Margery and Juliana: Mystical Voices of the Fifteenth Century

Fifteenth Century Women

In fourteenth and fifteenth century England religious literature thrived, yet most notable are the mystical works of which many authors are women. Juliana of Norwich and Margery Kempe are two of these voices. While both women proclaim mystical messages, their methods differ. Where Juliana limits her expression to the accepted boundaries of what is considered proper behaviour for a woman of her time, Margery takes no heed of such limits, and shouts her message in churches and public meetings.

Foundations

 

Juliana’s spiritual awakening occurs at the age of 31 while extremely ill. Although already a religious woman, her illness adds an extra element to her devotion. Certain she is about to die, the curate is sent for, and she is encouraged to look upon his crucifix. Her vision begins to fail save for a “common light” on the cross, whereas around the cross everything “was oglye [ugly] and ferfull … occupied with fiends” (Juliana 298). Through a “working of God and not of kind[nature]” (Juliana 298), Juliana is cured.  Following this, she experiences more visions, or “showings”. Margery’s spiritual development comes about at a slower pace even though the nature of the crisis which leads to her first vision is far more violent than Juliana’s.

 

At a younger age than Juliana, Margery experiences her first vision. Through the trials of pregnancy and childbirth Margery succumbs to complications including postpartum depression which in medieval times went uncared for because of the belief in woman’s sin. Like Juliana, Margery “sent for hyr gostly fadyr” to confess her sin, but “hir confessour was a lytyl to hastye and gan scharply to undyrnemyn hir” (Kempe 369) which causes Margery to react violently whereupon, for her own protection and that of the household, her husband locks her up, and binds her. After several months of “madness” Margery is visited by Christ who “aperyed to hys creatur … syttyng upon hir beddys side” asking “’Dowtyr, why has thow forsakyn me, and I forsoke nevyr the?’” (Kempe 370). Immediately following this Margery is cured and takes her rightful place in the household. Her spiritual progression would wait, however, through thirteen more children and many years of typical middle class life with her husband.

 

Unlike Margery, Juliana elects to become an anchoress in St. Julian’s church in Norwich where she writes about and contemplates her mystical experience. Here she follows society’s expectations on how a religious woman should conduct a life devoted to God. Public preaching by a woman is forbidden, yet through her life of solitude Juliana “became quite famous, and was visited by many seeking spiritual comfort and advice, including Margery Kempe” (Pearsall 297). Unlike Juliana, when Margery focuses upon her spiritual side later in life, she refuses solitude, and will “bothe speke of hym [Christ] and heryn of hym” (Kempe 372). This behaviour proves to get her into trouble. She is often followed and investigated by the church, and accused, but never convicted, of being a Lollard. Further to this, and after the death of her husband, Margery travels around Europe, and to Jerusalem eventually returning home where she hires scribes to write out her revelations.

Margery Kempe. Image Credit: arizona.edu
Margery Kempe. Image Credit: arizona.edu
Pilgrimage of Margery Kempe to Jerusalem. Image credit: div.ed.ac.uk
Pilgrimage of Margery Kempe to Jerusalem. Image credit: div.ed.ac.uk

Their Writings

The writings of the two women differ in several ways. Juliana writes about her devotional life much earlier than Margery, and she a long and short version. The short version is the original, whereas the longer version was written later after Juliana had matured in her spiritual belief. The longer version reflects a less personal view because Juliana believed “that her visions would be more useful to others if they were less ‘her own’” (Pearsall 298). Unfortunately this also gives us less information on her actual history, and in fact we don’t even know her real name. Quite the reverse is found in Margery Kempe’s writings.

 

In Margery’s writings we are treated to a great deal of her personal, as well as devotional history. Even though Margery’s texts were not written by her, we get a more descriptive picture through the very personal details she includes about her husband, and her endeavours to become chaste following a devout path. She knows what makes a good story, and keeps her reader interested by tying her stories together in a pleasing manner.

 

While Juliana never crosses the societal or gender line, Margery becomes a thorn in the side of societal norms. She challenges gender lines, especially within the church, and becomes popular with women. Despite her atypical behaviour, Margery never encourages rebellion against the existing institutions, and remains true to the word of the New Testament.

 

Margery’s exuberance or lack of emotional objectivity in no manner affected the clarity of her thought process. The defence she mounts to the Archbishop of York is clear and bold, and demonstrates her strength of character. She proves herself through knowing “the Articles of feith” (Kempe 375), and boldly responds with her own accusation against the Archbishop when she is accused of being evil and wicked. When the Archbishop insists upon knowing what men have accused him, she is wise enough to not involve herself with particulars, and answers “other men, syr, can telle you wel anow” (Kempe 375). Clearly the Archbishop feels threatened by her and demands she not preach in his diocese , but Margery remains true to herself and her belief and refuses to agree. She ends the confrontation with a denial that she preaches, but only uses “comownycacyon [communication] and good wordys, and that wil I do whil I leve [live]” (Kempe 375).

Twentieth Century

Margery’s honesty and behaviour, while admirable, conspire to banish her from literary history until 1934. And even then “first reactions…were often hostile to this noisy and unaccommodating woman” (Pearsall 369). Not until the advent of feminist criticism is Margery recognised for her unique voice in the medieval age. Where Juliana may not be considered as unique as Margery, she has endured, and still has a following today. Her more soft-spoken, unemotional style, and desire to work within her accepted system has allowed her to weather the centuries.

Two spiritually passionate women, however different in their expression of that passion reach down through the ages and continue to influence through their writings – goals I’m sure they never dreamed of attaining.

Works Cited

 

Pearsall, Derek, ed. Chaucer To Spenser An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell publishers

Ltd., 1999.

     Juliana of Norwich. “The Revelations of Divine Love.” Pearsall 297-302.

     Kempe, Margery. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” Pearsall 396-76.

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Comments 3 comments

scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 6 years ago from South Wales

Excellent hub. Thank you for this information.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

I am more interested in the details of their lives than their writings, I'm afraid. Certainly you give enough here to ensure I'm grateful to be a twentieth century (and twenty-first) woman. It is amazing these woman survived the trials of their times, let alone became writers. Thanks for the information.


E. Nicolson profile image

E. Nicolson 6 years ago Author

Thank you, scarytaff. Appreciate the comment.

Thank you as well, Immartin. Such women really are a testament to feminine strength, and teach us to appreciate our own time.

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