The Pietà and the Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe

Pieta Markisches Museum Berlin

In chapter 60 of The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1436-8), Margery is in Norwich when she meets a lady who wishes to take her for dinner. ‘As honest wolde , sche went to the cherch ther the lady herd hir servyse, wher this creatur sey a fayr ymage of owr Lady clepyd a “pyte”’ (285) [As manners required, she went to the church where the lady heard services, where this creature saw a fair image of our Lady, called a ‘pity’].

The image that Margery encounters is a pietà, a representation of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, holding the dead body of Christ and weeping. The sight of this image stimulates a powerful emotional response in Margery:

And thorw the beholdyng of that pete hir mende was al holy ocupyed in the Passyon of owr Lord Jhesu Crist and in the compassyon of owr Lady, Seynt Mary, be whech sche was compellyd to cryyn ful lowde and wepyn ful sor, as thei sche schulde a deyd. Than came to hir the ladys preste seying, ‘Damsel, Jhesu is ded long sithyn.’ Whan hir crying was cesyd, sche seyd to the preste, ‘Sir, hys deth is a fresch to me as he had deyd this same day, and so me thynkyth it awt to be to yow and to alle Cristen pepil. We awt evyr to han mende of hys kendnes and evyr thynkyn of the dolful deth that he deyd for us.’ Than the good lady, heryng her communicacyon, seyd: ‘Ser, it is a good exampyl to me, and to other men also, the grace that God werkyth in hir sowle.’ And so the good lady was hir avoket and answeryd for hir. (The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Windeatt, p.286)

[And through beholding that pietà her mind was fully occupied in our Lord Jesus Christ’s Passion and in the compassion of our Lady, St Mary, by which she was compelled to cry very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she were going to die. Then the lady’s priest came to her, saying, ‘Madam, Jesus is long since dead.’ When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, ‘Sir, His death is as fresh to me as though He had died this very day, and I think it ought to be so to you and to all Christian people. We ought always to have in mind His kindness and always think about the doleful death that He died for us.’ Then the good lady, hearing their conversation, said, ‘Sir, it’s a good example to me, and to other people too, of the grace that God works in her soul.’ And so the good lady was her advocate and answered for her.]

Margery Kempe is seized (‘ocupyed’) by the passion of Christ and the sorrow of Mary and she cries ‘as thei sche schulde a deyd’. She imitates the emotional states presented by both Mary and Christ in the image, weeping (like Mary) as though she were to die (like Christ). The priest who witnesses her performance, however, questions its intensity, exclaiming that ‘Jhesu is ded long sithyn’ [Jesus is long since dead] but the good lady declares that it is a good example of the grace that God works in Margery’s soul.

This episode in The Book of Margery Kempe is the focus of my recent article on religious objects, such as the pietà and the crucifix, which I argue present an opportunity for devotional self-fashioning that was especially productive for laywomen such as Margery Kempe. Margery was a married mother of fourteen children who underwent a religious conversion and became a mystic, but she could not assert her piety and holiness in the traditional ways available to women in the period, that is, as a virgin, nun, or anchoress. Unlike men, who could fix a religious identity through the ritual of ordination, for laywomen with religious aspirations, the only option was, as Mary Suydam argues, to stage ‘continuous performances of extraordinary piety’ (p.179). Margery Kempe does this in a number ways. She wears white clothing as a sign of spiritual virginity, she goes on pilgrimage to the most sacred sites in medieval Christendom, talks publically about God and, with the help of her scribes, writes her Book. But she also uses devotional objects such as the pietà as an opportunity to perform her holiness and devotion in front of an audience.

When Margery sees the pietà, she embodies the emotional response depicted in the image, and this is precisely the point. The pietà teaches us to feel sorrow for Christ’s suffering and death by presenting us with the Virgin Mary as an example to emulate. Margery Kempe cries, just like the Virgin, and the good lady recognises that Margery is also a ‘good example’ worthy of emulation. The pietà was a popular and recognisable form in England and on the Continent at the beginning of the fifteenth century in a wide variety of media, from statues and wall paintings to stained-glass windows and Books of Hours. The image even inspired a small but significant group of poems in the planctus Mariae tradition that turn the pietà into a dramatic event in which the Virgin speaks and explains the meaning of her sorrow.

