The Madwoman Of God: Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Playlist For Margery Kempe

With her new book, *Re-Sisters*, out this week, Cosey Fanni Tutti picks out the songs she would sync to an imaginary film about the fourteenth-century mystic and memoirist

“I’d stumbled upon Margery Kempe when I’d been rummaging through the second-hand section of a bookshop in King’s Lynn, the nearest town to where I live. I found a small, faded paperback book about the life of Margery, a visionary mystic born in King’s Lynn in 1373 who was persecuted for her unorthodox ways, travelled extensively abroad on pilgrimages, and fiercely defended herself when arrested and charged with heresy – no fewer than seven times. I bought the book and read it over the next few days, then went online to see the British Library’s digitised original version and translation. I was riveted by Margery’s life story, by what she’d done, the consequences of her queer behaviour, and how she’d made sure it was documented, leaving her mark on the world, with her recording, The Book of Margery Kempe. I thought that I wasn’t unlike Margery, with her being called the ‘Madwoman of God’ and me being denounced by a Member of Parliament as a ‘wrecker of civilisation’ – which continues to be used as a kind of badge of honour, often by way of introduction in articles, programmes or talks.”

In her new book, Re-Sisters, Cosey Fanni Tutti delves deeper into the life of Margery Kempe. The more she looks, the more she finds parallels with her own life and times. Meanwhile, as she was writing, she worked concurrently on the soundtrack to a new film by Caroline Catz, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes. As the book progresses, Delia, Margery and Cosey are drawn together, woven across time in a tightly-drawn braid.

Cosey’s Delia Derbyshire soundtrack, out in September via Conspiracy International, offers up a haunting suite of sinuous electronic tones that seem to drift in and out of the fabric of the real, like so many half-remembered fragments of a dream. But what of Margery Kempe? Were Cosey to be commissioned to compile the soundtrack to a film about the great fourteenth-century mystic, what would it sound like and who would be featured on it?

“From what is known of Margery Kempe through her own Book,” Cosey says, “her life was challenging to say the least so her story doesn’t lend itself to using overly jolly music when compiling tracks for a soundtrack to an imaginary film about her. The tracks I’ve chosen would not necessarily be used in their entirety but sections taken and placed throughout the film depending on how best they suited the different events and moods. The list is in no specific order.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir, ‘Elevation’

The sound of the cello is so emotionally expressive and calming. I find Hildur’s music meditative and it suits the moments when Margery is focussing inward when in her lengthy prayers. The shifts in mood suggest her struggles with her piety and how she’s being treated by society. I can envisage these sounds accompanying her as she goes about her day and her daily contemplations in St Margaret’s church.

Fever Ray, ‘If I Had a Heart’

Every time I hear this I’m transported back in time. It evokes a dark mood that’s disquieting, a sense of being adrift in the vast dark sea. The gentle rhythm makes me think of the oarsmen all pulling together – as would have been the case for Margery when she was aboard the galley on her journey to Jerusalem. Not only was she so afraid of drowning but also treated badly by the others on board ship and this track conjures images of her isolation amongst her tormentors.

Gregori Allegri, ‘Miserere’ (sung by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge & Timothy Brown)

I couldn’t not have some sacred choral music simply because it was the ‘sound of angels’ Margery wrote about in her Book that signaled her ‘calling’ and was instrumental in her changing her lifestyle. This mystical repentance and transformation chant is so apposite to Margery. As she sat in her local church, St Margarets, or in monasteries when on her travels, the monks would be at prayer and chanting, creating an atmosphere that was totally in harmony with her spiritual and pious self. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the utter beauty of these voices. They are irresistibly moving, emotionally arousing, transcending.

Anon., ‘Danse médiévale’ (performed by La Capella de Ministrers)

Alfonso X of Castile, ‘Cantiga 213 (from the Cantigas de Santa Maria)’ (performed by Vox Vulgaris)

When I was writing about Margery I wanted to get some idea of what music she would have heard. The first piece of music I chose here for some reason reminded me of Coil – or something they would have taken inspiration from. I could imagine Geoff’s vocal overtones melding so well. It also reminded of Delia’s ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sand’ and brought to mind her having studied medieval music at university. A perfect connection, centuries apart between her and Margery. The second section immediately conjured up images of the busy streets of market days in King’s Lynn, when there would be music and merry-making to celebrate a successful harvest and an abundance of goods for sale. Margery would be right in the midst of it all as she lived so close to where the traders and also the inns that served the many visitors.

Gazelle Twin & NYX, ‘Deep England’

There’s definitely a place – in fact many places – throughout a film about Margery for the musical sounds within this composition. It captures the deep ‘other’ haunting worldliness I associate with Margery’s feelings about religion and the social circumstances she struggled with and fought against. Like her own vocal intonations, the choral voices elicit a sense of the mystical as well as powerful inner strength.

Keeley Forsyth, ‘Look to Yourself’

When I heard this I thought of Margery’s feelings of being alone, being victimised, friendless, and having to rely on her inner strength and religion to get her through some harrowing times. Keeley’s voice gives a sense of digging deep into the self to externalise emotional pain, like talking to yourself to deal with the accumulation of overwhelmingly challenging situations – whether it’s Margery or anyone else. I think this would really work well for when Margery is enduring one of her numerous trials for heresy and feels she has no-one to support her. Margery chose to do what Keeley’s lyrics express so well. She looked to herself.

The Haxan Cloak, ‘Mara’

The traumas Margery went through, getting arrested and accused of being a heretic, were her darkest times. The dread and despair she felt when she was put on trial in Leicester was the worst of her trials when she faced the very real possibility of being burnt at the stake. The tone of ‘Mara’ would work perfectly in conveying her fear, desperation and state of mind as she tried to cope with the realisation that her fate had most likely already been decided. That descending sound at the beginning of the track is like a sinking sick feeling of awareness of the danger she was in, then the thumping rhythmic swing, the pounding of her heart and hellish sounds give the impression of the dire punishments that she knew may await her.

Lucrecia Dalt, ‘Seca’

So much of Margery’s story is about her thoughts, what she ‘hears’ in her head – whether it’s from God, the Virgin Mary, or other holy figures and saints, or just talking to herself – and how the many private communications impact on her daily life. This track ‘speaks’ of those moments when she retreats to the safety of her own ‘world’, trying to make sense of her earthly place, what is happening to her and what she must do next for the sake of her well being, self and soul. This track personifies Margery’s internalised world.

Ghedalia Tazartes, ‘Revient’

This is such a strange sound piece that would effectively portray the demonic voices Margery heard when she was in the throes of ‘madness’ after the birth of her first child. She was in spiritual and psychological torment for months, locked away in her room. The vocals could relate so well to her intense anxiety, self-harming, and miserable, agonising ordeal as she shifted from demonic possession to visions of God.

This Mortal Coil, ‘Song to the Siren’

I’ll be self-indulgent and include this, one of my most favourite songs of all time. Elizabeth’s incredible voice is so soulful and mesmerising and would be perfect to represent Margery’s heart-rending and all-consuming sensual and spiritual love of Christ. The lyrics can relate to Margery (not only her lustful temptations like the subject of the song) but her fire of love for him, and the ecstasy she experiences when she feels he and herself are as one. The gentle guitar and strings are timeless and the purity and beauty of Elizabeth’s voice is as alluring as the sirens she sings about.

Re-Sisters by Cosey Fanni Tutti is published by Faber

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