Gender, Authority and Dissent in English Mystical Writers Essay
Gender, Authority and Dissent in English Mystical Writers
The Book of Margery Kempe certainly provoked an intense amount of controversy, not least in the present but in her own time as well; a debate that centred on her position as a mystic. This position entailed having true knowledge of God, to work towards a union with him where they would essentially become one. Margery Kempe, at the very least views herself to be one of God’s vessels through which He can allow her to experience spiritual visions and feelings. It is in her book that Kempe conveys through words what she considered to be the most significant of these experiences, in order that those who read them would derive ‘great comfort and solace’. It is Kempe’s ‘individual and brilliant adaptation of what was originally a discipline for cloistered elites’1 that draws attention to her. Yet it is this individual voice, the style she uses, and her firm relationship with the market world that questions her experiences of higher contemplation.
Certainly Kempe does not conform to the solitary life of a conventional mystic, much like Richard Rolle’s statement of ‘running off’ into the woods, and at one point she is even “sorrowful and grieving” because she has no company. Yet she uses many of her interactions with others to confirm her position as a mystic. She visits the revered mystic Julian of Norwich to seek advice as to whether her visions were genuine or not (Chapter 18), and receives confirmation from Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Essentially what it has been suggested that Kempe experiences is a higher level of contemplation – positive mysticism. This was the search for God through human imagery, which ‘insists on the physical as a legitimate means of access to the spiritual’.2 Certainly one of the standard patterns in mystical experience were the feelings of love between the mystic and God which is often described as fire, hence Rolle’s ‘Incendium Amoris’. Kempe notes that there was an ‘unquenchable fire of love which burnt full sore in her soul’, and that Christ had set her soul ‘all on fire with love’. Thus the intensity of her visions can not be brought into question as ‘she certainly shares with [the tradition] a mystical sense of God at work in human experiences’.3
These human experiences included her own body, as she suffers illness and indulgences in self-mutilation, wearing a haircloth, fasting and even biting her hand so violently that she has to be tied down. However, the visions that Kempe experiences, as mystics viewed them as gifts, are not a product of studious praying and meditating. In most ways what she conveys is an imitation of what many female European mystics experienced, like Bridget of Sweden and Dorothy of Montou or Catherine of Siena. She seeks justification for her mystical standing by linking herself closely to others and, though illiterate receives much of her inspiration from such mystical texts as ‘Incendium Amoris’, ‘Stimulus Amoris’, and Walter Hilton’s ‘Scale of Perfection’. However, as Glasscoe has pointed out, her spiritual experiences were not an easy thing for Kempe to meditate on. Whereas Hilton focused on inner spiritual growth, Kempe can only explain her transcendence through what was familiar to her – the body.4 She even says that ‘sometimes, what she understood physically was to be understood spiritually’. Thus, whereas her visions may at many points seem extreme and even distasteful it does not necessarily mean that she was experiencing anything less than what is considered mystical.
What also inspires Kempe, whilst also bringing into question her status as a mystic is the fact that she was a woman who was firmly placed in the world. David Aers describes her as an independent businesswoman, who before her initial vision was active in the market economy, investing money, organising public work and employing men.5 Mysticism was overwhelmingly contemplative, and there was not much spoke about the ‘active life’, with the exception of Walter Hilton’s positive description of the ‘mixed life’. However instead of accepting that she is “too busy with worldly occupations that must be attended to’6, like Hilton proposed, Kempe integrates the economic world into her mysticism. Shelia Delany proposed that in her work ‘one is constantly aware of the cash nexus’.
7 This is true in the sense that Kempe even strikes a deal with Jesus, in the sense that he becomes the mediator between Kempe’s social responsibilities as a wife and her desire to lead the spiritual life. Through Christ’s help she can lead the chaste life by buying off her husband, hence paying off all his debts (Chapter 11. p.60). Atkinson, commented that what Kempe creates is a ‘God, who controlled the economy of salvation, [and] functioned as a great banker of a merchant prince”.8 Also Kempe’s drive for ‘more’ is also indicative of her market drive values, in the same sense that she sees that by giving charity to her fellow Christians she will receive in heaven ‘double reward’.
This unusual market driven line of thought is not the only factor that distinguishes her from her predecessors. Her style of writing is different and her visions are certainly unique. She actively takes part in many of the experiences, using speech, as Carol Coulson has suggested to inject herself into the holy narrative,9 even at one point acting as the handmaiden to God, and as a replacement to the biblical figure – Mary Magdalene. Her first vision is also very personal, and in some ways domesticated. Jesus is said to have appeared ‘in the likeness of a man…clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bedside’. The Incarnation is taken to the extreme, where her visions sometimes sit outside the historical moments of the Bible and become part of her own world.
Despite distancing herself by calling herself the ‘creature’ throughout the text many have accused her work of being self-absorbed – ‘I have told you before that you are a singular lover of God, and therefore you shall have a singular love in heaven, a singular reward and a singular honour’. Certainly her relations with God are very personal, and in many ways conveyed in sexual terms, as when Christ says to her ‘Daughter, you greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband’. However, again this ‘great pomp and pride’, is said to emerge from her experience as a female within an urban class which fostered within her a strong sense of class identity and self-value.10 A self-value that she never really agrees to give up, thus because she refuses to traditionally quieten the self, Kempe does not sit comfortably as a mystic.
