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Margery Kempe's white clothes.

When Margery Kempe protested Christ's command to wear white clothing, |yf I go arayd on oper maner pan oper chast women don, I drede pat pe pepyl wyl slawndyr me', she was noting that |oper chast women', that is women vowed to chastity, although their clothing signalled their vocation, did not wear white.(1) That Margery was both using a recognized classification (|chaste women') and alluding to a familiar costume, is suggested by a stage direction in the Digby Mag Magdalen: |Here xall entyr pe thre Mariis arayyd as chast women ...'. The play is from Margery's region: its language has been called |distinctly East Anglian with obvious Norfolk features'; it dates from the end of the fifteenth century, perhaps about fifty years after Margery's death.(2)

The vow of chastity was taken, for the most part, by widows, and was ratified by clothing with the mande and ring at an episcopal or abbatial ceremony.(3) That this public vow was also taken by married women (and occasionally unmarried ones)(4) is shown by Margery's formal request to receive the mantle and ring, and by Bishop Philip Repingdon's consideration of her request. Strictly speaking, the clothing which accompanied this vow -- not only the mantle and ring, but also the veil and wimple -- did not signal widowhood, or even vowed widowhood, as many commentators have suggested, but vowed chastity in a lay state. Visually, however, this distinction was not so easily made, either then or now.(5)

This female vow of chastity was a thoroughly familiar phenomenon to Bishop Repingdon (1405-19), as several instances from his Lincoln episcopal register illustrate. Between 1416 and 1419 he four times extended the commission to veil to an abbot or suffragan. In two of these instances Repingdon ordered an examination of the woman involved to determine the request's appropriateness.(6) This cautious and correct procedure is reflected, in Margery's case, by the delay of several days between her request and his response, and by the bishop's subsequent comment, |I haue take my cownsel'.

Margery asked Biship Repingdon, sometime after 23 June 1413, |pat 3e schal 3yue me pe mantyl & pe ryng & clothyn me al in whygth clothys'.(7) She was here requesting two things: to make a public vow of chistity, in recognized fashion, and to be visually differentiated from other such vowed women.

A substantial number of pontificals contain the ordo for the vow of chastity (often called benedictio vidue). In London, British library, MS Lansdowne 451, a fourteenth-century manuscript, the rubric directs that the candidate shall approach the bishop in her accustomed clothing, carrying with her some dark clothing and holding the veil (|veniat illa in veste consueta, portans secum alias vestes fuscas cum lintheamine capitis', f. 75). A miniature illustrating this service is contained in the pontifical of Richard Clifford, Bishop of Worcester 1402-7, of London 1407-21 (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 79). Describing this vignette, its editor says: |At the Benedictio Viduae, the Vowess in a blue dress with white hood [presumably, in veste consueta] and carrying a brown dress and a white veil on her right arm (vestes fuscas cum lintheamine capitis) is kneeling before the bishop.'(8) Contemporary sources thus indicate that dark clothing would have been read by Margery's society as signalling the vow of chastity, taken usually by a wife or widow.

What, then, were the public occasions on which women wore white? Two are significant here. When nuns vowed, some profession rubrics, though not all, specified that they should initially appear clothed in white, previous to donning the habit (which was generally not white).(9) And of course women wore white at the marriage ceremony. Rene Metz sees the nun's profession, in fact, as developing from the bridal rite, the religious spousal adapting secular ceremony as early as the tenth century.(10) In both these rituals, however, white garments have the same meaning: they assert the woman's virginity. Such a public symbolic statement of virginity may have been in Archbishop of York Henry Bowet's mind when he later asked Margery: |Why gost pu in white? Art pu a mayden?'(11)

Hence when Margery asked to be given the mande and ring and to be clothed in white, she was requesting a significant alteration in a familiar pattern. That this was Repingdon's understanding is shown from his reply, |my cownsel wyl not 3yf me to professe 3ow in so synguler a clothyng wyth-owtyn bettyr avysement' (italics mine).(12) This answer does not address the matter of vowed chastity for the married, for which precedents existed, and on which the bishop had secured John Kempe's formal consent.(13) It speaks rather to Margery's request for visual designation as unique: a woman vowed to chastity, but wearing the garments of symbolic virginity.

