointed by the discovery, weren’t they, because [ASH: Yes!] [Speakers’ voices overlap; unintelligible remarks]

SB: What? Why were they disappointed?

HH: Because all they had before was a very abbreviated version, [ASH: Yeah] it was quite sanitized … The short version of the text [ASH: Fairly bland] was quite acceptable, quite bland and then all of a sudden, they discover this manuscript [ASH: Yeah] which tells it –

ASH: With this woman just being all like, “Hello God, it’s me Margery!” [Speaker(s) laugh] And she was recognizable, she’s messy, she’s weird, she’s not great with people, but sometimes she’s amazing. She’s a quote unquote “real woman”, at a time when I think a lot of feminist academics really needed that validation in their own work.

ER: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean what makes Margery Kempe different from so many others, other women writers we know of during the period, throughout the Continent, is that she was, as someone said [to her, as reported in the Book of Margery Kempe], “You ought to be in an anchorhold, in a house of stone!” [ASH: Yep] She was out in the public sphere, and she also had had – is it 14 children? [Speaker: Yeah] [ASH: I believe so] And [SB: Wow] [ASH: Yeah, exactly] you know, you can see why she might have been a bit tired of sex [Speaker(s) laugh] at that point in her life

SB: Yeah, and crying quite a bit too, the hormones! [Speaker: Yeah, they’d be raging!] [ASH: Exactly]

ER: I think it’s really important the publication of the discovery was an important part of the beginning of World War II, because her manuscript was advertised in The Times as the first woman’s autobiography, at a time when the government was trying to get women to work for the war effort. [Speaker(s) murmur at learning new information] [Speaker 1: I didn’t know that.] [Speaker 2: I didn’t either] So I don’t know if we would have noticed her if it hadn’t been for this, this governmental effort.

SB: “Noticing” sounds like the big question – how, when do you, why haven’t we noticed this part of Chaucer’s history, why haven’t we noticed these women before? And these are women who are making, both Margery Kempe [ASH: Yep] – “Kargery Kempe” – [Speaker(s) laugh] and Kim Kardashian are women who are making themselves noticed, and I wonder if there’s a parallel between that, that platform of the hagiography, the story of the saint, and the blog post and the Twitter posts, that you –

ASH: Absolutely, I mean, from my point of view, we all – anybody who uses social media is engaging in this kind of personal saint-making, and you know it might not be saintly, you might be down the pub with friends or you know out on the lash with friends, but it’s still, it’s a persona. And particularly women in the public eye often face a massive backlash for just taking up space. If you go to basically any YouTube video featuring [30:00] Kim Kardashian, there will be haters, and I mean, you know, incredibly virulent hate speech.

SB: Well, can I ask you about your own experience, as women scholars in medieval studies? Have you felt as though you were noticed, unnoticed? What’s been – has there been hate, about this, your sensibilities in this world?

ER: That’s so hard to answer that, and I just want to say, I was thinking on the way over here because Hetta had said that you wanted to know about medieval feminism in general [SB: Yeah] and … as you may or may not know, I co-founded a Society [the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship] in 1986 for the study of women in the Middle Ages, and it was directly in response to the fact that I had went to this meeting, this famous meeting, the Medieval Institute meetings at Kalamazoo –

HH: Famous, amongst medievalists, not so amongst other people! [Speaker(s) laugh]

ASH: We put Kalamazoo on the map!

ER: The Kalamazoo meeting brings about 3,000 medievalists every year to this small university, and I was there year after year, and then I met some friends in the airport and they said, “How do you like this conference?” And I said, “Well, I’ve spent three days here and I didn’t hear a woman mentioned…” And so, we decided that we would start a Society, and it was extremely exciting at that time because I think one of the things about medieval feminism is that it has a dual purpose: it’s concerned with the recovery of women in the past, but also with activism in the present. [Speakers: Yeah]

HH: Yeah, I think one thing that’s really striking about your anecdote there Beth is, it’s this idea of you and your friends talking, and I think communities amongst, sort of, feminist scholars both medieval and –

ASH: I’m nodding so hard right now

Speaker: That’s some great nodding [Speakers laugh]

HH: Because, I mean, you know, so Alicia you’re someone who uses Twitter and blogs, and … anyone should actually go to Alicia Spencer-Hall’s Twitter feed [Speakers laugh] and you’ll see that her pinned tweet is a wonderful gif … [Speakers laugh] which is of … on one screen is sort of the Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner watching TV [Speakers laugh] and then it flips to a scene of the Passion and “To be continued”, [ASH: Yep] and you use that, don’t you in your work, theoretically? [ASH: Yes] But how much have you found that being a part of Twitter and blogging has helped you as a feminist scholar, and helped you theorize your work?

ASH: I would say, Twitter for me in particular has been incredibly positive, about, in part, just letting myself find a voice, because it’s so – you suddenly think, “Do I have anything interesting to say? Do people care [about] my feminist musings on this cereal box?” And also, I think, as medievalists we can be very isolated. It’s a common problem, there’s not a lot of medievalist departments, and so actually being on Twitter and talking with other medievalists has definitely helped me. However, it’s taken me literally years to figure out my boundaries for Twitter, because, you know, I do not want to be doxxed or SWAT-ed, or face harassment, and I’m very lucky – and I think that’s at least in part because I’m white – that I’ve not been harassed in that way. But there is, I mean, a recent edition of Medieval Feminist Forum journal [53, no. 1; 2017], which is the journal of the Society Beth founded, is on microaggressions and harassment, online and offline. And it is incredibly important in this day and age, if we think about recent difficulties faced by particularly women of colour, Dorothy Kim,[2] you know, [HH: Yeah, of course] this is still – it is still “difficult” quote unquote, to put it mildly, being a woman on the internet, particularly one just literally saying the truth from the sources. I mean, nobody’s going “Well actually, there weren’t any men”, you know, just putting yourself out there to reinstate, with urgency, women in history is actually quite dangerous for some.

HH: Yeah, the good thing about social media, I guess, for us, is getting the word out [ASH: Absolutely] You know, before social media, it would be more what Beth’s describing, kind of friends getting together [ASH: Yes] and making it happen. You know, you’ve got a bigger platform with something like Twitter, but you’re also setting yourself up. There are still lots of people that – I think, things have certainly progressed [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] since what Beth was describing at Kalamazoo, but there’s still lots of resistance to … feminist scholarship [ASH: Absolutely] in general. Particularly [ER: Absolutely] in the medieval period, so –

ASH: And I think we need to talk about precarity there. By that I mean, the kind of neo-liberal academy and the way in which there used to be kind of a pipeline: you do a PhD and you get a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. And you might do one post-doc for a few years, but then there is a job, whereas basically – apart from Hetta, I think – nobody I know, sort of, of our peers has a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. [ASH: exasperated laughter]

HH: And it was just very, very right place, right time luck

ASH: And yet a lot of us are doing this kind of feminist work because it’s so important, and in a way I think, the conversations I have with people about this is that, well we have nothing left to lose. And we must change the academy to allow people to speak from where they are, be that in terms of colour, in terms of religion, in terms of ableism [i.e. against normativity of able-bodied default, remedying erasure of disability and disabled scholars from the academy generally], and I really, if there’s one thing you read after listening to this, go to the Medievalists of Color website [35:00] and read their statements, both on racism in the academy and on, kind of, youth of [the study of] the Middle Ages, because they point out that actually a lot of the most important work is returning to this kind of feminist theory, but also is done by, really, people in very precarious positions, and often the most marginalized. [SB: Yes] And we need to integrate that, we need senior scholars, we need to make that more “normal”, for want of a better word –

HH: And to not be afraid to bring the personal into our work, right? [ASH: Yeah] You know, I think there’s this history that academia should be very objective [ASH: Yeah], and we should all be taking a step back and … sort of not showing any sort of sympathy or bias or anything in our work, which, as you [Alicia] rightly point out in a blog post is a fallacy. [ASH: Completely!] You cannot be objective as a researcher, and you kind of hinted at this earlier in this conversation [ASH laughs], but you have this great term in your book, “aca-fan” [ASH: Yes – which, no…] which is an “academic fan”. [ASH: Yes] I wondered if you might want to say a little bit about that, because I think it’s more self-conscious now, and perhaps more feminist?