Similarly she never really abandons her desire for worldly goods. She even admits in the first chapters that after her initial vision she refused to give up her worldly leisure’s, and still took delight in earthly things. This earthiness continues throughout the book. At one point she explains that she was embarrassed ‘because she was not dressed as she would have liked to have been for lack of money, and wishing to go about unrecognised until she could arrange a loan she held a handkerchief in front of her face’.
This embarrassment does not hold well with the lower stage of mysticism in which the visionary is to dispel themselves of all earthly matters so that their soul is open to heaven. Her mysticism is driven to accumulate. She refuses to ‘be content with the goods that God has sent her’, whilst ‘ever [desiring] more and more’. From God she can attain spiritual status, whilst through her (father’s) social position she maintains earthly standing, thus she is caught between two (masculine) worlds. As David Aers has noted the market world never really receives rebuke in her mystical world, in fact it remains a natural part of it.11 Yet to see her as the victim of a capitalist society is, as Glasscoe maintains, to ignore her avowed purpose.12
Yet it is hard to ignore the element of hysteria in her work. She certainly experiences the traditional mystical dilemma that her visions will never be truly conveyed to those who stand outside it, that ‘herself could never tell the grace that she felt, it was so heavenly, so high above her reason and her bodily wits…that she might never express it within her world like she felt it in her soul’. However her Gift of Tears, in which she cries ‘abundantly and violently’, break quite brutally this silence of contemplation. It may be however that her loud screams and cries convey her devotion and justify her higher state.
Certainly tradition showed that mystics ‘thought of themselves as vehicles for suffering and their broken voices and lacerated bodies reflected the stress under which they laboured’.13 Her crying brought attention to her being, even in her own time when crowds flocked to see her, becoming somewhat of a spectacle. These tears are almost a sign of her fertility in her contemplative life, and also justified in the Bible – Psalm cxxvi, 5-6 says that ‘they that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing…’ Her tears therefore, although extreme and lead many throughout her work to rebuke her, are essentially a sign of grace demonstrating that the Incarnation for Kempe was an ever-present reality.14
Ursula Peters suggested that female mystics, through mysticism “turned inward and [discovered] ways to describe their own experiences”.15 In fact the role Kempe plays as a woman is very important to her whole mystical experience, and in some ways may even bring it into question. In her experiences with God she plays the wife, the mother, the sister and the daughter. When her husbands exclaims that she is ‘no good wife’ it again demonstrates that Kempe struggled between two worlds, that of the spiritual and that of her family commitments. St Bernard once proclaimed that natural human feeling doesn’t have to be suppressed but channelled into God, and in some ways this is exactly what Kempe achieves. By using the idea that she is a holy vessel she is able to assert herself as a woman in the highly competitive world quite drastically. She refuses to abandon her personality and quite forcefully, hence her adamant desire to be chaste, asserts who she is. The Church even attempted to denounce her as a Lollard, which shows that she was a threatening (female) voice and the only way to quieten her was to denounce her as a heretic.
Rather than being a mystical treatise, The Book of Margery Kempe is a narrative account, almost a story, or even an autobiography as many have stated it to be, in which she attempts to adopt the contemplative ideal of piety.16 In fact it is more than mysticism, it is the experiences of a woman trying to find her voice in a masculine social world, and the only way that she can achieve this is through having spiritual authority. Certainly her devotion can not be questioned, and she can’t even predict herself when the intensity of Christ’s Passion will overwhelm her, be it ‘sometime in the church, sometime in the street, sometime in the chamber, sometime in the field’.
Yet her extreme metaphors and use of language certainly bring into doubt her status as a mystic. As Susan Dickman has suggested prayers and visions certainly occupy the text, yet they are embedded in a larger structure17, namely how she was ‘painfully drawn and steered, [her pilgrimage acting as a metaphor for her mystical journey] to enter the way of perfection’. Certainly ‘painfully’ is an apt description, leading many to criticise her as a charlatan, a ‘terrible hysteric’ and even one who was possessed by the devil. Yet this account is from a very independent and highly spirited woman, who although struggled with her identity and sought the higher state to explore that larger structure of herself through God, was deeply devoted to her faith. In the end her piety was very ordinary, it is her style of conveyance however, the lack of the abstract vocabulary of Julian of Norwich, Rolle and the Cloud author18 that brings her status as a mystic into controversy.
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1 C. Klapisch-Zuber, Silences of the Middle Ages (London 1992),160
2 J.Long., ‘Mysticism and hysteria: the histories of Margery Kempe and Anna O’, in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature, ed. R.Evans et al. (London, 1994),100
3 M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, 1993),268.
4 M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, 1993), 268.
5 D. Aers, Community, Gender and Individual Identity – English Writing 1360-1430 (London,
7 J.Long., ‘Mysticism and hysteria: the histories of Margery Kempe and Anna O’, in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature, ed. R.Evans et al. (London, 1994), 87-111
8 D. Aers, Community, Gender and Individual Identity – English Writing 1360-1430 (London, 1988),
10 D. Aers, Community, Gender and Individual Identity – English Writing 1360-1430 (London, 1988),115.
12 M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, 1993), 275.
13 C. Klapisch-Zuber, Silences of the Middle Ages (London 1992),446
14 M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, 1993), 276.
15 C. Klapisch-Zuber, Silences of the Middle Ages (London 1992),447
17 S. Dickman., ‘Margery Kempe and The English Devotional Tradition’, in The Medieval Mystical Tradition, ed. M. Glasscoe (Exeter, 1980), 156-172
18 M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, 1993), 272.
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