Women & Mystical Traditions in the Middle Ages

As-Sulamī’s Dhikr an niswa al-muta c abbidāt as-sūfiyyāt (11th century), Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love (15th century), Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe (15th Century)

Vim, Ph.D.
31 min readAug 28, 2021

This post is a lecture I delivered in October of 2017 for a first-year Honors Course called Culture & Expression.

The readings re: Sufi women can be accessed here.

CW: Rape, mentioned briefly below the first image/painting.

In the last two weeks, we heard from Professor Daniels about the role of women in early Islam. Today I hope to build on that material by moving us forward in time and showing additional examples of women whose faith earned them acclaim and a place in religious history. These women, as you know from your reading, include not only women practicing the Sufi traditions within Islam from the 8th to the 10th centuries, but also two English women who lived several hundred years later, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.

My attempt to do comparative work with Sufi and English texts is in part in keeping with the rich cross-pollination that can happen when you have multiple scholars working together to teach on a shared subject — what we think of as an important benefit of C&E over single, unlinked distribution courses. But it’s also out of necessity. I am not a scholar of Islam, and neither a scholar or practitioner of Religion; I’m an English professor and a general expert in early British Literature. But, I’m also not a medievalist, a scholar of the middle ages. In my research, I study a period those in my field often shorthand as the early modern period, an imperfect way to describe a period from roughly 1500 to 1800. The region I know best is the Atlantic Archipelago, Islands we know now as England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

I promise I will get to these texts in this lecture. But first, if you can indulge me for a few minutes more, I want to show you an image I saw on Twitter recently:

Timoclea, in a 1638 painting by Elisabetta Sirani

I’d never seen this striking painting before it got Retweeted in my timeline. So I did a reverse image look-up and found out that it was a 1638 painting representing a woman named Timoclea, who lived during the time of Alexander the Great. After Alexander conquers her city, soldiers pillage the city and Timoclea is raped by a Thracian Captain. After assaulting her, he demands that she tell him of any money that might be hidden in her home; the quick-thinking Timoclea tells him there is indeed some cash hidden in the well, and well…pushes him in.

The story of Timoclea piqued my interest for two reasons. First, because unlike Lucretia and many other victims of sexual assault from antiquity, Timoclea neither commits suicide nor is punished in another way. She survives and reports the Captain for his crime; her testimony impresses Alexander so much that he takes an active role in ending similar abuses amongst his armies.

The second reason I found this painting so compelling is that the person who painted it is a woman: Elisabetta Sirani. I mentioned before that I study the 17th century, so I was somewhat taken aback that I’d never heard of her before. Of course, she’s Italian, and I study England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — so I tried not to feel too badly. On the other hand, after having read about her a bit, I think it’s important that we all know about her.

Biblical women in Sirani’s Paintings

Though not all of her paintings feature notable women, several of them do; their subjects are classical (Portia, who stoically wounds herself in the thigh to attest to her integrity), allegorical (here are the militant virtues of justice, charity, and prudent), Biblical, (the Virgin Mary with her child, and two of the Old Testament’s Judith, who cuts off the head of Holofernes, the General and enemy of her people), and finally, biographical: a self portrait wherein she represents both herself and the art of painting.

Elisabetta Sirani’s allegorical paintings

At this point, I’m bordering on more than just a brief follow-up, but you can see why I can’t help but share what I have found: before she died early of a mysterious illness — possibly a peptic ulcer — Sirani also founded a school of painting for women and trained several that would go on to be masters at their craft. To continue to prevail upon your patience, I want to add that brief trip down this Italian rabbit hole was intriguing because I grew increasingly curious as to whether Sirani was known to one of the authors that I work on in my scholarship, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish was mocked for her eccentricities, which earned her the nickname “Mad Madge.” They included not bearing children, wearing pants, and writing enough plays between 1650 and 1668 to fill two large volumes. Several of her plays take up civil and foreign war, and there are women soldiers in at least two of them. They also included works of natural philosophy and poems about atoms and atomic theory. She’s also the first woman to write literary criticism about Shakespeare, the first woman to be allowed to visit the Royal Academy of Science, and, though you probably have heard this said of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, Margaret Cavendish is a better candidate for the first person to write a work of Science Fiction.

Margaret Cavendish portrait & the title page of her Blazing World

The Description of a New world called the Blazing World, printed in 1666, features an Emperess who is a doppleganger for Cavendish herself, and, as it turns out, she’s a bit of a hawk; when the world she rules is attacked by external enemies, she briefly contemplates employing zombies but ultimately wins the war with a laser light show, torpedo-firing submarines, and rain made of fire. I promise I’m getting to the reading for today…In one of the many compelling parts of the Blazing World, the Empress intends to write a major religious, political, and moral treatise; her spirit subjects ask her if she would like to dictate it to a scribe and when she agrees, they tell her to pick a soul who will then become her writer:

“I will have, answered she, the Soul of some ancient famous Writer, either of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, or the like. The Spirits said, That those famous Men were very learned, subtile, and ingenious Writers; but they were so wedded to their own opinions, that they would never have the patience to be Scribes. Then, said she, I’le have the Soul of one of the most famous modern Writers, as either of Galileo, Gassendus, Des Cartes, Helmont, Hobbes, H. More, &c. The Spirits answered That they were fine ingenious Writers, but yet so self-conceited, that they would scorn to be Scribes to a Woman.”

