ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Human Side of God I: Women Mystics
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

General: 15th-Century Women Mystics

READ NA 13-4 followed by 355-6, 371-2 and 383. Know the approximate life spans of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe; when (approximately) their "visions" occurred, and when their respective texts were composed and written down (dates given in Norton). Note: as Margery was illiterate, the question is in her case more complex. Be aware of the historical relation to other works read this term. In what sort of language are Julian's Book of Showings and The Book of Margery Kempe written? (Rhymed verse, alliterative verse, prose?) Be sure to read introductions carefully; know how the excerpts we are reading fit into the whole text. Review the Wife of Bath's Prologue, particularly her emphasis on experience as an alternative form of "authority" and her comments concerning the misogynistic nature of scriptural tradition (auctoritas, the "authoritative" texts written about women by men with no direct experience either of marriage or of what it is to be female; see also Translatio). Keep in mind Alison of Bath's insistence on the "authority of experience" as you read about the mystical experiences of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (in texts written -- or at least composed and dictated -- by the women themselves).

Julian of Norwich's Book of Showings and The Book of Margery Kempe
[texts NA 372-82, 384-97, and supplemental Margery Kempe readings on e-reserve in the Library Resources section of Blackboard: .PDF file, 3 pp.).

The Showings of Julian of Norwich and The Book of Margery Kempe are not dream visions; rather, they are spiritual autobiographies recounting the actual dreams and visions of two female mystics. Does gender effect each woman's spiritual experience? What kind of visions does she have? In each case, when does the first vision occur? (What causes it?) What imagery and language used seems particularly relevant to a woman's experience? (consider e.g. "home-making," child-bearing, love between parent and child, love between spouses)

Margery has been a wife and mother; Julian is an Anchoress (a recluse nun). Where does each fit into the normal hierarchy of the "female estates"? How does Margery question that hierarchy? (Consider the statement in the Ancrene Wisse, PW 119, that by embracing Christ as a lover, a woman "regains" her "virginity"!) What is their respective attitude toward sexuality? (Consider also Julian's vision of the Virgin Mary.) Compare/contrast with the Wife of Bath. While the real and fictional women are obviously very different (e.g. in their attitudes toward and enjoyment of sex), do they have other things in common?

Julian was a learned woman, well-versed in scriptural traditions; Margery is illiterate. Yet despite these obvious differences, each seems to respect the other as an equal. What do the two have in common? (Consider what your editor calls "affective piety"-- see NA 356, 371, 383). Does Julian stress her knowledge of scripture? Are her visions more concerned with the intellect, or with the emotions? Consider, e.g., her imagery of a "homely" God (NA 374-6); of Jesus as mother (NA 378-82); and her understanding of God as "Love" (Christian spiritual love = caritas, or charity, NA 382; compare with Bk. 7 of the Ancrene Wisse). To what extent is this emphasis on love a typically "female" perspective? (Remember that in the writings of Saint Bernard, for example, the human soul -- anima in Latin, a grammatically feminine noun -- is represented as a woman who becomes the "bride of Christ"; see also translatio.)  Also note Julian's use of domestic imagery to describe her visions.

Similarly, Margery's mysticism is based not upon the intellect but on feelings: her visions are accompanied by fits of tears and crying, and she seems to want us to feel what Christ experienced (see the description of her Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, NA 388-9, especially the connection between Christ's "passion" and her "compassion"; her reaction to a Pietà sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son's body in her lap, NA 392-4; and her description of a vision of the Passion of Christ, NA 395-7). Can you see a connection between "affective piety" and the Wife of Bath's emphasis on experience over book learning? Do you see a possible connection between this sort of spirituality and the medieval reverence for the Virgin Mary?  Consider also the contrast between Margery's two "husbands": the mortal one with whom she must negotiate a pact of chastity (NA 385-6) and whom she nurses in his old age (NA 394-5), vs. her spiritual bridegrooom, Christ (NA 389-92).

What is the reaction of different forms of authority (Margery's mortal husband, the Church) to Margery's mystical experiences? How does the learned anchoress Julian react to her? (see .PDF file on e-reserve, taken from NA, 7th ed., pp. 371-2). What role does gender play in these reactions?  In the same .PDF file, note Margery's confrontation with the the Archbishop of York (NA, 7th ed., pp. 374-77). Why does she feel she can argue with the Church authorities? The Wife of Bath similarly argued for the validity of experience over scripture as a source of authority in certain realms of human existence. Compare/contrast Margery's and Alison's conflict with Church Authority. Who actually wrote Margery's Book? In her case, are "author" and "authority" identical? Is Chaucer's role analogous to that of Margery's scribe?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2010

Click here for Ancrene Wisse Study Questions

Click here for The Wife of Bath Study Questions

Click here for Hali Meidhad Study Questions

Click here for Seinte Margarete Study Questions

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