There are many interesting questions about the place of emotion in the academy and the ways in which researchers in the humanities identify with the people they study. At a recent conference in Oxford about the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, Rachel Moss – a lecturer in late medieval history at the university – decided to address them head‑on.
Because The Book of Margery Kempe is a rare example of an autobiographical text by a lay medieval woman, it has attracted increasing interest among feminist and other scholars, as shown by the recent creation of the Margery Kempe Society , which organised the Oxford conference. Moss’ presentation was titled “Falling in Love and Crying: Academic Culture and What Margery Can Teach Us”. She opened by admitting, “Margery is a character I found faintly embarrassing – if intriguing – as an undergraduate, and of whom I’ve grown ever-fonder as the years have passed.”
Part of the problem was “Margery’s fangirlish passion for Jesus and propensity to ugly-cry at the drop of a hat”, which the younger Moss (like many before her) tended to “dismiss as immature and irrational”. Yet she now sees her own attitude as “a reaction against the way women are caricatured, and like many young women I thought the antidote to that was to be rational, impartial, objective”. Perhaps, instead, Kempe could provide “inspiration for a radical reimagining of what it means to be a modern-day academic, one that centres our embodied existence, recognises and celebrates our shared human vulnerabilities, and isn’t afraid to shed a few tears”.
In developing her argument, Moss drew on an experience of illness when she had “cried the kind of gut-wrenching tears that I think of now when I read about Margery weeping her heart fit to burst”. When she was unable to carry out her examiner’s duties, she “felt guilty for dumping extra work on my colleagues, especially since I was – I hope accidentally – cc’d into a thread where much stress over reassigning my marking was expressed”. When she found herself spitting blood in the dorm room of a conference and was forced to take sick leave, she “still felt some shame about needing time off”.
All this, suggested Moss, was a reflection of an academic environment that “can not only ignore its employees’ lived – embodied – realities, but, even worse, make us feel we need to apologise for them”. Yet the truth, of course, is that when we go to work in laboratories and seminar rooms, “we don’t stop being human and become employees. We fall in love. We fall out of love. We make friends, and sometimes enemies. We cry: both because of things that happen at work, and because of things that are happening outside work.” Whether or not we need Margery Kempe to help us understand this, taking it seriously would be an important step towards “building a better, kinder, more honest academy”.