The Boke of Margery Kempe (composed ca. 1436-38) (MS ca. 1445, ed. prin. 1501/1940) and the Book of Showings of Julian of Norwich (ca. 1390) (ed. prin., 1670)

Genre:   The Boke of Margery Kempe sometimes is described as spiritual autobiography, but she probably thought of it as a defense of her unusual way of life rather than a meditation.  She does record details of her "profane" life as well as visions and testimony from her sacred life, however, she is not an "autobiographer" or "travel writer" in the modern sense.  (See Sue Ellen Holbrook, "'About Her': Margery Kempe's Book of Feeling and Working" in The Idea of Medieval Literature, Ed. James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher [Newark: U Delaware P, 1992] 265-84.)  She calls herself "unlettered," but this may mean only that she could not read or write Latin.  Based on the structure and rhetoric of the text, many critics think she did not "write" it herself, but used three more scribes to compose her oral record of her life.  Julian's Book of Showings is more narrowly focused as a spiritual autobiography which she revised once and reissued in the form from which the Norton excerpts are reprinted.  Scholars generally believe Julian was literate in vernacular Middle English, and she may have been able to read Latin.  In addition to these texts' origins on the edge of literate experience from authors known to be women, both texts raise interesting questions of authority, since in each instance the author describes supernatural events which they claim come to them from God.   In effect, they are taking dictation from the deity, but they also exercise their interpretive abilities to make sense of these extraordinary experiences.  Margery, especially, narrates like a historian as she records her travels to the Holy Land and her interrogation by the Archbishop of York.  The Norton 8th Edition mysteriously omits Margery's spirited public defense of her write to speak openly about God when the Archbishop's clerks charge her with being a Lollard heretic.  Click here to read the passage.  Click here to see an outline of her whole book.  Click here for access to Lynne Staley's scholarly edition of the whole book in Margery's Middle English.

Characters:   Margery's most important characters are herself, the visionary figures which come to her (esp. Jesus); her husband, John; the travelers she meets on her pilgrimages; and the Archbishop of York, a forbidding but finally remarkably humane figure.

Julian's book focuses almost exclusively upon her consciousness and the visions which appear to it. If you believe what she tells you, God is a character in her narrative.  Because she was an anchoress, a woman who retreated to a life of spiritual contemplation in a tiny room attached to the outer wall of the Church of St. Julian, she had almost no contact with any member of the outside world, apparently for most of her adult life.

Plot Summary:

Margery, born in 1373 around the time Chaucer was writing his first major works,  was raised the daughter of a wealthy Norfolk family and married well to a local businessman.  A traumatic childbirth, complicated by a failed confession, left her raving in madness.  This illness (Cf. Julian) was ended by a vision which left her calm and happy.  After fourteen children and a failed beer-brewing business, she apparently reached a crisis in her life.  She began to experience frequent visions of Jesus and other figures from the New Testament.  She also began to cry, convulsively and loudly, when possessed by the direct physical awareness of the divine passion.  People began to shun her, thinking her either mad or a Lollard heretic (follower of John Wyclif).  She forced her husband to accept a celibate marriage, and began a series of pilgrimages pursuing her visions.  These led her into conflict with the church authorities, and she had to undergo interrogations upon her faith by the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of York.  She also met and discussed her visions with Julian of Norwich At some time near her sixtieth year (c. 1433), she began to try to collect her experiences into a single manuscript, but she never mentions trying to learn to read or write.  She did not begin composition until she found a scribe, which suggests strongly that she was illiterate.  She first began with a scribe whose English was heavily influenced by German, but he died.  She brought that text to another priest, but he describes it as illegible, more German than English and written in characters he could not read (also suggesting Margery was unable to detect this).  With her help, he was more successful in transcribing and adding to the first manuscript, and this is the source of the unique surviving manuscript of Margery's book. 

To read the entire TEAMS text of her book, edited by Lynn Staley, and annotated by Virginia Raguin and Sarah Stanbury, the "Mapping Margery Kempe" editors, click here.

Julian's autobiography is almost exclusively taken up with recounting and explaining powerful mental/spiritual events which happened to her on May 13, 1373.  A sequence of sixteen events, which she describes as unmediated experiences of the divine, caused her to work, apparently for the rest of her life, to appreciate and understand them.  Other ordinary experiences hardly leave a trace on her experience, which is understandable given her way of life.  Anchorites (males) and anchoresses threw themselves entirely upon the charity of the community, rejecting all contact except food and water passed into the cell through a small opening, and the sacraments performed by a priest at necessary intervals.  Though this sounds like an imprisonment, pure and simple, the men and women who sought this state often appear to have had genuine personal reasons for seeking complete meditative seclusion from the culture of their times.

