Controversies, #1 (Fall 1999)

"What's the difference between a vision, an inspiration, and hallucination?  Could Julian's education have something to do with it, and how did she learn to read/write?"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #1: take Heather's observation into account as you try to write, to paint, to compose music, or to do anything we might call "creative."  Are you "possessed"?  Do you "see visions" of things that aren't there?  Do you even see and hear persons speaking to you who are not there?  If you answer yes to any of those questions, does that mean you are mentally ill, or a genius, or something touched with the divine?  Education (when it works well) often has been described as "inspirational."  Are your minds being invaded by invisible entities, or am I just altering your brain chemistry?  Particpants: Heather Baron, Natasha Gorski, Kathleen McGill, and Arnie.

Julian and Kempe's Visions--Heather Baron, 9/24/99

I was thinking about Julian and Kempe's visions and the question of post partum depression or some kind of psychosis. In my intro to psych class last semester we saw a video about people with dillusional schizophrenia, and one of the things they talked about was what happens in their brains when they have visual dillusions. As it turns out, the parts of the brain that are active during normal sight are also active during visual dillusions. So in fact, people having visual dillusions are actually seeing something. The interesting part is that there are also certain parts of the brain that are active during visual dillusions that are not active during normal sight. I just thought this was an interesting thing to think about considering our conversation in class today about whether or not there is a God and whether or not Julian and Kempe were having dillusions of some kind since scientists don't really know why the other parts of the brain are active during visual dillusions. I don't really have any answers or know much more about this, but I was just wondering what other people might think about it.

An attempt to respond to Heather--Arnie Sanders

      Heather points out a really interesting likely difference between these women's modes of "seeing" and the ways of seeing employed by those around them. However, the medical diagnosis of the situation which Heather got in psych. seems more descriptive than explanatory, since it appears to assume from the outset that the visions cannot be in any sense intentional communications. It's true, of course, that by Ockam's Razor, the famous logical tool of William of Ockam, we should not needlessly invent invisible entities to account for unknown phenomena when known physical processes can account for what we observe. But in the cases of Marjorie and Julian, the "hallucination" also is perceived to contain the intent to communicate, and the content of what is communicated is not particularly bizarre or hostile in the religious context of their time (as opposed to the technological improbability of the common paranoid delusion that the CIA or some other agency of the state has implanted microchips in the visionary's brain with the intent of controlling his/her behavior). So we might rephrase the issue this way: "If there were such a thing as a diety, and if it operated outside the constraints of ordinary space and time, how, why, and what would it communicate to space-time-bound beings it had created?"

        Another way to pick up these women's stories, without having to accept or reject the existence of a deity, would be merely to observe that this particular kind of discourse allowed and even commanded them to record their experiences and interpretations of reality in texts. That is, it made them authors, or in the Middle English of the Wife of Bath, auctorites. When male poets speak of "the Muse," and her inspirational effect upon their capacity to compose, do we run for the strait-jackets? (Well maybe Plato might--see the dialogue called "Ion" in which Socrates interrogates one of the quasi-poets whose job was performing Homer in annual competitions.) How might the ecstatic state of the poet compare with Marjorie's and Julian's visions, and how might the religious nature of the women's mode of "inspiration" account for the fact that their texts have survived when no other women's works have done so from this period? Does poetic creation (and I include prose fiction in this, too) require firing up areas of the brain not ordinarily used, or using routinely functioning parts of the mind in novel ways or combinations? If you work with Madison Bell in a fiction workshop, ask him about his experiences getting into character to do research in Haiti, and how it relates to spirit possession. He recently wrote about it in an issue of Goucher Quarterly.

One More Question--Natasha Gorski, 10/4/99

        How would a woman like Julian of Norwich be able to become so educated in that particular time period?

Julian's Education--Arnie, 10/5/99

        Natasha asks an excellent question and one which scholars would love to be able to answer definitively with evidence from Julian's own life. However, apart from her "Showings," we know almost nothing about her other than what we can derive from the text itself and from what we know of the cathedral at Norwich. However, thanks to my summer's research on vernacular literacy (Thanks Bob Welch and Academic Affairs Comm.!), I can tell you that it's not unheard of for noblemen's daughters to be educated by the priest who tends to the needs of the household's private chapel, or by a friar hired to visit on a regular basis. Professional men (lawyers, doctors) also were wealthy enough and interested enough in literacy to take care to educate their daughters, as in the famous case of Sir Thomas More. So it's not unlikely that she might have been the daughter of a noble family (like the CT Prioress, who also shows signs of advanced literacy) or of a professional man, probably with court connections which would have influenced his tastes and expectations. There also are instances of widowed noblewomen, like Lady Margaret Beaufort, who take special care in their wills that their female descendants have access to books, raising the likelihood that those children and nieces were literate.