ASH: Yes, so I would agree, I mean I didn’t coin “aca-fan” – I believe it was probably [HH: OK] Henry Jenkins, who is the father of fan studies. [HH: Right] But my point is that, again, this is a fantasy, and often it’s a fantasy of objectivity that has been white, it’s been male, it’s been older, it’s been conservative, with both a little and a large “C”. And actually, the only way to, kind of, bring activism and feminism into the academy is to speak from where we are and who we are, and sort of stake our claim. Now what’s really interesting is, I think to me, it’s a fairly, kind of, banal idea that as scholars we obsess about things. You know, you spend hours on a text, you grow to love them, you grow to hate them and yet you love them. So we’re –

HH: Constantly re-reading…

ASH: Exactly, so we’re fans, and if you look at, kind of, fan forums and so on, the level of critique there is amazing, the people who – to go back to Doctor Who – [Speaker: They’re experts] will deconstruct, will suggest different things. But my one thing that I think is really interesting is that I’ve got a lot of push-back from certain scholars about my use of terms like “train wreck” or “whine-athon” for Margery, and the use of “fans” to talk about scholars.[3] [Speaker: Yeah] Now, for me, I was talking about this with a friend over email, is I think it’s about, kind of, a form of cultural consumption that’s actually quite different. So when I call Margery a “train wreck”, I love her [HH: Yeah] to me, she’s kitsch, you know, I want her on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, she’s a woman I would never want to actually like have to live with, but I totally want to go for drinks with. So I think that’s an example of the way in which kind of modern media and our personal lives [Speaker: Yeah] really help us understand the texts that we look at.

SB: I want to ask about how optimistic you are about the research that’s being done. What’s exciting you about medieval studies right now?

ASH: Intersectionality. There is no feminism without intersectionality, to my mind. And that is a hard line in the sand I’m willing to draw. [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And what about you, Beth?

ER: Well, I have to say I’m very excited by … I think that the issue that is fascinating me at the moment is immigration, and looking back at early medieval literature in terms of migration, the movement of populations and in a period when nations were not formed, and how, and the kind of interactions between people that are created there. So, we medievalists have a lot to say about what’s happening now, and there’s a pet field that I’m very interested in, which is a spin-off from history of emotions. I do think the history of emotions has been [a] very very important direction in medieval studies –

HH: That was going to be my answer as well, Beth [Speaker(s) laugh] – you’re on my wave length! Absolutely, yeah…agreed

ER: But I also think that the history of the senses is very important, and for me, my particular interest at the moment is how … human beings encounter one another through the senses, what are the processes involved both at a physiological level and at a more philosophical level? What is the relationship between the mind and the body? And, you know, what happens when we encounter difference? [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] And if we can come to a greater appreciation of that interaction, I think [ASH: I mean, I…] there would be less fear –

ASH: I mean, I think that’s where medieval disability studies, which is really on the ascendency is going, and is really revealing some kind of ableist embedded notions that we come to, even if you’re kind of a disability activist, that you come to these [medieval] texts with, and that encountering difference in the past is so important.

HH: Yeah, I think so history of emotions is one I was going to pick up on as well, and I think because emotion is something that has been sometimes negatively associated with the feminine, and I think some of the most exciting work is sort of reclaiming things like that. And is saying, “Yes”, you know, “Margery Kempe did cry a lot [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] as a devotional practice, and that’s really interesting and potentially subversive and strategic, and how can we explore that?”

SB: I feel quite exhausted listening to all that, [Speaker(s) laugh] I might weep, from just how excited I am to read all of this stuff. I’m definitely [40:00] going to go back to my Margery Kempe, but I feel like there’s so much more to … to not just to learn about our own condition from the medieval period, but to understand these medieval writers better actually, more fully. … I’m going to be gathering together another band of academics to explore fear, spookiness and what’s going on with the Gothic next in our podcast series, so if you don’t want to miss that, do sign up for the Arts and Podcast wherever you get your podcast. In the meantime, I’m going to thank Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and Hetta Howes. Thanks very much. [ER: Thank you] [Speaker 1: Thanks!] [Speaker 2: Thanks!] You can find links and more information if you look up either or if you go to the website for the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They’re the helpful people who fund research into, yes, you’ve guessed it, arts and humanities [Speaker(s) laugh] subjects at universities around the UK, and they’ve helped us put this conversation together too.


[1] Order the book here: Download the Introduction and Table of Contents for free here:

[2] On the harassment of academic feminists online, and on the harassment of Dorothy Kim in particular, see: Edwards, Jennifer C. “#Femfog and Fencing: The Risks for Academic Feminism in Public and Online.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 53, no. 1 (2017): 45-72. Accessed 23 August 2018.

[3] I was thinking of conversations with scholars after conference papers and the like, and more recently remarks in a review of my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, by Jessica Barr for The Medieval Review. I am profoundly grateful for Barr’s close, thoughtful attention to my book, and appreciate the rigour of her review very much. My reference to the review here does not in any way constitute me throwing shade the reviewer’s way. Barr’s main point of contention with my analyses was my characterization of Margery Kempe: “I do take issue with a rhetorical move that is made in this chapter, however, and that is the derisive language used to characterize Kempe. The comparison between Kardashian West and Kempe is reasonable--even illuminating--and certainly quite funny, but Spencer-Hall’s folksy language here has the effect of seeming to disparage her. For example, Kempe is “a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe” (175), “the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’ whose “whine-athons” make her Book” the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV” (174). As entertaining as these lines are (and Spencer-Hall is a fine writer), they are needlessly dismissive and perhaps symptomatic of working too hard to connect the medieval text and modern pop culture. (And it should be noted that, in my very defensiveness about Kempe, I reveal myself to be an acafan of the mystic--an academic fan--which is precisely the identity that Spencer-Hall encourages us to claim in the latter part of this chapter.)”

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility

Last month, I gave a keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Oxford. Below, you'll find the full text of my paper, edited lightly to ensure sense in terms of references to images. My thanks to Amsterdam University Press, who have given permission for me to post the paper in full here. Such copyright permission is necessary, given the fact that the majority of the text is taken from my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (Introduction and Chapter 3). If you would like to cite or reference this published material, please use the book version!  You can download the Introduction as a .pdf gratis here. For all other material, feel free to cite this post for now. Plans are in the works to publish the keynote-only stuff, and I will post an update here with all relevant info whenever I have it. Having covered all the logistics, now it's on with the show, and onto the paper proper.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

In 2002, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker made an urgent call for the revalorization of hagiography as a rich source of medievalist material: ‘The message seems to be that “true medievalists” do not concern themselves with hagiographic sources, or if they do, it is only because they wish to study the earliest texts in the vernacular or are interested in folk beliefs and popular mentality.’[1] Hello, my name is Alicia and I am, apparently, not a ‘true’ medievalist, whatever that actually means. For I maintain that hagiography is important precisely because it reflects the ‘popular mentality’ of medieval Catholics. Moreover, I contend that this ‘popular mentality’ is not reducible to an inherent medieval-ness. Medieval hagiography is certainly a product of its historical context. Nevertheless, it expresses and discusses many of the issues with which our contemporary popular culture grapples. Medieval hagiography’s ‘popular mentality’ is constituted by altogether human, trans-chronological pre-occupations. In particular, today I focus on one issue: the ways in which ‘acceptable’ female identities are produced, consumed, and lived both in medieval hagiography/biography and in our modern media ecology. Who gets to be visible? Who gets to be invisible? And who makes those decisions? In a moment in which I find myself with the privilege of standing in the spotlight – as a woman, as an early-career researcher, and as a medievalist, ‘true’ or not – I look to a pair of radically visible women for my source material, fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century selfie queen Kim Kardashian West. These two ‘always make a spectacle of themselves’ it seems, working tirelessly to produce their own identities with the tools at their disposal.[2] They traffic in the political economies of visibility as ‘extraordinary’ individuals – women outside of the norm, and thus deviant; women who are extra-special and thus lauded, celebrified saint and sanctified celebrity. Before I embark upon my analyses proper, let me sketch out all too briefly the terms of my engagement, the analytical framework within which my hypotheses are oriented.