“But, said they, there’s a Lady, the Duchess of Newcastle; which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet she is a plain and rational Writer; for the principle of her Writings, is Sense and Reason, and she will without question, be ready to do you all the service she can…. You say well, replied the Empress; wherefore I pray send me the Duchess of Newcastle’s Soul; which the Spirit did; and after she came to wait on the Empress, at her first arrival the Empress imbraced and saluted her with a Spiritual kiss… embracing her Soul, [she] told her she would take her Counsel: …after some time the Empress gave her leave to return to her Husband and Kindred into her Native World, but upon condition, that her Soul should visit her now and then; which she did: and truly their meeting did produce such an intimate friendship between them, that they became Platonick Lovers, although they were both Females.”

Cavendish was was well known for her often-mentioned happy (heterosexual) marriage. But her desire for female companionship is evident in this and several other works, including her plays The Convent of Pleasure, and The Female Academy, both about separatist religious and intellectual communities of (temporarily) unmarried women. The fact that her royal analogue finds a best friend in The Blazing World in a figure that is basically another self is perhaps a smart nod to Aristophanes’ speech, but I’d prefer a different myth wherein in her real life she got to meet Elisabetta Sirani, the creator of an actual female academy, and became besties.

In my introductory video for the semester, I mentioned the Bechtel test, a standard for representing women that insisted they be portrayed alongside at least one other woman, and that those two women talk to one another about something other than a man. Have we seen any representations thus far where we see women together? We saw a glimpse of female communities on Tuesday, when Professor Daniels discussed A’isha’s hadith with the 11 gossiping wives. But, because their discussion and their roles are wholly circumscribed by the institution of marriage, this representation does not pass the test.

I must admit that in many works, even Cavendish doesn’t succeed in giving her heroines goals beyond finding a suitable husband, and, of course, her own literary efforts would have been impossible without her own marriage to a wealthy aristocrat and patron of the playhouse. If we don’t see these kinds of representations in the secular literature 1660s, isn’t it foolish to expect them in women’s devotional works that were composed earlier? And if the Bechtel doesn’t seem fair, how might we more fairly evaluate women’s interactions with men and other women in these works? The answer to the first question is complex, because history is not a straight line that moves smoothly towards egalitarian principles; as Dr. Daniels’ recent lecture on the codification of Sharia law, made clear, sometimes institutions and structures — laws and governments — ensure that time makes gender equality and other kinds of parity among groups more difficult to achieve. This is also something that happens in England over the course of the middle ages; the formation of the houses of parliament gave the English gentry a mechanism for checking the will of the king, but the entirely male composition of those bodies ensured that women were marginalized, if not entirety excluded from the legislative process. Which is not to say that women didn’t gain increased access to education, or that elite women couldn’t exercise a fair amount of authority over family property.

I’ve started with Cavendish and Sirani to frame the remaining lecture’s interest in how the voices and creative endeavors of exceptional women circulate in the middle ages. To what extent was it possible to have a Symposium where the flute boys are, like Phileanis’ Phao, sent away so the girls can drink and talk? To what extent might women find inspiration in the actions of other women — not just classical or biblical examples, but in real life people — and earn the respect of men? How do they respond to challenges and assessments that they are mad or hysterical? And finally, to what extent are those reactions tied to erroneous conceptions of the female body? To what extent is biology destiny? In The Symposium, Plato almost privileges female capacities by giving pre-eminence to a speech by Diotima, in which pregnancy is a metaphor for creative endeavor; but of course Socrates uses this metaphor to assure his male friends that they too may give birth to intellectual babies that are far better than any human birth. In our readings for today, the female body appears at times to be a conduit for spiritual awakening and a liability — it is, quite literally, both a blessing and a curse.

I’m now ready turn to today’s readings and give you some context for them that I hope, along with this opening, will lay a solid foundation for your discussions later today. I want to start by building on some of the things we learned on Tuesday, namely the remarkable fact that women are named as contributors to important Islamic texts, included in many compendia of laws that circulated in the 9th and 10th centuries. As you know from Tuesday, ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr played a significant role in the transmission of the traditions classical Islam; in polemics over divergent traditions, she is described as an authority in legal matters and on the Qu’ran. Remember from Dr. Daniels first lecture that the Qu’ran was not written down until after the prophet’s death, when it was compiled in conjunction with the oral transmissions of his followers. These followers included three of his wives, ‘A’isha, Hafsa, Umm Salama, each of which, the scholar Arthur Jeffrey notes, are credited with “a small number of variant readings” of the Quran. How small? volumes of legal precedents from the seventh and eight centuries suggest that A’isha and Umm Salama were authorized to give legal rulings; A’isha’s reputation was such that one 14th century scholar argued that she was the source of one fourth of the laws of Shari’ah (Gessinger 39).