Issues and general research sources:

  1. Of course, the big one for the modern student in both cases: are these visions real or are they "symptoms" of madness, hallucinations imperfectly understood, or even demonic possession?  All of these explanations occurred to Margery Kempe's friends and neighbors.  Before we dismiss the first possibility (reality) and begin diagnosing post-partum depression, bipolar disorder (or whatever the DSM calls it today), or ergotism (an LSD-like experience produced by ergot, a fungus on rye seed), the texts themselves demand a fair hearing for the writers' humanity, openness, and freedom from trivial ambition.  For instance, Julian's understanding of the deity's relationship with the created universe, which he places in her hand as the "little thing, the quantity of an hazelnut" (358), is not the power-mad raving of someone out to claim egotistical superiority to others' knowledge.  It affects her with the most profoundly tender sense of the fragility of all that is, and gives her a sense of the smallness of things that only recent photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope can produce in the modern scientific imagination.  (For a montage of the Hubble zooming in on a gas cloud named "M16" in which stars are being born, a zoom that ends looking at an appendage of the cloud which is large enough to hold our entire solar system, click here. )
  2. Nearly as important, and probably easier to answer if you're not a Philosophy and Religion major, is the question of how to evaluate Margery Kempe's story in the light of feminist criticism.Note that her "sins of pride" often involved her fancy dress, as well as her insistence upon trying to become a brewer (one of the crafts open to women by tradition).  
  3. One of Margery's first attempts to express her independence from her marriage was her venture into starting a brewery.  Though many occupations were closed to women, some were open to both women and men, like lace-making, book-binding, and brewing.  For a general study of English women brewers and their roles in community life, see Judith M. Bennett's Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996) and her more focused, article-length study, "Women and Men In the Brewers' Gild of London, ca. 1420" in The Salt of Common Life: Individuality and Choice in the Medieval Town, Countryside, and Church: Essays Presented to J. Ambrose Raftis, (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1995) 181-32.  [Use my copy.]  How do you understand her position as a married woman using her inherited fortune to run this business?  How does this affect her relationship to males who otherwise would view her as John's wife, or her father's daughter?  What might explain her workers' reaction to the repeated failures of the yeast to grow?  What kind of "failure" is that, and how might it be related to her gender, especially considering women's traditional categorical association with reproduction (though both sexes participate in the act)?
  4. Margery's memory of her debate with the Archbishop of York stands as one of the first arguably "feminist" events in medieval English literature.  Compared with Chaucer's Wife of Bath, a fictional creation which contains at least some element of self-satire on the type of the "over-powerful woman," Margery's narrative is a real, historically located woman telling her own story, albeit through the agency of the male scribe, and she here defends her outspoken claim as an interpreter of scripture when an extremely powerful male church official attempts to silence her by coaxing her to take a formal oath of submission.  Her defense, of course, is to quote chapter and verse from the Bible, calling attention to a famous female predecessor, the mulier de turba or "woman among the crowd" who hailed Jesus as a teacher and who was answered, or even rebuked, by Jesus in a memorable passage from the gospel of Luke (11:27).  Click here and read the whole passage carefully.  This passage traditionally was sung, also out of context, as Margery uses it here, in the mass for the third Sunday of Lent (the Christian season of atonement preceding Easter's commemoration of the Crucifixion).  The passage leads directly not to a condemnation of women preaching but to the famous prayer praising Mary, usually known by its opening phrase, the "Ave Maria."  To see a 1400 Breviary leaf in which this passage is illuminated with a beautiful enameled capital, click here.   When you think of Margery hearing this passage every spring, do you think she correctly interprets the scripture as the Mass suggests, or is she manufacturing authority to continue speaking by bending the passage?  How does a speaker or writer without a predecessor create an authoritative voice, one with the power to withstand the forces which would silence it?  Notice how the Archbishop's clerks respond to her invocation of scriptural authority.  How would you describe this exchange if you were a medieval news reporter for MS. or writing a modern scholarly paper for Signs, the Women's Studies journal?


  1. Julian's "showings" are peculiar in that she can articulate them with such wonderful clarity in words although they came to her by means of what she calls "ghostly sight," or as we might say "her soul's eye."  These "unmediated visions" (produced by no sensory medium) nevertheless allow her to explain them in vivid language which might be be interpreted metaphorically but which she apparently intends to be understood as absolute, un-interpretable signs.  For instance, the sight of the blood flowing from under a garland of thorns (357 and 359) sparks a sudden flow of language about the Trinity and heaven, and the "little thing, the quantity of an hazelnut" (358), though interpretable as all of Creation, leads her to enunciate three properties of that Creation which are not apparent there ("God made it, ...God loveth it, ...God kepeth it").
  2. Julian's most radical rethinking of her "showings" led her to the doctrine of "Jesus as mother" (361-3).  In her understanding, God's position as creator was both male (in holy love) and female (in holy wisdom), the latter role producing the extraordinary claim that like mothers owe their children sustenance, the creator owes her/his creations nourishment and understanding rather than only the castigation of sin and reward of right behavior (e.g., Everyman's god).  What implications for women's ways of knowing the world can you see in Julian's theology, and how might it have extra-theological effects on her readers once they internalized the notion that mothers were equally important as fathers in the formation of worlds/cultures/families?  This passage was not included in the Norton 6th edition, but was added in part due to the persuasive scholarship of Caroline Walker Bynum and others following her line of research.  For more on this phenomenon, see Bynum's Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley: U of California P, 1984 [255 B994j in the JRL].  She shows us that Julian's thinking may have been anticipated in pictorial tradition by painters and sculptors who represented Jesus in maternal poses.