Fig. 1. Untitled gif featuring Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner, watching Christ’s Passion on TV, by Scorpion Dagger (James Kerr).

Hagiographical scholarship has long struggled with the issue of mediation inherent to the genre. We can never view the hagiographical subject ‘face to face’. We set eyes only on the figuration of the holy person provided by the biographer, compelled to author the work by a variety of ideological aims.[3] In short: the existence of a medieval vita typically ‘only proves’, as Nancy Caciola puts it, ‘that a single, literate man […] was impressed by the woman he described’.[4] Instead of grappling with the ‘problem’ of mediation, I suggest that we embrace the full weight of the proposition’s heuristic possibility, considering hagiography as media, and pop-cultural media at that, situating medieval hagiographic subjects alongside those presented in our contemporary pop-cultural media. For my work today is not just to prove that ‘true’ medievalists can and do love hagiography, adoring it with an ever-critical eye – but that ‘true’ medievalists can also render their primary sources relevant, engaging – and, dare I say it, visible – to non-medievalists, if only we appreciate the analytical value of contemporary pop culture, considering pop-culture material as worthy of our attention, our time, and our serious critique. The arguments I present today are drawn from my first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. This gif (Fig. 1) pretty much lays out my central arguments. But if you’d like a version that’s more than a dizzying video loop, I’ve got you covered: today’s paper is grounded on the analyses I set forth in the book’s Introduction and Chapter 3.[5]

Why media? Or perhaps – how media – how does media ‘work’ in terms of hagiography, and vice versa. Here, I draw especially on Birgit Meyer’s definition of ‘media’: ‘those artifacts and cultural forms that make possible communication, bridging temporal and spatial distance between people as well as between them and the realm of the divine or spiritual’.[6] In this light, it becomes clear that media are, and always have been, ‘intrinsic to religion’ as a means of making divinity visible, tangible, and intelligible to believers.[7] My formulation relies also on W. J. T. Mitchell’s theories of media, with particular emphasis on two key tenets.[8] Firstly: media are ‘environments where images live, or personas and avatars that address us and can be addressed in turn.’[9] Hagiographic media are immersive and communicative. They solicit interactions with readers, and open up spaces of virtuality in which their hagiographic personas live and into which the reader can project themselves.[10] Secondly, I concur with Mitchell’s pronouncement that ‘media purity’ is a fallacy.[11] All media are multimedia in the sense that they are fabricated from an assemblage of mixed media. A film, for example, is an admixture of image, text, sound, and so on. Consequently, engagement with media is always a multi-sensuous and multimodal process. Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).

Hagiographic media are dynamic, active, in some sense animate, or at the very least vital. Things live in media, or at least they seem to. The most potent example of such living media is the celebrity (or ‘star image’).[12] However ‘realistic’ the celebrity subject appears, they are an inauthentic representation, fabricated from an amalgam of ‘media texts’ and grafted on to the real personhood of the star-as-subject. In fact, the ‘true’ identity of a celebrity is fragmented, pieced together by various attributes which together form a whole. When analysing celebrity, Richard Dyer observes that ‘we are dealing with the stars in terms of their signification, not with them as real people. The fact that they are also real people is an important aspect of how they signify, but we never know them directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.’[13] The same is true for analyses of hagiography. Medieval holy women (and men) exist to us solely in, and as, hagiographical ‘star images’. What is at stake if we call our celebrities saints, and our saints celebrities? In an effort to answer – or begin to answer – this question, it’s time for Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West to take the stage once more.

Screen grab from  KUWtK  (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Screen grab from KUWtK (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Kim Kardashian West’s ‘ugly crying face’ is a viral online sensation.[14] In 2008, Kourtney Kardashian, Kim’s sister, drew attention to Kim’s unfortunate mien when upset. In a ‘confessional’ from Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWtK), the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kourtney declared: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying because I just can’t help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes’.[15] This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe is the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV.[16] Given the audience for this paper, I’m going to cut to the chase in terms of Margery’s vital statistics. Tl;dr: born c. 1373 to a burgess family in Norfolk (England), married to a burgess, mother of fourteen, widow, pilgrim across England and Europe, one-time brewer, #blessed with a lot of visions, and – most importantly for my point here – cries her eyes out as a sign of her devotion. Almost everyone finds Margery’s crying obnoxious.[17] Even the woman’s closest relations cannot stand her incessant wails. During one of Margery’s whine-athons in Canterbury, her husband pretends not to know her, and runs off.[18] He abandons Margery to the clutches of an angry mob that has formed around the urgent social issue of putting a stop to Margery’s interminable wailing – or as the Book tells it, her suspected Lollardy. A note on terminology is necessary before I go any further. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Book is a work of ambiguous authorship: it is predominantly narrated in the third person; two scribe-amanuenses are identified in the work; and the division of labour between Margery and her scribal helpers is simply not clear. To handle this instability, I follow Lynn Staley in referring to the author-subject as ‘Kempe’ and the text’s protagonist as ‘Margery’.[19]

Fig. 2. Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments, (YouTube video, 1:17: posted by Fun Trolly, uploaded 23 October 2013)

In Sharon L. Jansen’s summation, Margery is ‘garrulous, attention-seeking, and funny, both repellent and endearing.’[20] The same can be said of Kardashian West. And for both women, ‘ugly crying’ operates as an iconographical metonym for the variety of ways in which they are ‘always making a spectacle’ of themselves.[21] Indeed, in direct response to Margery’s crying jag in Canterbury, an elderly monk informs her bluntly: ‘“I wish that you were enclosed in a house of stone, so that no-one should speak with you.”’[22] Margery’s tears are a means of affectively ‘taking up space’, a sinful colonisation of the public realm by a woman. Similar condemnation is evident in many of the comments appended to a YouTube video, Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments (Fig. 2), which has netted over 1.2 million views as of last week (3 January 2018):

she is such a disgrace for women.. shame on her.. so pathetic


I can't believe I live in a world where this woman exists... God damnit[.][23]

Other commenters seize upon Kardashian West’s illegitimacy as a ‘worthy’ celebrity. She is categorised as an ‘attention whore’, a fame-hungry ‘train wreck’ that should simply not be famous.[24] Margery Kempe is trolled similarly in online comments from modern readers outside the academy, and those with only superficial; awareness of her beloved status in contemporary medieval studies:[25] Here are two of the choicest call-outs served to Margery:

This woman was crazy. Hands down, batshit, insane. […] Margery Kempe is not a religious figure to look up to and instead is a self centered, self serving, medieval woman who used religion to gain fame.[26]

[Margery is] a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain […].[27]

Kardashian West and Margery’s stardom is in question because it emanates from a process of auto-celebrification. They are ‘reality-TV famous’ rather than the products of the traditional celebrity manufacturing process.

Reality-stars are famous because they have been on reality TV, not for any special talent. Initially, reality-TV producers operate as ‘star-makers’, choosing which lucky hopeful is cast in their shows and making tactical editorial decisions to present desired storylines. Their source material, however, is the brute force of persona, an individual who has consciously chosen to put themselves up as a ‘star image’ for audience consumption. Reality-stars typically engage in conscious attempts at auto-celebritisation beyond the show which first brought them to public attention. They package and manage themselves as star-objects by appearances in other texts over which they have more control. Presence on social media, in celebrity magazines, and in the tabloid press are mainstays in the reality-star’s toolkit. The reality-TV star harnesses the praxes of celebrification established in the traditional system, but under their own steam. ‘Fake it till you make it’ goes the saying, and that is surely the mantra of the reality-TV celeb. By performing the gestures of ‘legitimate’ fame often enough, to enough onlookers, and with enough skill, the wannabe becomes famous too. In a similar manner, Margery requires models of other acclaimed holy women to legitimise her own forms of piety, both within the diegesis (Margery and her community) and extra-textually (as the author seeks acclaim for the text’s protagonist).


Untitled gif, supercut of Kim Kardashian West's 'ugly crying'.

