Thursday, March 2, 2017

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

That Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich -- two of the earliest known women writers in English, in a century where the vast majority of women knew nothing of books -- should have met one another is perhaps to be expected.  What is more remarkable, though, are the differences between them; Julian was an "anchoress," a sequestered woman who lived a holy life without ever leaving her monastic cell; Margery was a woman of the world, much more like the Wife of Bath, with children as well as a husband who took a rather dim view of her suddenly professing, in the middle way of life, her desire for a celibate life and self-made religious vows. Margery herself, as it happened, was illiterate -- but for a woman of means who could hire men both to read books to her, and to take down her own experiences, this was no obstacle.

Margery's experience was not unlike that of many contemporary women from the middle, and sometimes upper, classes.  Like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Christina Mirabilis, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Catherine of Siena -- all of whose lives she had heard read aloud to her -- Margery wanted to do more with her life than simply to be called "Madame" and be first in line at the offertory.  She'd had her children, tried her hand at business, and was ready for something entirely new.  In her Book, which survives only in one copy, she described how, when her confessor would not hear her about a matter of great anxiety, she suffered a sort of breakdown, trying to injure herself until restrained, and eventually falling into a weeks-long stupor (note that in her Book, she never uses her name, but only calls herself "this creature"):
And, whan sche had long ben labowrd in thes and many other temptacyons that men wend sche schuld nevyr a skapyd ne levyd, than on a tym, as sche lay aloone and hir kepars wer fro hir, owyr mercyful Lord Crist Jhesu, evyr to be trostyd, worshypd be hys name, nevyr forsakyng hys servawnt in tyme of nede, aperyd to hys creatur, whych had forsakyn hym, in lyknesse of a man, most semly, most bewtyuows, and most amyable that evyr mygth be seen wyth mannys eye, clad in a mantyl of purpyl sylke, syttyng upon hir beddys syde, lokyng upon hir wyth so blyssyd a chere that sche was strengthyd in alle hir spyritys, seyd to hir thes wordys: "Dowtyr, why hast thow forsakyn me, and I forsoke nevyr the?" And anoon, as he had seyd thes wordys, sche saw veryly how the eyr openyd as brygth as ony levyn, and he stey up into the eyr, not rygth hastyli and qwykly, but fayr and esly that sche mygth wel beholdyn hym in the eyr tyl it was closyd ageyn. And anoon the creature was stabelyd in hir wyttys and in hir reson as wel as evyr sche was beforn, and preyd hir husbond as so soon as he cam to hir that sche mygth have the keys of the botery to takyn hir mete and drynke as sche had don beforn.
Having recovered her "wyttys," and recalling her great vision of Christ, she soon informed her husband that she would no longer lie "in comown"with him, and asking his permission to take up a lay religious life.  After much cajoling, he relented, and Margery soon took to wearing a habit of her own designing, all of white.  In church, she would suddenly burst out weeping, to the great annoyance of her fellow parishioners -- but as she explained, it was only out of sympathy for Christ's great mercy.

We'll read of her many travels this week, including a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as a perilous time when she went to see Archibiship Arundel -- the very man who had promulgated the banning of the Bible in English! -- to seek his permission to carry on her religious life. He might very easily have had her arrested, as were many other religious women who identified as "Lollards" -- some of whom were burnt at the stake.  Instead, for reasons divine or otherwise, he granted her request.

Perhaps it was natural for Margery to seek spiritual sisters -- but, though in the Netherlands the Beguine movement welcomed lay women, there was no such lay order in England.  So she went to see Julian, and the two spoke "privily" (privately); no record is known of what they discussed.

Julian, who had at a young age been beset by visions, which she called "showings," never spoke or allowed any writings about them to circulate during her lifetime.  Two versions of her Shewings are extant, one a good deal longer than the other, which suggests some possible revision later in her life.  She espoused a number of novel ideas, including that of Jesus as Mother, and was perhaps best known for her lines, echoed by the great poet T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" (I give the original first, and then Eliot's paraphrase):
After this the Lord browte to my mynd the longyng that I had to Hym aforn. And I saw that nothyng letted me but synne, and so I beheld generally in us al. And methowte, if synne had not a ben, we should al a ben clene and like to our Lord as He made us. And thus, in my foly, aforn this tyme, often I wondrid whiby the gret forseyng wysdam of God the begynyng of synne was not lettid. For than, thowte me, al shuld a be wele. This steryng was mikel to forsakyn, and nevertheless mornyng and sorow I made therefor without reason and discretion. But Jesus, that in this vision enformid me of all that me nedyth, answerid by this word, and seyd: Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol: 
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well 
By the purification of the motive 
In the ground of our beseeching.

And yet, lovely as those lines -- and Julian's Showings -- are, it's hard to imagine what kind of life would be available to women today who, based on visions of a personal relationship with Christ, wished to lead a life as public religious figures. The film Household Saints -- extra points to anyone who watches it and writes a response -- suggests one possibility; but are there others?  The folk trio of Bock, Muir, and Trickett set the anchoress's words to music in their "Julian of Norwich," and Nick Cave wrote a song about "Christina the Astonishing" -- so perhaps these figures still speak to us today.  Do they to you?