Whether the request was unprecedented enough to evoke this sincere response, or whether the response should be considered merely a pretext, concealing other concerns, is difficult to say. For Repingdon's subsequent attempt to shift the problem of legitimation to his administrative superior, the Archbishop of Canterbury, precedents exist in the records of women vowed outside their own dioceses thanks to episcopal licence (for instance, William Heyworth, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, commissioned Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham, to receive Helen Urmeston's 1436 vow, though she lived in Westleigh, Lancashire, in Heyworth's diocese).(14)

The scriptural passage with which Margery reproved the bishop is significant. In her prophetic role Christ commanded her to tell Repingdon: |I xuld as wel han excusyd hym 3yf he had fulfyllyd pi wyl as I dede pe chyldren of Israel whan I bad hem borwe pe goodys of pe pepyl of Egypt & gon a-wey [perwyth.'(15) In Exodus iii.21-2 God says of the Israelites: |I will give this people such prestige in the eyes of the Egyptians that when you go [out of Egypt], you will not go empty-handed. Every woman will ask her neighbor and the woman who is staying in her house for silver ornaments and gold. With these you will adorn your sons and daughters; you will plunder the Egyptians'.(16)

The implication is double: that Margery is to be equated with God's chosen people and that her request is, like theirs, actually intended to produce wonder and admiration in matters of dress. Both requests might be viewed as self-aggrandizing from a worldly point of view, but are apparently made in order to designate God's favour publicly. Thus they are legitimated by the suppliant's special relation with the divine. Margery's citation of this passage suggests that it is Repingdon's refusal of white clothing she rebukes -- white clothing which, like the |borrowed' Egyptian ornaments she might not be entitled to from a customary (or legalistic) point of view, but which a deeper insight would have granted.

Margery's invocation of Exodus indicates, in addition, that she viewed the clothing as a source of prestige and an adornment, like the silver and gold ornaments. This meaning is further emphasized by a vision which she received after clothing herself in Rome. The metaphor with which Christ signalled his approval is significant, since as a result of her weeping, and perhaps also her adoption of the white clothes, she had just been ejected from St Thomas's hospice. Christ said: |I far liche a man pat louyth wel hys wyfe, pe mor enuye pat men han to hir pe bettyr he wyl arayn hir in despite of hir enmys. & ryth so, dowtyr, xal I faryn wyth pe.'(17) Margery's dress thus expresses her divine spouse's wish to distinguish her, and this divine intention is a problematic, even a provocative one. Both the metaphors of Egyptian jewellery and of wifely clothing undermine conventional ideas of justice, and substitute a privileged intimacy which transcends rule.

Hope Emily Allen noted that the white garments' symbolic meaning is complex, and that in addition to the obvious suggestion of virginity the notions of martyrdom, of remission of sins, and of the clothing of heaven are present.(18) It is this last meaning, with its implicit claim to the perfection of holiness, that fits most readily with these notes of transcendent designation, and of scandal. This meaning also underlies Margery's initial fear that she will be called a hypocrite for wearing white, and the judgement of an English priest in Rome that |sche weryd white clothyng mor pan oper dedyn whech wer holyar & bettyr pan euyr was sche as hym thowt'.(19)

Whether Margery ever received the mantle and ring and was publicly vowed is highly doubtful. Allen discusses the textual evidence for and against,(20) suggesting that Margery's marriage-ring to Jesus Christ, because of its origin in divine revelation, was probably not |the ring assumed with the mantle', and noting that Margery's white clothing, received later in Norwich, did not include a mantle. Margery's statement(21) that she and John Kempe had mutually vowed to live chaste would then indicate a private promise. Allen concludes |possibly Margery's white clothing displaced the symbols of a vowess': indeed this displacement substituted the clothing of a more elevated state for that of a less elevated one.

The gradual adoption of white clothes coincides with the central period of change and redefinition in Margery's life. This four-year passage began with Christ's commands to go on pilgrimage and to wear white in 1411, commands which Margery resisted. Her difficulty in accepting the clothing's implications has been noted above. The period's mid-point might be considered the promise of chaste marriage in June 1413, the subsequent blocked attempt to be recognized publicly as a vowess that summer, and the departure for the Holy Land in the autumn of 1413. At Rome sometime after 1 August 1414, Margery clothed herself in response to a second command -- though the wearing of white abroad, in what may be seen as a trial period, was interrupted and sporadic owing to conflicting spiritual advice. The final resolution came on 25 May 1415, when, supported at home by a Norwich layman who commissioned the garments, she clothed herself again. On Trinity Sunday, Patrons' Day in Norwich Cathedral, she presented that completed personal formulation to the judgement of her society by receiving communion in white.