The Book details Margery’s determined attempts to garner spiritual fame by modelling herself on other holy women. She is a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe desperate to transform herself into a celebrity saint in her own right. Though Margery grinds out her days on the D-list, she looks fannishly to a roster of A-list female saintly stars, in whose image she fabricates herself, or tries to. The Book calls out luminaries such as Birgitta of Sweden, Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, Mary Magdalene, and St. Barbara.[28] Kempe relies on a patchwork of citation, borrowing from various spiritual texts to construct a viable – read: ecclesiastically and socially acceptable – holy life for Margery. In terms of Margery’s ugly crying, for instance, Marie of Oignies is invoked as a lachrymose predecessor who demonstrates that crying, and crying an awful lot, is a sign of holiness. Marie lived in present-day Belgium, and is considered by many as the first beguine – woman who is not a nun, but also not entirely secularized either.[29] She died in 1213, and her hagiography was written two short years later by Jacques of Vitry. Marie’s text was a blockbuster success. Susan Folkerts catalogues 39 extant manuscripts containing her vita, either in full, or in extracts and fragments.[30] The full Latin vita was also translated into an impressive number of languages: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Norse and Swedish. All this to say that Marie of Oignies, however unknown in modern scholarship, was a very well-known holy woman in the medieval period. She, rather than Margery, was the star way back when. Marie is an apposite example for Margery to turn to: she was renowned for her tears. Marie of Oignies is quite literally the dictionary definition of pious crying. Indeed, the entire entry for ‘tears’ (‘lacrima’) in Arnold of Liège’s fourteenth-century exempla anthology the Alphabetum narrationum (composed c1308-1310; translated in the fifteenth-century into English as the Alphabet of Tales) is devoted to the holy woman.[31]

Margery’s scribe, we learn, reads Marie’s biography and comes to greater understanding of Margery’s piety:

And yet our Lord drew [the scribe] back in a short time – blessed may he be – so that he loved [Margery] more, and trusted more in her weeping and her crying than he ever did before. For afterwards he read of a woman called Mary of Oignies, […] and of the plenteous tears that she wept, which made her feel so feeble and so weak that she might not endure to behold the cross, nor hear our Lord’s Passion rehearsed, so she was resolved into tears of pity and compassion. [32]

Ditto the Dominican doctor Maistyr Custawns, presumably Thomas Constance:

The worthy doctor said to her, ‘Margery, I have read of a holy woman [Marie of Oignies] to whom God had given great grace of weeping and crying as he has done to you. […] In the church where she lived was a priest who had no favourable opinion of her weeping, and caused her through his prompting to go out of the church. […] She prayed God that the priest might have some feeling of the grace that she felt […]. And, so suddenly, our Lord sent him such devotion during his mass that he could not control himself, and then, after that, he no longer wishes to despise her but rather to comfort her.’[33]

Crucially, however, the usage of Marie as an archetype here is not a case of passive citation. Rather, the Book adapts the source material from Marie’s life to make it better fit Margery’s own circumstances. In both the Middle English and Latin versions of Marie’s vita, Marie petitions Christ directly to grant the derisive priest tears (‘gate graunt of oure Lord with terys’; ‘impetravitque à Domino cum lacrymis’).[34] This request has been suppressed in Kempe’s retelling. The Book’s adaptation also states that Marie leaves the church due to the priest’s demand (‘at the request of a preyste’), caterwauling about her inability to hold back her tears.[35] In the source materials, the priest only asks Marie to cease crying and pray quietly (‘bade that she shulde praye softely and latte be hir weyping’; ‘ut oraret cum silentio, & lacrymas cohiberet’).[36] It is Marie’s inability to hold back her tears and intense humility that drives her from the church of her own accord. Kempe takes a pre-existing narrative and re-shapes it to better suit Margery’s needs, a move both interventionist and derivative which bears all the hallmarks of fan fiction.


Gif of scene from The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton directs her then-unfamous childhood friend Kim Kardashian West to clean her closet. Hilton: 'Kim I need you to clean and organize my entire closet.' Kardashian West: 'Yes Paris'.


Gif from Paris Hilton’s interview with Entertainment Tonight in which she states ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’

Like Margery, Kardashian West needed a guide in the celebrification process. She credits socialite-cum-minor-celebrity Paris Hilton as a mentor: ‘“I do think I learned a lot from Paris. I think that she has always been so gracious to the paparazzi, to her fans, and has taught me, you know, that there’s no real need or reason to never not be.”’[37] For a number of years, Hilton employed Kardashian West, a then non-famous childhood friend, as a personal assistant and stylist in her own C-list celebrity life.[38] Kardashian West’s earliest onscreen appearances are in episodes of The Simple Life, the reality-TV show that launched Hilton as a star.[39] Whilst the pair were friends, footage shows Hilton exploiting the power differential between them, effectively putting Kardashian West in her place. This entry-level position in The Simple Life was productive, however. It functioned as an internship in the twinned businesses of reality-TV and auto-celebrification. In a now famous – or infamous – interview with Entertainment Tonight (ET), Hilton credited herself as the ‘star maker’ not just of Kim, but the entire Kardashian clan, proclaiming ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’[40] Since the ET interview, Hilton has become more circumspect in her classification of her role in Kardashian West’s rise to stardom. Speaking about the pair’s relationship in a 2015 interview with Yahoo! Style, she emphasised their closeness: ‘We’ve known each other since we were little girls. We’ve always been friends.’ [41] The rosy picture is masterfully subverted with Hilton’s next remarks: ‘It’s nice to inspire people. I’m really proud of her and what she’s done.’ It remains clear that, in Hilton’s eyes at least, she has ownership over her childhood friend’s celebrity, and should be acknowledged accordingly.

Kardashian West’s own reality-TV show, KUWtK, launched in 2007. It instantly elevated her celebrity, and transformed the whole family into a celebrity brand. KUWtK is still going strong in its fourteenth season (debuting October 2017), with various spin-off Kardashian-focussed shows and cross-marketed merchandise.[42] Audiences worldwide can’t seem to get enough of Kardashian West and her family. Hilton is irrelevant; Kardashian West is omni-present in the media landscape. In the Book, Christ implies that Margery will achieve a similar usurpation of her role-model, St. Birgitta. He speaks to the English woman “‘just as [he] spoke’” (‘“ rygth as [he] spak’”) to her mentor, suggesting an equivalence between the pair.[43] However, he blesses Margery alone with certain visions, assuring her that the Swedish saint ‘“never saw [him] in this way”’ (‘“say [him] nevyr in this wyse’”)).[44] Nevertheless, Birgitta has nothing to fear from Margery: she does not attain anything like Birgitta’s fame in her time.

Chris Rojek attests that ‘[c]elebrities offer powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition, and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences, lives that may otherwise be poignantly experienced as under-performing anti-climactic or sub-clinically depressing.’[45] Margery’s pre-mystic life was certainly no bed of roses. Indeed, the Book opens with an account of Margery’s first pregnancy, a devastating experience which leads to an eight-month mental breakdown:[46] During this period, Margery is beset by demons and diabolical temptations. When all consider her a lost cause, a visitation from Christ – the most potent religious celebrity of all – finally jump-starts her recovery. God has not forsaken her; if Margery devotes herself to Him fully, then all will be well. But how can Margery accomplish this mission, practically speaking? The numerous acclaimed holy women found in the Book function as role-models. These saintly celebs – or the models of faith they embody – offer the much maligned Margery a roadmap to full integration in her society, and ultimately to the recognition of her own sanctity. Margery is an attention-seeking acolyte, a superfan, whose greatest desire is not to be like a saint, but become one herself.

