Web Page for Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich: Literacy and Authorship; Gender and the Canon; God or "God"?

        Yes, there were male medieval mystics (e.g., Richard Rolle and, perhaps, Will Langland, author of Piers Plowman--see the Norton), but it is true that the period C14-15 saw the development of a strong tradition of female authors who reported mystical experiences of divine visions and who attempted to interpret their experience (that word again--remember the Wife's Prologue?) in their own words.  In Julian's case, she appears to have been literate and the work is directly her own.  In Margery's case, she appears to have been illiterate and had to work through scribes to tell her story.  Some critics have held this against Margery, even suggesting that the work be considered the scribes' because they actually wrote it.  Think about that standard of judgment. 

        From our first non-clergy author (i.e., excluding the polyglot literate Bede), i.e., Beowulf and Maldon and the elegies, to the mid-16th century, we often may be dealing with people who dictate their compositions to scribes.  In the twentieth-century, it was not uncommon for business executives to dictate their communications to secretaries who wrote in "shorthand" ("Take a memo, Miss Jones!").  Did anyone seriously doubt the male's "authorship" in this author-scribe relationship?  In fact, until nearly the end of the course, we will have to keep asking ourselves whether we are reading works transcribed by their authors or by scribes, and whether scribes' copies of author's original MSS might have altered the author's original intentions.  What about Chaucer?  Was he literate?  Did he write his own manuscripts?  See "To His Scribe Adam" and find out.  When printer-editors get into the chain of evidence, they turn manuscripts into printed pages by imposing upon them new layers of subtle change, including additional punctuation, section breaks and capital letters (capitula, from which "chapter"), tables of contents, and printed standardized marginal annotations.  Pristine authorship is largely an illusion.

        Now about this "God stuff."  Please do not be too quick to judge about the origins of the cosmos or to psychoanalyze without a license.  Suspend judgment about the "God stuff" question and pay attention to Julian and Margery as authors.  Think about their style, their use of images and striking scenes or ways of describing events.  Give them the same patient attention you might give to works by Don DeLillo or Joyce Carol Oates or Sylvia Plath.  All three of those modern authors describe visionary moments, and few readers spend their time trying to prove them nut-cases.

    Above all, resist the trap of "major authors" vs. "minor authors."  It's like ignoring the pokey little third planet from the Sun to adore gaseous Jupiter or Saturn--you would miss a lot.