The Boke of Margery Kempe and the Book of Showings of Julian of Norwich

Genre:   The Boke of Margery Kempe usually is described as spiritual autobiography, although it is clear that she did not "write" it herself, but used two or more scribes to record her oral record of her life.  Julian's Book of Showings also is a spiritual autobiography which she revised once and reissued in the form from which the Norton excerpts are reprinted.  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, becomes more of a historian as she records her travels to the Holy Land and her interrogation by the Archbishop of York.

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.  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.  After a traumatic childbirth, complicated by a failed confession which 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 an autobiography, but since she was illiterate, she first began with a priest whose English was heavily influenced by German and the resulting text did not please her.  A second attempt with another priest was more successful, and this is the source of the unique manuscript which provides us her tale, the first autobiography in English.

Julian's autobiography is almost exclusively taken up with recounting and explaining the mental events which began on May 8, 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 sacrements 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 occured 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 DMSV calls it today), or ergotism (an LSD-like experience produced by 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" (295), 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. )
    • Why do we resist so vehemently the possibility that the infinite might have means of communicating with us which are not readily reducible to ordinary processes?
    • Why do we need to reduce the universe to those things which can fit into the "hazelnut" of our science?
    • Is there a sense in which Margery and Julian see with the eye of what Sir Philip Sidney called the poetic "maker," known in Latin as vates? (see "Defense of Poesy")
  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.
    • In what ways does her fate at various times depend upon the fact that she is female?
    • Note the force of social expectation John can draw upon when resisting her wish for celibacy--would it be as difficult for John if he did not desire her sexually?
    • How does the system of constraints upon her speech and action shape her rebellion?

    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. 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, uninterpretable signs.  For instance, the sight of the blood flowing from under a garland of thorns (294 and 296) sparks a sudden flow of language about the Trinity and heaven, and the "little thing, the quantity of an hazelnut" (295), 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").
    • Following the lead of the first question's suggestion that Julian might be viewed as a prophetic poet, how might we describe the way her poetic method develops expressive language from these strongly felt "showings"?

Margery Kempe's life is fairly well-documented because of the high status of her father and husband.  For a sympathetic and readable biography of Margery by Lynne H. Nelson (U. Kansas), click here.

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

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.

Back to English 222, Syllabus View.