Margery’s breakdown is provoked by her inability to confess a significant long-concealed sin.[47] Thinking she is on the brink of death post-partum, the woman calls for a confessor. The cleric, though, rushes to rebuke Margery, cutting her off mid-flow and thus silencing her. Her transgression remains unshriven, and she fears for her eternal damnation. Diana Jefferies and Debbie Horsfall contend that Margery’s sin is not based in any specific act.[48] Rather, after her traumatic pregnancy she comes to renewed awareness of the original sin that afflicts all humanity, and her status as a ‘daughter of Eve’. In Genesis 3. 16, God instructs Eve on the gendered burden of sin she bears: ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.’[49] Margery’s labour pains are visceral reminders of her transition from virgin to wife, and all that entails: the loss of both her bodily autonomy and subjective agency.[50] Recognition of these losses propels the holy woman into insanity. In order to move beyond this annihilating relegation to bodiliness and reclaim her sanity, Margery must produce an alternate self-image. She turns to saintly mentors who seem to have redeemed, at least partially, the sinful female body via their religious praxes.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians  season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source:    The Sun   . The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding    here   .

Keeping Up With the Kardashians season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source: The Sun. The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding here.

Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation is also rooted in a reclamation of subjectivity in the aftermath of trauma. In February 2007, she faced public humiliation after the leak of a sex-tape, made with the singer Ray J a few years earlier, when the pair were a couple. At this point, Kardashian West was mostly unknown, of interest primarily for her party-going with Paris Hilton and brief romance with boyband star Nick Lachey (of band 98 Degrees; he later married Jessica Simpson) in 2006. Nick La-who? – exactly! The sex-tape, then, was the primary ‘star image’ with which the public interpreted Kardashian West. It materialised her celebrity, or rather notoriety, as a sexual object: a body without a voice, and without a story. Paris Hilton faced the same issue, with her own sex-tape leaking less than a month before the debut of The Simple Life. The tape was certainly a media sensation. However, Hilton used her reality-TV series to offer a counter-narrative, crafting herself as the archetype of the rich dumb blonde. Once more, Kardashian West followed, and refined, Hilton’s example. Five months after the release of her sex-tape, KUWtK hit the air. In the show, Kardashian West comes across as likeable and family-oriented, in diametric opposition to the spoiled and entitled brattiness embodied by Hilton. Crucially, KUWtK allowed Kardashian West to exercise control over the narrative circulating in the sex-tape. The woman having sex in the video is not just a body. She is a woman with a real life, with a real family, and with real emotions. Kempe’s portrayal of Margery hits the same notes: she is not just body, but soul too.

Fig. 3.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

Fig. 3. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

In 2015, Kardashian West published the best-selling Selfish, a 448-page monograph composed of selfies taken in the period from 2006 to 2014 (though later editions have included more selfies from 2015-16 too). As with Margery’s Book, Selfish makes visible the celebrity manufacturing process. Megan Garber notes that in reading the book, ‘you see the work that goes into making Kim Kardashian, the person, into Kim Kardashian, the icon.’ [51] Countless selfies capture Kardashian West mid-beautification: in the make-up artist’s chair, or with her hair in rollers. She reveals the dissonance between celebrity ‘reality’ and her normal existence. Kardashian West might walk the Oscars red-carpet as a paragon of glamour, but when she returns home, the gown comes off and comfy sweats rule (Fig. 3).[52] The painstaking effort of maintaining a feminine persona, celebrity or otherwise, is revealed as Kim shows us the before and the after (see e.g. Fig 4.). All that labour pays off though. In 2014, Kardashian West was the second most Googled person worldwide.[53] In 2015, she was the most Googled person in twenty-six countries.[54] The transformation is complete: Kardashian West is a wannabe no more. Why does she succeed, whilst Margery fails?

Fig. 4.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Fig. 4. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Christ intimates to Margery four times that she will be the object of a posthumous cult in the Book. These promises are ultimately empty. There is no evidence of a cult in Margery’s memory. Regardless of Marie of Oignies’ example, Margery’s tears could not be assimilated into a successful saintly identity, in the Catholic context at least. The Church of England commemorates Margery in its Calendar of saints on the 9 November, in a relatively recent addition to their liturgy.[55] Margery’s inclusion here, though, is almost a back-handed compliment. A ‘commemoration’ is the lowest form of veneration available for inclusion in the Calendar: a kind of ‘participation trophy’ for the holy woman who – bless her heart – tried so hard, but didn’t actually produce the goods. In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA also provisionally approved the liturgical commemoration of Richard Rolle (d. 1349), Walter Hilton (d. 1396), and Margery Kempe on 28 September.[56] Even here, Margery finishes last. She is quite literally the hanger-on after the two illustrious male mystics in all official written material about the commemorative day circulated by the Church.

Instead of any significant medieval renown, evidence of any sizeable fan-base for Margery is instead found in modern academic scholarship, particularly in feminist critique from the 1980s onwards.[57] In 1998, Margery earnt an entry into the connotatively titled Who’s Who in Christianity anthology, a veritable star-chart of religious celebs. The last line of Margery’s entry concisely captures the shift in the holy woman’s fortunes: ‘In recent years she has become something of a feminist heroine.’[58] Margery’s Book is so compelling because our wailing heroine fails at – or more charitably ‘struggles with’ –– her objective of securing sanctity. In a personal blogpost, Clarissa W. Atkinson reflects on Margery’s impact in her professional life as a medievalist.[59] Atkinson was on the vanguard of academic feminism, undertaking postgraduate study at a time when women were practically absent from the medievalist canon. With Margery, she finally found ‘a recognizable (and annoying) human being’. Academic interest in Margery is founded on Margery’s relatability: she is a woman scrambling to find her place in a male-dominated world, balancing the competing demands of family, community, and personal passions. Visibility in terms of the discovery of Margery’s Book, and its eventual inclusion in the medievalist canon, equates to representation at a meta-level, as Margery functions as a proxy for women more generally in the field of medievalism.

Still from horror movie  House of Wax  (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Still from horror movie House of Wax (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Margery is not (academically) famous because she is (or was) recognised as a saint, a perfected image of (holy) womanhood. Rather, she is a celebrity, at least in medievalist circles, for the messiness of her persistent bids for (holy) fame. Margery has become famous for wanting to be famous. Jeffrey Sconce affirms that Paris Hilton’s ‘reality TV-level’ fame depends on her consistent (and perhaps even knowing) failure at doing something truly celebrity-worthy: ‘her entire persona depends on her signature inability to do or contribute anything productive, making her fame the most pure and tasteful of all.’[60] Similarly, Margery’s incapacity to perform holiness ‘productively’ underpins her enduring presence in the academic media-scape. The mystic’s failure, however, exposes the reality of the hagiographic star-system, the constructed-ness of accepted saintly identities. Katherine J. Lewis suggests that the Book was ‘intended to plug a perceived gap in female English sanctity by providing a saint who was Katherine, Bridget, Mary Magdalene and others all rolled into one – thus providing something for everyone.’[61] Margery (or Kempe’s) suturing together of numerous female saintly identities is a conscious hagiographical move to create a female English ‘multi-saint’. In other words, she is a try-hard, and trying too hard too obviously is the antithesis of celebrity cool. Margery’s behaviours may not be ‘tasteful’, to quote Sconce, but they demonstrate in perhaps the ‘purest’ form the ways in which saints are artificial objects, cobbled together from various narratives and for various ideological motives.[62] As a ‘wannabe’, then, Margery shows us how the ‘real’ stars are made.

Fig. 5   . Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source:    (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 5. Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source: (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 6.    Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source:    Tiny Beauty Blog    (cropped).

Fig. 6. Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source: Tiny Beauty Blog (cropped).