These exploratory efforts at shaping her spirituality, though marked initially by doubt and compromise, in the end moved beyond rapprochement with clerical authority (Repingdon, the English priest in Rome) to accept only the authority of her visions and her own understanding of them. Both meanings which inhere in the white clothes -- spiritual virginity and spiritual validation -- imply claims which transgress familiar categories, and which can only be countenanced if seen as divinely authorized. Spiritually, Margery chose to remain a source of division and a scandal, in large part through her insistent redeployment of the socially accepted symbolism of clothing.


(1) The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. by S. B. Meech and H. E. Allen, EETS, os, 212 (London, 1940), p. 32 (hereafter Book) p. 32. I was stimulated to think more about the significance of Margery Kempe's clothing by Dyan Elliott's essay, |Dress as mediator between inner and outer self: the pious matron of the High and later Middle Ages', Mediaeval Studies, LIII (1991), 279-308. Gunnel Cleve has recently argued that Margery's white clothes constituted a means of spiritual progress, as well as a sign of it, because of the opprobrium to which they exposed her: Gunnel Cleve, |Semantic dimensions in Margery Kempe's "whyght clothys"', Mystics Quarterly, XII (1986), 162-70. Karma Lochrie connects Christ's command to wear white and Margery's mistreatment while on pilgrimage, when she is forced to wear the fool's white canvas clothing. |In effect Christ makes her his fool by demanding that she dress in white ... It is as Christ's bride that Kempe accepts the vocation of holy fool': Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia, Pa, 1991), p. 160. (2) The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and e Museo 160, ed. by Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy, and Louis B. Hall Jr, EETS, ES, 283 (Oxford, 1982), pp. xxxvi, xl. The direction appears between lines 992 and 993. (3) Four nineteenth-century essays have provided the foundation for all subsequent work on vowed women: (1) Charles Henry Cooper, |The vow of widowhood of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby...', Antiquarian Communications... of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, I (1859), 71-9; (2) Francis Joseph Baugent, |Thomas Burgh and Isabella his wife with a few words on the benediction of widows', Surrey Archaeological Collections, III (1865), 209-19; (3) Henry Harrod, |On the mantle and the ring of widowhood', Archaeologia, XL (1866), 307-10; (4) J. L. Andre, |Widows and vowesses', Archaeological Journal, XLIX (1892), 69-82. (4) Married women who vowed chastity in Margery's period included the much-cited Emma Cheyne, anchoress of St Peter Cornhill, London, who received a 1449 royal pension on the death of her husband, William Cheyne, recluse of Bury St Edmunds. Her vow of chastity twenty-two years earlier is noted: Calendar of the Patent Rolls ... Henry VI, Vol V: AD 1446-1452 (London, 1909), p. 304 The entry was discovered by Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, 1914). Elizabeth de Holm vowed chastity in 1447, and in 1451 the papal chancery mandated the abbot of St Mary's, York to dispense her husband, Peter Perce, of his marital vows and admit him to priest's orders: Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers ... Vol X: 1447-1455, ed. by J. A. Twemlow (London, 1915), p. 212. Alice Hampton, whose 1516 will (London, Guildhall Library, MS 9171/9, f. [5.sup.v]) identifies her as a vowess, was unmarried to judge by her use of the same surname as her father John ([dagger]c. 1461), whose heir she was. See N. M. Herbert, |Minchinhampton', in Victoria County History: Gloucester, Vol. XI (Oxford, 1976), pp. 192-3; also C. L. Davis, Monumental Brasses of Gloucestershire (Gloucester, 1899), pp. 110-13. (5) Even memorial brasses, the best source of visual information on this form of clothing, in the absence of an identifying inscription do not make clear the distinction between widows' and vowed women's costume. What may be the earliest extant vowess's brass, that of Philippa Ferrers ([dagger] 1384), is at Necton (Norfolk). The widow of Sir Grey de Beauchamp, she