        But what if she were not of noble or professional birth? Two other kinds of schools existed to provide clerks like Nicholas and Absolon to help the priests handle the divine service and the church's social role: a "song school" which taught young children how to sound out the Latin hymns and chants necessary for the choir (though the kids wouldn't necessarily know what they were saying!), and more formal schools which prepared boys in the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in what we would call their grade school years, and the "quadrivium" (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music) in their high school years. Though the students were mostly boys, some girls are suspected to have been enrolled, probably because of some forward-thinking parents' influence or the children's especially promising intellects. The secular school system was still in its infancy when Julian was growing up, awaiting the foundation of endowed (i.e., free vs. Goucher's "endowment") schools at major cathedral towns. However, some private schoolmasters were beginning to set themselves up in competition with the church schools, so J might have had parents rich enough to hire one of them.

For a very conservative study on literacy and education in the C15-16, see

Cressy, David. Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Cressy insists on accepting only the ability to sign one's name as evidence of literacy, which would leave out those who could read but could not write. The two skills were taught separately, reading before writing, in the schools of this period. For a more optimistic view of late Medieval schools and education, see

Orme, Nicholas. Education in the West of England, 1066-1548. Exeter: U Exeter P, 1976.

        For an excellent fictional "thought experiment" to imagine a young woman's life in this period, see Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" for her discussion of "Shakespeare's sister." (Hint: WS had no sisters, but he did have a daughter named Judith who probably was illiterate based on her use of a mark rather than a signature to witness legal contracts.) Keep all this in mind when we hit the first of our literate women authors in the Elizabethan period (Amelia Lanyer and QE1, herself, among them).

        If you wish to address this issue in a paper, the library's best collection of essays on the subject currently is

Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. Ed. Carol M. Meale. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. [820.9, M482w]

A reply about Marjorie Kempe and women writers--Kathleen McGill, 11/8/99

       I was going through the old posts and found this one that no one had replied to. Now that I have some info from doing my research paper on Kempe I thought I would give it a shot, even though it was from last month. The fact that these religious texts are the only prose we have from women in this time period is very significant. Women, due to the rampant anti-femminism propaganda spread by the church, were seen in connection with the flesh, which in the church's eyes, equaled sin. Men on the other hand were connected with the spirit, and were pure--as long as they avoided the evil temptations of the flesh. It was even outrageous that women were having direct "communication" with God, since they were such vile creatures. However, if they lived lives completely cut off from the outside world and their bodily desires, like Jullian, it was more readily accepted that they had visions. This is where Margery comes in. She was the antithesis of the standard for female mystics the Church had set, and because of this, labeled a heretic. Even after all the commotion died down, she had an incredibly hard time finding someone to write down her story. It is said that the first scribe that she dictated to didn't even know English, so that when the second scribe attempted to pick up were they had left off, it was impossible. This second scribe had dyslexia, so much so that he had trouble reading over what he had written. It is obvious that not only was Kempe denied an education because of her sex, she was also denied a scribe that took her very seriously. Men were allowed to write about women and worldly things, since they were not directly connected to them. Women, though, if they had been given an education and could write, were not permitted to do so about love or elude to sex. They were too connected to the sin of being human and would influence others to sin. This is even true when they attempted to write about religious visions, but when they had somehow transcended the flesh, they were permitted to write.

        The religious fervor of the time also has a lot to do with the texts that we have on Margery and Jullian. Now a days, they would be locked up in a mental ward, or heavily medicated zombie's with bed-sores at home. Religious visions are actually in the DSM IV as a symptom of schizophrenia. My initial reading was done through this lens, but now I find it sad that we have so disconnected ourselves from spirituality that God is reduced to a chemical reaction in the brain. Arnie's question about if there was a deity, how would it get in touch with the beings that it created was a good one. It made my brain hum