The genius of Kardashian West is that she reveals the inequity and artificiality of the celebrification process, and leverages this revelation to support her celebrity trajectory. She is the hyperreal of womanhood, existing as mediatised images which reveal the logical end-point of the patriarchally enforced pressure that society places on all women to look and act in certain ways. Kardashian West turns to social media and selfies to chronicle her own navigation of the socio-cultural demands placed on female appearance and comportment. That she may enjoy dressing up or being photographed is not important here, no matter how the tabloids might frame it. What matters is that she consciously shows you the ‘before’ and ‘after’, how celebrity is manufactured. More crucially, this revelation emphasizes the constructed-ness of the image of socially ‘legitimate’ cis-heterosexual Western womanhood itself. Even before she snapped her first selfie, or appeared on any TV, Kardashian West was always already imprisoned in this panoptical woman-ification system, as are all women who must conform – or pay the price – to what society, at a given moment, designates as the appearance and behaviour of ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ (read: acceptable) womanhood. She has managed to extract value from this system, to play it at its own game: she mediatises herself, and so doing holds up a mirror – or smartphone – to the cameras of patriarchy which adorn the walls of the panopticon in which all women find themselves. This dynamic is materialized in a smartphone case by Moschino, produced for their Barbie-inspired Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Fig. 5).[63] The iPhone 5 case is styled as a baroque hand mirror, replicated in fuchsia-pink plastic, with the traditional mirrored glass replaced by the screen of the user’s smartphone. But the mirrored glass has not been entirely removed: instead, it has been displaced, to the back of the holder. Whenever the user lifts their phone to snap a selfie, a ‘vanity mirror’ on the back of the case reflects those who look at the selfie-taker (Fig. 6). Snapping a selfie means quite literally lifting a mirror to the world around you, making those who would capture you with their gaze confront the trajectory of their own look(s). 

With her appearance on the medievalist scene, Margery gave feminist academics someone to root for, and someone whose life – struggles and all – rang true for them. This is not to say that Margery simplistically reveals enduring truths of womanhood, or not only that. She functions as a focal point for feminist medieval scholars to find ourselves in our field, in our primary sources, and perhaps even in our own lives. Margery’s Book – and its feminist reception – can be read, then, as a productive mirror of our own scholarly and socio-political contexts. Margery – as a mirror – allows us to sculpt our own auto-hagiographies, and ultimately move beyond her Book to bring to light other neglected, difficult, or messy stories from medieval feminist pre-histories.

Wendy Harding affirms that the Book stages ‘an unequal struggle for control of channels of communication’.[64] The illiterate Margery is dependent on oral expression to render her life into narrative.[65] In order to preserve her life story, Margery must give her spoken words, and thus her narrative agency, to an individual who can process her oral account in to text: the cleric Kempe. The mystic ‘cannot write her own script’.[66] Writing permits the elision of Margery’s body (subjectivity), as text conveys meaning ‘without the necessity of bodily contact’.[67] Moreover, in the epistemological hierarchy of the late Middle Ages, textuality is the most authoritative communicative format. Margery’s vocalisations are simply less significant than Kempe’s interpretation of them, and can never be fully represented in text in any case. The holy woman depends entirely on her textual producer to purvey her ‘star image’. In comparison, Kim Kardashian West is in almost complete control of her own celebrity narrative. Reality-TV producers might have first brought her into the public eye, but they no longer run the show. Paris Hilton’s ever-waning fame may, to return to Sconce’s critique, rest upon her ‘signature inability to do or contribute anything productive’.[68] Kardashian West, by contrast, is a digital entrepreneur, whose celebrity springs directly from her industrious and innovative media interventions.

Kardashian West has harnessed the power of social media to disrupt the traditional model of ‘top-down’ celebrity production, in which the star-object is controlled by her producer-creator.[69] She assiduously manages her multiple social media profiles. Kardashian West started the new year (i.e. January 2018) with over 193 million followers across her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.[70] These social media channels equate to multimedia networks which are completely under Kardashian West’s control. In posts shared directly with her followers, Kardashian West carefully sculpts the particular image of celebrity she wishes to portray. She frequently anticipates content in her reality-TV show, releasing news on her social media channels to control the story, and uses her multiple platforms to refute celebrity gossip. Here, for example, she tweets in anticipation of the broadcast of the KUWtK episode dealing with violent robbery which took place at Paris Fashion Week (October 2016), in which she was held at gunpoint:

Tonight’s episode is going to be very tough for me.[71]

However, I thought it was important to share this story through my eyes & not in an interview where my own words could be twisted.[72]

I have always shared so much & I’m not going to hold back when this was probably one of the most life changing experiences for me.[73]

These tweets emphasise the fact that other narratives circulating around the Parisian incident are not (fully) authentic. The show, then sets the record straight – and contains compellingly raw and authentic footage of Kardashian West. What’s more, the tweets underscore that fans should not necessarily trust any Kardashian-West content not produced by the woman herself.

In her analyses of Margery’s orality, Harding explains that oral communication ‘is not linear but interactive and global’, a means of mediation that nevertheless depends on ‘the body in its entirety.’[74] These characteristics similarly govern social media. Indeed, social media is useful to Kardashian West for precisely these reasons. It allows her to interact with fans across the globe in an informal manner. Moreover, the star’s social media accounts allow her to foreground her subjectivity as an unavoidable part of the Kim-Kardashian-West package. She resists the reduction of her existence to body alone as a female celebrity and sex symbol. Instead, she shows followers her ‘body in its entirety’, complete with her personality, mind, and affect. This representation also serves to heighten for fans that she is authentic above all, and thus supports her broader celebrity identity as a ‘real’ star. Kardashian West is a consummate businesswoman, extraordinarily savvy in the art of auto-celebrification, or put otherwise autohagiography.[75]

Screengrab    from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Screengrab from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Nevertheless, Kardashian West’s stardom is not viewed as fully ‘legitimate’ by many. In June 2015, her appearance on the National Public Radio (NPR) show, ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ provoked ire in listeners.[76] Hundreds wrote in to complain, with many threatening to cease their NPR sponsorship in response.[77] A complaint from listener Brianna Frazier is indicative of the tenor of the backlash: ‘vapid, talentless, and shallow individuals who have not earned fame or fortune through an ounce of hard work have no place on a show of such caliber’. In religious terms, Kardashian West is a celebrity not via any official canonization, but instead via grass-roots lay devotion. Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation does not have ‘official’ backing – be that a gifted hagiographer or circle of clerical, or indeed cultural, supporters –  and is enacted via non-traditional routes which fundamentally threatens the establishment, be that the Church or broadcast media. As Margery is dismissed as heretical and annoying, Kim is classified as talentless and low-class. Despite her success, Kardashian West’s auto-celebrification is only partially successful. A significant portion of the public resist her disruption of the celebrity machine. But, love her or hate her, they know who Kim Kardashian West is. ‘Famous’ or ‘infamous’, she remains in the spotlight. In much the same way, Margery Kempe is ‘everywhere treated as a miracle, a scandal, a cause celèbre’.[78] She endures as an object of fascination and irritation, both in her own contemporary context and in academic scholarship alike.

If this study of radically visible women has shown anything, it is that being visible is neither a simple nor an easy prospect. Navigating the politics of visibility is fundamentally necessary though, an inescapable part of Kim and Margery’s lived experience(s), the very formation of their subjectivity. You can’t ignore it, you have to confront it: visible or invisible, there’s no escape from the spotlight – it defines even that to which it brings shadow. Visibility is always political, emblematic of agency and oppression by turn. For being visible – being in the spotlight – gets one noticed. I am keenly aware, as I speak these words, of the context in which I speak. I have the profound privilege of giving a plenary paper as an early-career researcher, a heretofore almost unheard of undertaking. But this isn’t the whole story, my whole story (professional or otherwise). My presence here today, having my moment in the spotlight, depends on the work of countless scholars - colleagues, collocutors, collaborators – who are invisible to you all yet should, rightfully, share the stage with me. What’s more, innumerable early career scholars are producing paradigm-exploding work which would make ideal material for a keynote. I am fortunate to have a research fellowship, but one that doesn’t pay – I haven’t been paid for my academic work since last September. This state of affairs is not particularly unusual, at least amongst my group of early-career friends and peers. Making space for early-career researchers on the scholarly stage is a momentous, incredibly laudable, move. Exposure, however, is not enough for the precariat. Increased visibility must lead to increased recognition institutionally, with ECRs being valued for their work and their time, in terms of professional stability and financial remuneration. In a Twitter thread from last December, Lucia Lorenzi cuts to the heart of it:

I see many emerging scholars who are told they are brilliant - that they should apply for PhD programs, postdocs, jobs - but their ‘promise’ becomes a way in which the academy neglects or abuses them.[79]

And all too often, there is no pay-off for all this ‘promise’. However brilliant a marginalized scholar may be, jobs seem to go to the usual suspects: white able-bodied men.[80]

