Precedence for Margery of Kemp

Why was Margery of Kemp so gung-ho on being celibate? She had already committed to a marriage. Was she bipolar? She seems to be happy with her husband (in the sections of her work I have read). So where did the whole, chaste marriage idea come from?

I’ve wondered that for a while. Now I know.

Judith, Juliana, and Enlene in their heroic chastity resemble the late antique and Anglo-Saxon lives of women saints described in the Old English Martyrology (ca. AD 850), and Aelfric’s Lives of Saints (ca. 994-early 11th century). While many of these saints are not Anglo-Saxon and while their lives are translated into Old English from the Latin, nevertheless their popularity argues at least for strength of interest in them in this period: these women behave heroically by refusing to succumb to natural sexual desires conventionally associated with the female, because of their spiritual weapon of faith in God. … Although a group of twenty-two lies merely describes briefly the life, miracles, or faith of the female saint, a second group of thirty-four lives portrays this miles Christi as abjuring all contact either physical or spiritual with a usually lecherous and pagan assailant. Six of these lives concern a queen or wife who remains chaste within marriage, either miraculously or voluntarily, and in addition a few of these convert their husbands or assailants to the Christian faith. (55)

I always thought Margery’s husband was a nut. But if there was already an expectation of this sort of thing, then to be the husband of one of these saints might make you famous in your lifetime or near after and would probably help you in heaven and/or purgatory.

The quote is from Jane Chance’s Woman as Hero in Old English Literature Syracuse UP, 1986.

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