Although short, Jonathan Hsy’s “’Be more strange and bold’: Kissing Lepers and Female Same-Sex Desire in The Book of Margery Kempe” is an interesting introduction to queer identity in The Book of Margery Kempe. Hsy argues, or rather “examines,” chapter 74 of the narrative when Kempe asks permission to kiss lepers and is only given permission to kiss female lepers. According to Hsy, this chapter evaluates Margery’s legal and objective status as a married woman as she is only given permission to have “illicit contact” with women, and continues a tradition of association between leprosy and lechery (190). These particular observations are explicit within the narrative, but Hsy goes on to comment on the text’s conflation of desire, and contagion. As Margery kisses these women, she “elicits erotic desires in the leper in this moment, and further posit that this woman’s unarticulated desire—like leprosy—might be conceived as contagious” (192).
The conflation of contagion and desire, and lechery and leprosy is also potentially dangerous for the reader, and premodern annotations of the text indicate that this passage was of particular embarrassment or concern (193). Annotations for this chapter ask readers to be “more strange & bold” against a potential “gostly enmy,” revealing an attempt to divert attention from this chapter for fear of contagious desire (193).
Analysis of historical reader response has always struck me as a foolish endeavor. Who is ever to say how an audience with different cultural values reacted to a text in a society where literacy was rare. But, Hsy’s analysis extrapolates reader response from textual evidence, and later annotations. For this reason, I consider Hsy’s conclusion reasonable. Kempe values her chastity, and her pseudo, spiritual marriage to her faith and God over her identity as a mother and wife, a literary trope reflected in many of the married religious martyrs who choose chastity over societal roles, and female saints whose martyrdom is based on their ability to deflect and protect themselves from unwanted sexual advances, or their role as wives and mothers. Instead, Hsy reads Kempe’s vows of chastity and treatment of female lepers as a reflection of queer identity.
Hsy’s analysis of this chapter, and Kempe, is fascinating because it initially seems obvious, yet it is not something I considered after the short section I read. As I read Hsy’s piece, I was reminded of the narratives of Judith, St. Eugenia and St. Euphrosyne. Saints that not only rejected their socially binding roles but rejected social expectations of femininity. In future works on Kempe and queer identity, it would be interesting to look into the readership and how texts that celebrate female transgression of social roles prepared readers for or contributed to the Kempe narrative.