  1. I found Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwhich very interesting. Neither one really speaks to me but, the writings of that time are understandable. Most woman I suppose Wed at that time and if they did not then they where looked at rather differently. The times have changed so much for woman that it is a matter of appreciating different points of view. No matter. I suppose it doesn't make it right, wrong or indifferent. Margery Kemp's writings were sad, very sad. Julian of Norwich seems to have been slightly dilusional. Honestly, I feel as though it was the repressive times that they lived in. Both woman, no matter the class, were repressed. They were repressed religiously and domestically. They did not have the choices woman have today, even though Margery may have had the means. I found both excerpts very sad, to be honest.

    Nick Cave's "Christina the Astonishing" was just plain wierd. I tried listening to the song, but to be honest, it was kinda creepy. Lots of poor and rich repressed woman..hmm pretty terrible.

  2. Household Saints was a great movie that depicts the changing times. From Generation to Generation we see such changes. Honestly, the movie is a glimpse of reality as to the choices that a woman might make. What I think is really important in this movie is Kathrine has to marry Joseph. Their daughter, Teresa, does not want to get married, she wants to become a nun. I think it is a great depiction of lives circumstance as Teresa falls in love instead. You just never know I suppose. I mean the mom was repressed but the daughter was not. Furthermore, does the daughter go on mad because she was not repressed? Make up and ending, if it were up to me, she would finish college and get

    1. I've always been struck by the thought that, had Teresa been living in the Middle Ages instead of the modern world, she might have become a sort of saint -- it's ironic that, at the end, the nuns who surround her have come to treat her for mental illness instead.

  3. That is sad. The whole movie is kind of creepy. The mother Kathrine is sold to the local butcher to be married because the father lost a card game. Very creepy movie.

  4. Reading the background of Julian of Norwich, then reading her Shewings, my initial feeling for her was pity. My modern mind felt that she was a prisoner of her visions. I mean, who am I to say if she did or did not have said visions, but she believed - really and truly - believed in these visions and that they were from Christ. And she modeled her whole life around them. I guess this would be considered a religious calling of the true sense. But then again, if this brought her peace in her life, and she was able to put those visions down on paper to tell her stories, maybe we should not pity but revere her for being a pioneer in her time.

    And I listened to "Julian of Norwich" and I could not get the vision of the movie "A Mighty Wind" out of my head. :) Folk music brings me back to my childhood when that is all my mother would listen to.

  5. She reminds me of Anne Hutchinson, Joan of arc and Mrs. Putnam. She made her own place in religion, in a sense, by telling her visions to people and sharing her personal experience, her connection to Christ and God, and that reminded me of the righteous Hutchinson. She had visions like Joan of Arc heard voices, they may not be about the same things but they both certainly believed in them. The trauma of mortality in childbirth reminded me of Putnam.

  6. Margery Kempe in the beginning of the story really annoyed me as a character however, her character development made me like her little bit. I just found it pleasing how she listened to Jesus and the holy people. Yet most importantly what I loved was how she grew spiritually but also grew as a better person.

  7. Starting out it was hard to like Margery Kempe. Her characteristics and the things she did/said made her very undesirable. But as the story progressed my outlook on her changed immensely. As she grew and developed her personality it made me like the story even more. I would love to do more research on her and find out the true depth of her position in religion.

  8. Margery Kempe makes me wonder what our society would be like if women were always viewed as similar to men. Would we have had more ancient authors that were women? Would we have had more Cleopatras, more Queen Elizabeths, and more influential women in history? I like to think so. Even so, this story does seem to yield to male privilege, as it seems to highlight how different and seemingly misplaced Margery is.

  9. Whenever I read works that touch upon "visions" I can't help but wonder if the so called visions are actually just the results of different mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The only time in history that I have trouble diagnosing this is with Joan of arc, who also had visions that resulted in winning battles. Personally I'm not much of a fan of Margery, as I find her to be a but annoying and melodramatic.

  10. Neither Margery Kempe or Julian of Norwich really spoke to me on a personal level. I found some of the writings in this to be extremely sad and a little "melodramatic" as Heather said. But still sad nonetheless.

  11. The movie Household Saints accurately displayed how the times have changed and how women’s choices are not the what they may have been earlier times. What stood out in the movie was, as Erin had said, that Katherine was forced into marriage with Joseph despite her wishes to become a nun. In today’s times, if a woman wants to become a nun in her family, then she is more than welcome too (depending on the family values.) In regards to Julian, it was hard not to see being a prisoner of her visions. Her life was controlled. Her life was truly built around her religious views, however this was a life she herself chose.

  12. A major theme in The Book of Margery Kempe is the importance of suffering for Christ. Kempe's tears symbolize and connects her suffering with that of Christ. Kempe's "visions" seem extremely difficult for her to deal with which is why Julian is used as a spiritual guide in helping Kempe. Kempe's worrisome self is balanced by the soft spoken words of Julian, who also devotes her life to Christ.
    Kempe going mad over her visions seems like she might have had mental health issues that obviously were not seen that way during that time.