vowed 11 August 1360, before Reginald Bryan, bishop of Worcester, in the collegiate church of Warvick. The brass is engraved in C. G. R. Birch, |On certain brasses at Necton & Great Cresingham', Norfolk Archaeology, XII (1895), 298-303; see also Wiliam Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire (London, 1730) pp. 319, (6) The Register of Bishop Philip Repingdon, 1405-1419, ed. by Margaret Archer, 3 vols., Lincoln Record Society, Vol. III: 74 (Lincoln, 1982), pp. 141, 143, 261, 272. (7) Book, p. 34. (8) Liber Pontificalis Chr. Bainbridge Archiepiscopi Eboracensis, Surtees Society, 61 (Edinburgh, 1875), p. xl. The miniature from MS CCCC 79 is reproduced in Pontifical Services Illustrated from Miniatures ..., ed. by Walter Howard Frere, Alcuin Club Collections, 4:2 (London, 1901), fig. 17. (9) The Barking ordinal (presented to the abbey 1404) allows both virgins and widows who wish to take nun's vows to be dressed in white (|induta uestibus albis et capite discooperto'): see The Ordinale and Customary of the Benedictine Nuns of Barking Abbey (University College Oxford MS 169), ed. by J. B. L. Tolhurst, 2 vols., Henry Bradshaw Society, 65, 66 (London, 1927-8), II, 353. The Barking evidence might thus suggest that other women besides Margery were able to elide social categories, since widows would here be permitted the virginal white. An early sixteenth-century manuscript order for the consecration of nuns given by Bishop Richard Fox to the Benedictine nuns of St Mary's, Winchester (Cambridge University Library, MS Mm. 3.13), refers to |the sayde virgyns ... every oon of theym clothed all in whyte, and beryng vppon hir ryght arme, the habite...': Monumenta Ritualia Ecclesiae Anglicanae, ed. by William Maskell, 3 vols. (London, 1846-7), II, 307-31 (p. 309). On the other hand, Brigittine nuns professing at Syon wore their ordinary clothes: |in ther own arayment that they vsed in the worlde, and not in borrowed gere' (The Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure, Vol. IV: The Syon Additions for the Sisters from the British Library MS. Arundel 146, ed. by James Hogg (Salzburg, 1980), p. 90). (10) |La couronne et l'anneau dans la consecration des vierges', in La Femme et l'enfant dans le droit canonique medieval (London, 1985), pp. 113-32. (11) Book, p. 124. (12) Ibid, p. 35. (13) John Kempe had likewise to vow: "|3a, my Lord," he seyd, "& in tokyn pat we bopen vowyn to leue chast her I offyr myn handys in-to 3owyr," & he put hys handys be-twen pe Bysshoppys handys' (ibid., p. 34). (14) The Register of Thomas Langley, Bishop of Darham 1406-1437, ed. by R. L. Storey, Vol. IV, Surtees Society, 170 (Durham, 1961), p. 199. (15) Book, p. 35. (16) The Jerusalem Bible (New York, 1966). (17) Book, p. 81. (18) Ibid., p. 273. In the passage on the three cushions (ibid., pp. 210-11) Margery associates the gold cushion with the Father's power, the red velvet one with the Son's redemptive blood, and the white silk one with the Holy Ghost's |holy thowtys & chastite'. This suggests that Margery does not fink white with martyrdom, despite the symbolism of Revelation vii. 14-15, describing the elect who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. (19) Ibid., p. 84. Clarissa W. Atkinson points out that Marie d'Oignies, whose life influenced Margery's in several ways, wore a white woollen coat and mantle: Clarissa W. Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: the Book and the World of Margery Kempe (Ithaca, NY, 1983), p. 33. The symbolic meaning of Marie's garments seems, however, unlike Margery's, to centre on simplicity or humility. In the Middle English translation of Jacques de Vitry's Life contained in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 114, Marie |chargyd not of outewarde araye ... she hadde a white wollen cote, 7 a mauntel of the same coloure, wip-outen any skynnes or furrur, not vnknowynge pat oure lorde couerde [Adam and Eve] with lethren cotes': C. Horstmann, |Prosalegenden', Anglia, VIII (1885), 102-96 (p. 147). (20) Book, p. 297. (21) Ibid, p. 179.
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Author:Erler, Mary C.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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