Medieval studies today must reckon with visibility. Like it or not, many people – academics and non-academics alike – simply do not see the value of our research, and do not understand why it should be funded. We must speak from where we are, and who we are. And like it or not, the Middle Ages are being weaponized as fodder for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. This isn’t new, but it is more visible than ever, particularly in the United States of President Donald Trump and in a post- (or mid?) Brexit Britain, ‘little England’ writ large. In her blogpost ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’ (published 28 August 2017), Dorothy Kim laid out what is at stake for medievalists in our current political environment:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. […] Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now. […] So, what are you doing to overtly signal that your medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?[81]

As medievalists, we must work to adopt a politics of engaged public visibility, a strategy of showing ourselves – and our work – to push back firmly and frequently against the rising tide of hate. Becoming visible is not an easy undertaking, nor can every individual adopt this role. Visibility, especially for women and for people of colour, can be dangerous – as shown all too readily in a quick Wikipedia search for ‘Gamergate’, in any cursory perusal of social media and online comments sections, and indeed in the recent harassment faced by Dorothy Kim in response to her blogpost.[82] Those of us with various privilege(s) must stand up and become visible. A comforting – protective – cloak of invisibility is simply not an option for many. Not everyone can pass as the patriarchy’s default, and thus ‘unmarked’, state – cishet, white, able-bodied manhood. We must stand up and be meaningfully present for those, and with those, for whom the fact of visibility is inescapable. We must also protect the right to be invisible, affirming the right to privacy for those who cannot step into the spotlight, for whatever reason. We must also pursue, vigorously and productively, alternate modes of visibility, ways of imagining how visibility is achieved for academics as a component of building professional reputations and scholarly networks. Here, I think particularly of those of us with more or less visible disabilities, with care responsibilities, and with bodies – and lives – which do not, cannot conform to the pressures of academic life: always working, always productive, always visibly so.

I leave you with questions, to which there are no easy answers: How do we make visibility safe, affirmative and genuinely inclusive? How do we support those who are invisible and need to remain so? How do we create a feminist-medievalist politics of visibility? Here are a few final thoughts, Jerry Springer style.[83] We must work to share the spotlight’s glare, at times seductively scintillating and at others harshly penetrating. We must work to diffuse the spotlight’s exceptional beam across the individual and institutional surfaces of our discipline. In short, we must make spectacles of us all, for us all.

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source:    Flickr.    White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source: Flickr. White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source:  Flickr.  Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source: Flickr. Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


[1] ‘Invention’, p. 5.

[2] Here I draw on Jansen’s (n.p.) remarks on Margery Kempe, which I quote later in this piece.

[3] Mulder-Bakker, ‘Laywomen’, p. 5. See also Flory.

[4] Caciola, p. 271.

[5] See in particular: pp. 11-14, 47-52, 167-87.

[6] Meyer, ‘Media’, p. 126.

[7] Ibid., p. 127. On this, see also: ‘Medium’, in which the citation appears verbatim on p. 60.

[8] Lives and Loves, pp. 201-21.

[9] Ibid., p. 203.

[10] This associates hagiography with other medieval media which aim at engendering authentic yet virtual experiences. This includes, for example, guided meditational manuals in the tradition of affective piety which place the reader-cum-seer in the thick of biblical history, such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum and the Meditaciones vite Christi (dubiously ascribed to John of Caulibus). I refer to the latter briefly in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, Chapter 4 (pp.193-94). Virtuality was equally central in medieval pilgrimage guides to, and images of, Jerusalem for the imaginative use of those for whom travel to the holy site in person was impossible. For details and analyses of such works, see: Rudy, ‘Cityscape’; ‘Guide’; ‘Fragments’; Virtual Pilgrimages.

[11] Lives and Loves, p. 215. Mitchell writes extensively on this topic, see in particular: Iconology, pp.7-46; Image Science, pp. 13-21; 125-35.

[12] The phrase ‘star image’ is coined by Dyer, used repeatedly in Stars.

[13] Stars, p. 2.

[14] Although still known a ‘Kim Kardashian’ by many, the star rebranded herself across all media outlets in 2014 as ‘Kardashian West’ following her marriage to rapper Kanye West. As such, I refer to her as ‘Kardashian West’ throughout. On celebrity and ‘ugly crying’, see: Cote.

[15] ‘Kardashian Family Vacation’ (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). On the links between reality-TV tears and medieval crying as confessional expressions of contrition, see: Weisl.

[16] I refer to the Staley edition of the Book for all original citations (as MKB), and the Windeatt’s translation for modern English text (as MKBEng).

[17] See, for example: MKB, 1.13.620-23.40.

[18] Ibid., 1.13.623-73.41-42.

[19] Fictions, p. 3. On this, see also: pp. 1-38.

[20] N.p.

[21] Ibid.

[22] MKBEng, 1.13.63. ‘“I wold thow wer closyd in an hows of ston that ther schuld no man speke wyth the.’” MKB, 1.13.629-30.41.

[23] Comments by YouTube users ‘stiLLa himself’, ‘MUSIC IS MA L!FE!’, and ‘Frank Conrad’ respectively. As of 3 January 2018 (4pm), the video had been viewed 1,260,831 times.

[24] Quotes from comments by ‘Frank Beltra’ and ‘John Roberts’.

[25] Bale, p. 16.

[26] ‘Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe: This woman was Crazy’, n.p.

[27] Dr Virago, n.p. These are comments made by students when encountering Margery in their reading list, reported in a blogpost by a medievalist professor using the pseudonym ‘Dr Virago’. Though technically made by individuals ‘in the academy’, these cutting remarks nevertheless summarize the general critique levelled against Margery in trolling online.

[28] On this, see in particular: Atkinson, ‘Sanctity’, pp. 226-33; Lewis; Staley, Fictions, pp. 171-200; Yoshikawa, pp. 94-104.

[29] The ‘beguine’ classification is problematic generally. I discus this at length in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, pp. 25-37.

[30] Pp. 226-7, 230, 235-41.

[31] Arnold of Liège, ex. 435-36, pp. 246-47. For references to Marie in the fifteenth-century translation, see: Banks (ed.), II, ex. 427, p. 293; ex. 429, p. 294.

[32] MKBEng, 1.62.191-92. ‘And yet owr Lord drow [the scribe] agen in short time, blissed mote he ben, that he lovyd [Margery] mor and trustyd mor to hir wepyng and hir crying than evyr he dede beforn, for aftyrward he red of a woman clepyd Maria de Oegines, […] and of the plentyuows teerys that sche wept, the whech made hir so febyl and so weke that sche myth not endur to beheldyn the crosse, ne heryn owr Lordys Passyon rehersyd, so sche was resolvyd into terys of pyté and compassyon.’ MKB, 1.62.3610-15.149.

[33] MKBEng, 1.68.205. ‘The worschepful doctowr seyd to hir, “Margery, I have red of an holy woman whom God had govyn gret grace of wepyng and crying as he hath don onto yow. In the cherc ther sche dwellyd was a preyste which had no conseyt in hir wepyng and cawsyd hir thorw hys steryng to gon owte of the cherche. […] [S]che mreyd God that the preyst myth have felyng of the grace that sche felt […]. And so sodeynly owr Lord sent hym devocyn at hys messe that he myth not mesuryn himself, and then wolde he no more despisyn hir aftyr that but rathyr comfortyn hir.”’ MKB, 1.68.3925-33.160.

[34] VMOME, 1.5.152-53.93; VMO,

[35] MKB, 1.62.3618-21.149.

[36] VMOME, 1.5.148-49.93; VMO,

[37] Pomarico, n.p. See also: Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, p. 100.

[38] Kardashian West insists that she was not, in fact, Hilton’s stylist, but the socialite was a client of her eBay-selling and closet-organising business: Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’.

[39]‘Ro-Day-O vs. Ro-Dee-O’ (S01E01, first aired 2 December 2003), ‘The Nolan Family’ (S04E01, first aired 4 June 2006), ‘The Ghauri Family (S04E02, first aired 11 June 2006), ‘Murrie Family’ (S04E06, first aired 16 July 2009).