        Especially if you are considering writing a paper about Margery or Julian, please click on this hyperlink to see Sarah Stanbury's and Virginia Raguin's excellent web site, "Mapping Margery Kempe: A Guide to Late Medieval Spiritual and Material Life."  Before you write about Margery or Julian as a modern skeptical materialist, try to understand the psychological world they lived in.  Medieval Christian spirituality constructed a complex and ingenious network of pilgrimage sites and religious services which became the focus of most of Margery's adult life.  Julian, as an anchoress, became a living part of that pilgrimage network, as we see when Margery travels to consult her.  Modern enthusiasts who become completely involved in popular music, stock market speculation, Internet gaming, or other "worlds-within-worlds" probably would have been devotees of religious pilgrimage in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Modern life emphasizes seeking vast imaginative fulfillment via manipulation of the material world.  Similarly, the medieval pilgrimage culture enabled pilgrims to invest months of study and travel and psychological concentration to achieve spiritual experiences.  The medieval pilgrim literally was traveling toward God.  Margery Kempe's life is fairly well-documented because of the high status of her father and husband.  For a short, sympathetic, and readable lecture on Margery by the late Lynne H. Nelson, a pioneering ditigal historian who worked at University of Kansas, click here.

        Julian  and Margery, as female Christian mystics who left written records, are not without precedent in their era.  During the period between 1100 (Hildegard von Bingen) and the mid-1500s, many Anglo-European Christian women composed or were recorded in written documents containing statements about their spiritual experiences.  They also constituted a "community of interpretation" (Stanley Fish, as English 215 students will remember!).  Julian, who probably was literate, may have studied the Dialogues of Catherine of Sienna, and Margery, who learned by hearing books read to her by sympathetic monks and priests, tells her scribe she studied a whole library of spiritual works, including many in Middle English and some in Latin (which may have been translated for her): “many a good boke of hy contemplacyon & other bokys, as the Bybyl wyth doctowrys ther-up-on, Seynt Brydys boke, Hyltons boke, Bone-ventur, Stimulus Amoris, Incendium Amoris, and swech other.”  The Bible annotated by the "doctowrys" or scholars of the church could have been a Vulgate Latin Bible, with the "Glossa Ordinaria" filling its margins with commentary, or it might have been a "Lollard" translation into Middle English, which could bring one to trial for heresy merely for possessing it.  Hilton (author of Stimulus Amoris) and Bonaventure (falsely credited with writing Incendium Amoris) were famous English and French male mystics.  "Bryd" or Bridget, was Saint Bridget, whose Liber Revelationum Celestium had been translated into Middle English.  To see a C15 English book illumination illustrating the process thought to produce Bridget's divine vision, click here.

        Julian of Norwich represented spiritual authority to Margery, and she was a figure powerful enough to command respect and material support as she pursued decades of meditation while trying to make sense of the "showings" she experienced while near death due to illness.  Because Julian tells us so little about her mundane life, her work can be a more difficult and intriguing subject for analysis, a kind of writing that is closer to philosophy or theology than autobiography.  For three ways to approach the writing of Julian of Norwich, click here.  

         Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe give us a chance to discuss naming conventions.  In the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Asia, lots of people go by one name, their "given name" acquired at birth.  That is the case with Julian.  She's "of Norwich" to distinguish her from other "Julians," but that's not her "last name."  Those kinds of geographical distinguishers can become last names, though, with the passage of time.  At some point, children just take their parents' (usually father's) distinguishing cognomen as their "family name."  The various French "de X" and German "von Y" names are all made that way.  English usage drops the preposition unless you're clinging to a noble title, in which case you might still be "William of Wales."  When dealing with nobles, in general, the convention is to use their titles and first names, so "Sir Thomas Wyatt" is "Sir Thomas," not "Sir Wyatt," and kings and queens are so unique that they are known only by their first names and a Roman numeral indicating which monarch of that name they are in order of reign..  King Henry (Tudor) VII is known just as Henry VII, etc.

     Margery comes to us first with her famous father's name, Burnham, which is a place name some ancestor adopted as a family name.  When she married John Kempe (Anglo-Saxon "warrior"), she took his last name, but she remains strikingly independent in the relationship.  That is because, like the Wife of Bath, she is wealthy in her own right.  She has inherited Dad's estate and brings wealth to whomever marries her. Following convention, though, she still becomes Margery Kempe rather than John becoming John Burnham.  Sometimes, though, the money is talking loud enough to make the man change his name to the mother's family's name as a condition of marriage and inheritance.

For a useful Fordham University bibliography of sources about medieval women writers, including Margery Kemp, click here.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.