On Wednesday 9th December, Dr. Laura Kalas, from the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing, and co-director of Swansea’s Medical Humanities Research Centre, launched her new book Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation and the Life Course in conversation with Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy (Professor Emerita of Medieval Literature at Swansea). The launch was hosted by Swansea’s Cultural Institute and chaired by the Institute director, Dr Elaine Canning. The book explores The Book of Margery Kempe – which is regarded as the earliest autobiographical text in the English language – from a medical humanities’ point of view, making Kalas’ study the first of its kind. Laura Kalas is a lecturer in Medieval Literature at Swansea University and has had her work published in multiple academic journals, and her work on Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine is her first book.
Kalas’ interest in Margery Kempe developed during her Masters studies in Canterbury. She regards Kempe as a relatable figure whose domesticated life as a wife and mother is highly realistic, yet she is specifically drawn to the “scribal complexity” and “layers of mediation” which foreground Margery within the text. Her “visceral and dramatic emotions” give her a voice within the highly patriarchal medieval society. Although other critics have been aggravated by Margery Kempe’s excessive emotions, it is evident that Laura Kalas approaches her from a feminist standpoint, seeing Kempe’s voice as the most prominent within her narrative.
During her conversation with Professor McAvoy, Kalas made reference to her own experience as a woman, discussing how her life had followed a similar route to Kempe’s as she found an intellectual voice in adulthood. She commented that “as women, our lives are often more shaped by our bodies and our families” … “our work and writing is necessarily inflected by these experiences whether we like it or not.” She regards Margery’s chastity vow and later life of piety as a harnessing of a post-reproductive life, which informed her reading of the text through a modern feminist lens.
Possibly the most fascinating discussion in Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine is Kalas’ groundbreaking deciphering of the recipe which has “puzzled scholars for decades” since the rediscovery of the manuscript in 1934. She was able to persuade the British Library to allow her to work closely with the manuscript for a day. She was granted two short sessions in the UV room in the hopes of uncovering the virtually illegible handwriting. However, it was her close study of Christina Duffy’s multi-spectral images of the recipe which uncovered almost all of the handwriting. Kalas’ transcription revealed ingredients including aniseed, fennel, nutmeg and ginger alongside sugar and cinnamon (the only two legible ingredients prior to Kalas’ discovery). She explained that the recipe was for ‘dragges’ – a medieval digestive consumed after a rich meal. The recipe reveals the importance of medico-religious culture in the Middle Ages, as body and soul could not be separated at the time; emphasising the context in which the book was being read and circulated.
Kalas’ innovative response to The Book of Margery Kempe provides a thoroughly insightful contemporary reading and is to be recommended to anyone interested in female authorship in the Middle Ages, medicalised hermeneutics and theology.
Laura Kalas’ book is now available to purchase from Boydell and Brewer