In one such lyric, the narrator comes across a weeping woman holding her son in her lap and the woman, who is of course Mary, declares: ‘who can not wepe, come lerne at me’ [who cannot weep, come learn from me]. At first the narrator says that he cannot weep because he is so ‘hard hertid’ [hard-hearted] but as a result of witnessing Mary’s sorrow, he suddenly sobs. Mary then varies the poem’s refrain and asserts ‘who cannot wepe may lerne at þee’ [who cannot weep, may learn from you]. The narrator has learned his lesson and now he has become an exemplar of sorrow for the reader in turn to emulate.

When Margery Kempe cries when she sees the pietà, she responds in a similar way but her tears spark a disagreement amongst her immediate audience: the priest thinks she is over-reacting but the good lady validates her exemplarity. Margery says that Christ’s death is ‘as fresch to me as he had deyd the same day’ [as fresh (recent and vivid) to me as though He had died this very day] and her tearful imitation of the pietà certainly makes the experiences of Christ and Mary freshly present in the fifteenth-century parish church. Writing of Margery’s copious tears in her Book, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that Margery’s weeping ‘signals her full bodily participation in events from the life of Christ.’ Margery ‘does not simply imitate Christ (imitatio Christi) but fully inhabits his world’ (p.166). When Margery weeps when she sees the pietà, she not only inhabits Christ’s world, she incarnates that world, with its sorrow and suffering, for all to see. And she argues for its continued relevance when she says to the priest that we should always have Christ’s kindness and ‘dolful deth’ [doleful death] in mind and this is confirmed by the annotator of the Book’s manuscript who has inscribed ‘nota’ next to ‘han mende’ [have in mind] in the margins.

In my article, I go on to suggest that Margery’s performance of her ‘extraordinary piety’, to return to Suydam’s phrase, establishes a relationship of mutual cooperation and validation with the good lady. This relationship bypasses the authority of the parish priest and transforms the sacred space of the church into a place of devotional female community that exists independently of ecclesiastical ministrations. After declaring Margery’s performance to be a good example, the lady becomes her ‘avoket’ [advocate], a word that encompasses protection and support, mediation and intercession (especially by Christ or the Virgin), as well as legal power (referring to a professional pleader in a court). This sets up a chain of imitation as Margery imitates the Virgin in her sorrow and the good lady imitates the Virgin, becoming an intercessor on Margery’s behalf and verbally supporting her embodied performance of the image’s meaning. Both the good lady and Margery are presented as more proficient readers than the priest, the good lady in her reading of Margery’s emotional response and Margery herself in her reaction of the pietà that makes the object’s meaning clear for all to see. And neither woman needs the priest in order to respond to the image devoutly.

In her work on religious art, Kathleen Kamerick argues precisely this, that ‘once painted or sculpted, an art object was open to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual perceptions of the individual beholder. Because they could be venerated or provide a focus for pious mediation with the immediate intermediary of priest, husband, confessor, or preacher, images granted women a unique freedom from male intercession in their religious activities’ (p.90). Margery Kempe’s encounter with the pietà allows her to stage a powerful performance of piety that operates outside male, ecclesiastical control and establishes a female devotional community with the good lady. The devotional object inspires a powerful devotional performance that is available for laywomen to emulate as they encounter the pietà in their local parish church.

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford.

This blogpost is based on my article ‘The Crucifix, the Pietà, and the Female Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 41.2 (2015), 208-237 [available open access here]


The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Barry Windeatt (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000).

The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

‘Who cannot Weep come Learn of Me’, in Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939 ), pp.17-18.


Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

Kathleen Kamerick, Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages: Image Worship and Idolatry in England 1350-1500 (New York: Palgrave, 2002)

Mary Suydam, ‘Beguine Textuality: Sacred Performances,’ in Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality, ed. Mary A. Suydam and Joanna Ziegler (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 169-210