[40] For all intents and purposes, this interview has been scrubbed from the internet. It is impossible to pin down exactly when this interview took place, though it coincides with Hilton’s promotional tour for The World According to Paris, which debuted in June 2011. This is clear when examining a short excerpt of the interview posted to Hilton’s YouTube channel, in which she discusses her new series: Paris Hilton - Entertainment Tonight. Hilton’s appearance and the set décor matches the clip of the interview in which Hilton disses Kardashian West. This clip is a much-shared gif online, and the interview remarks are cited in myriad online gossip stories, though without any source identification. See, for example: Flynn; George; Woodward.

[41] Hilton and Zee, n.p..

[42] See, for example: Kourtney & Kim Take Miami, Kourtney & Kim Take New York.

[43] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1089.58.

[44] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1085-86.58.

[45] P. 52.

[46] MKB, 1.1.130-87.21-23.

[47] Ibid., 1.1.142-50.22. This episode is often interpreted as post-partum psychosis or mental illness within a modern framework. See in particular: Craun; Freeman, Bogarad, and Sholomskas; Jefferies and Horsfall, pp. 350-52; Torn.

[48] P. 353.

[49] Douay-Rheims Bible.

[50] McAvoy, pp. 36-37.

[51] N.p.

[52] Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253. See also the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ selfies: ibid., pp. 228-31.

[53] Google Trends.

[54] McCluskey.

[55] Brother Tristram and Kershaw (eds.), p. 502.

[56] Church Pension Fund, p. 611.

[57] On this, see in particular: Tolhurst.

[58] Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), p. 167.

[59] ‘40 Years’, n.p.

[60] P. 336.

[61] P. 215.

[62] Sconce, p. 336.

[63] ‘Runway Capsule Collection’, n.p.

[64] P. 170.

[65] Ibid., p. 174.

[66] Bynum, p. 41.

[67] Harding, p. 172.

[68] P. 336.

[69] Ingram; Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’, ‘Naked Selfies’; Kirst.

[70] As of 3 January 2018, Kardashian West had: 58 million followers on Twitter; 105 million followers on Instagram; and 30.1 million followers on Facebook.

[71] Kardashian West, ‘Tonight’s episode’.

[72] Kardashian West, ‘However’.

[73] Kardashian West, ‘I have always shared’.

[74] P. 172.

[75] On celebrity as a business, see Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, pp. 131-39, 213-19.

[76] Pesca et al. This is a typical reaction to Kardashian West’s appearance in ‘series’ media. See, for example: Gannes.

[77] Jensen, n.p.

[78] Watson, p. 396.

[79] Lorenzi, ‘I see many’. The whole thread is worth reading on this topic: ‘Sitting here’.

[80] Lorenzi, ‘Because I’ve seen’.

[81] N.p.

[82] For a summary of the vitriolic – and abhorrent – backlash Kim has received after posting the piece, see: Roll; Xu.

[83] Jerry Springer devotes the closing minutes of his massively successful talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, to his ‘final thoughts’ on a given topic. Or at least he did, when I was a regular watcher in my misspent youth, i.e. the early 2000s. Contrasted with the typical trashy, tabloid banality of an episode, these final remarks allowed Jerry to deliver some home-spun wisdom, roughly centred on lessons learnt from his guests.

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Pesca, Mike, Amy Dickinson, Maz Jobrani, Peter Grosz, Bill Kurtis, and Kim Kardashian West, ‘Not My Job: Kim Kardashian Gets Quizzed On Kim Jong Un’, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! radio show (10:48), National Public Radio, 13 June 2015 <> [accessed 20 July 2016]

The Simple Life, created by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (prod. by 20th Century Fox Television, Bunim-Murray Productions, 2003-2007)

The World According to Paris, created by Paris Hilton (?) (prod. by A. Smith & Co. Productions, 2011)


AASS: Société des Bollandistes, ed., Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur vel a catholicis scriptoribus celebrantur, 68 vols (Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Tongerloo: various publishers, 1643-1940; 4th repr. Brussels: Impression Anastaltique Culture et Civilisation, 1965-1971)

KUWtK: Keeping Up With the Kardashians, created by Ryan Seacrest and Eliot Goldberg (prod. by Bunim-Murray Productions and Ryan Seacrest Productions, 2007-present)

MKB: Staley, Lynn, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)

MKBEng: Windeatt, Barry, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin, 1985)

VMO: Jacques of Vitry, De B. Maria Oigniacensi in Namurcensi Belgii dioecesi, ed. by Daniel Papebroeck, in AASS, June IV (23) (1707 (repr. 1969)), 636-66

VMOME: Jacques of Vitry, ‘The Middle English Life of Marie d’Oignies’, in Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies, ed. by Jennifer N. Brown (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 85-190

Edited 03/12/18 to fix a typo.

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility - Keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2018

I have the distinct honour of giving a plenary paper at the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (GMS) (8-10 January 2018). This will be the first year that this long-running conference has included a plenary from an early-career researcher, and I am delighted/thrilled/terrified to have been invited for the inaugural slot. My paper, entitled 'Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility', presents key arguments from my first book, in particular the Introduction and Chapter 3. Handy reminder: see my earlier blogpost to find out how you can download a .pdf of the full Introduction for free, and to snag a voucher code for 20% off the listed price of my book (valid till 1 February 2018).

In my GMS talk, I first sketch the theoretical foundations for my consideration of hagiography as media, setting out my terms of engagement. Then, I discuss in depth the ways in which the politics of visibility are central in the creation, consumption, and lived experience of female identities. In particular, I bring the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century celebrity icon Kim Kardashian West into dialogue, analysing the ways in which the pair attempt to self-produce 'acceptable' exceptional identities in their respective contexts. Finally, I discuss the role of visibility in the academy today - for early career researchers, and for medievalists more generally. Flicking through the slide deck below should give you a feel for the material. I look forward to seeing all those who can make it in Oxford!   

Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears

In short order, I'll be flying out to Las Vegas (USA) to speak at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference. I'm presenting as part of panel 1401, 'Celebrity Worship I: Sensual Practices', with a paper entitled 'Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears'. In this paper, I'll be talking through some key analyses that I present in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (mostly ch. 3). For the ATHE, I'm centering my comments on the co-incidence of "ugly" crying in the lives of the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West and the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe. To give a flavour of the paper, I've posted a content synopsis and my slides below. 

Paper synopsis:

Kim Kardashian West’s “ugly crying face” is a viral online sensation. In a 2008 “confessional” from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kim’s sister Kourtney declared: “I start laughing at Kim when she's crying because I just can't help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes”. This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe (d. after 1438) is the Ur-example of “ugly crying”, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV. The Book of Margery Kempe¸ composed in the 1430s, catalogues the various spiritual endeavours of its protagonist, including intense mystical visions and pilgrimages. The hallmark of Margery’s piety is ceaseless weeping. Her tears are the lynchpin of her religiosity, the primary means with which she visibly enacts her elevated spiritual status. But those around Margery reject and mock her lachrymose displays, finding them irritating at best, and heretical at worst. The woman is widely rebuked for her self-proclaimed religiosity, and driven out of various towns. At one point, even her husband has had enough: faced with her endless wails, he abandons her. The Book’s primary – and unsuccessful – aim is to make a saintly star of its heroine. Why does Margery’s “ugly crying” fail at making her a saint, whilst Kim’s “ugly crying” functions to underline, and re-inforce, her celebrity status?

This paper analyses the performative aspect of tears in the lives of the two women. Though separated by centuries, the pair are united in their explicit hunger for fame, and their dynamic bodily performances. Tears (bodily “evidence”) are not enough to cement Margery’s spiritual fame. The significance of her crying is at odds with the whims of the clerics around her. What’s more, she is known to us only through text, as text – a work which was co-created with various scribes and male collaborators. By contrast, Kim presents and re-presents her body on her own terms, at least some of the time. She has a secret weapon: the ability to produce her celebrity identity directly and through social media and carefully organized reality TV appearances. In other words, Kim acts as her own talent manager. With the hermeneutic of “ugly crying”, then, we tease out the various dynamics at play in the production of (celebrity/saintly) identity in the digital and medieval age.