A quarter, however might be overly generous. In popular law compilations from the 9th century, only 7% of the traditions recorded are attributed to women (40), and though a study comparing variants in the Quran found as many as 10 women listed as sources for variations of recorded verses, those only accounted for about 45 out of over 6000 (Gessinger 43). Depending on the scholars ones reads, the hadith attributed to A’isha specifically range from as many as 2,210 to as few as 174. What you read for Tuesday gave you a sample of her reports on marriage, but some hadith attributed to her are much less gender-specific: their substance takes up matters such as ritual prayer, pilgrimage and fasting; she is also the source of twenty details about the life of Mohammed, as well as ethical conduct, Quaranic exegesis, poetry, and clothing.

To what extent can we hold up ‘A’isha as evidence of women’s autonomy and authority in her own time? And to what extent did her own conduct ensure that other women could exercise similar levels of both? In an article from 2011(Religion Compass 5/1: 37–49), Aisha Gessinger discusses the complexity of thinking about the status of all women in early Islamic traditions through what we see in A’isha, citing “the well-known example [of] her purported statement that if the Prophet had seen the innovations adopted by women after his death, he would have prevented them from going to the mosque.” According to Gessinger, “This tradition is an apt illustration of how portrayals of ‘A’isha in classical texts can embody a paradoxical tension between the autonomy and communal authority she apparently enjoys, and the restrictions which she endorses for other women.” In many other portrayals, Gessinger notes, A’isha appears to be opposing customs that are unfavoruable to women; one 14th century treatise consists entirely of assembled tales in which ‘A’isha corrects a male counterpart.

Gessinger notes that the highly influential text you read on Tuesday, Shahi Al-Bukhari, attributes many hadiths to A’isha and “present her as an exemplary teacher and learner, [but many] others link women with ignorance and sexual licentiousness, presenting them as perpetually in need of male guidance and admonition” (Sa’diyya Shaikh, qtd in Gessinger, 44). Likewise, Gessinger writes, classical Quran commentaries, while treating traditions attributed to ‘A’isha and a few other women as authoritative, nonetheless pass dismissive judgments on the intellectual capabilities of females in general” (44).

It is further enlightening, then, to have now read the excerpts from Muḥammad Ibn-al-Ḥusain As-Sulami’s A Memorial of Sufi Devotees for today, for it allows us to think about women beyond the wives of the prophet and consider the authority they might exercise as Sufis.

Before we can do so, we’ll need a solid definition of Sufism. Dr. Daniels kindly provided one for us in Tuesday’s lecture. The one I’ll add comes from the opening chapter of Abu Bakr Al-Kalabadhi’s 10th century treatise, an Introduction to the Methodology of the Sufis, which concludes with an account of a conversation between an unnamed expert and Dhu an-Nun al Misri, a famous Egyptian Sufi, that lists the attributes of its most devoted practitioners: Sufis are “a people who “are moved to rise from their beds at night” to call on their Lord in fear and hope; they are “men whom neither worldly commerce nor striving after gain can divert from the remembrance of God….” To further illustrate their nature, the unnamed author continues:

A people who have staked their aspirations on God,
And whose ambitions aspire to nothing else.
The goal of this folk is their Lord and Master,
Oh what a noble goal is theirs, for the One beyond compare!
They do not compete for the world and its honors,
Whether it be for food, luxury, or children,
Nor for for fine and costly clothes,
Nor for the ease and comfort that is found in towns.
Instead, they hasten towards the promise of an exalted station,
Knowing that each step brings them closer to the farthest horizon.

The speaker here not only relays the traits of Sufis — the rejection of worldly goods to be closer to the divine — but also exhibits another: that is, the ability to transmit passages of the Quran alongside other descriptions of devotion in a display of adab, or skill in crafting beautiful language; “in works of sacred biography, collections of Sufi poetry, or doctrinal treatises,” Sufis were often portrayed with the ability to “extemporaneously compo[se] verses in a variety of poetical forms” (Elaroui Cornell 16). As Rkia Elaroui Cornell writes, “nothing proved the quality of a person’s background better than a well-turned phrase or an elegantly composed poem…Poetry was especially valued as a medium of expression because of its ability to present ideas in an evocative and economical manner” (Elaroui Cornell 16). Of the poem that I just read, Cornell observes, “a poem that was good enough to be included in a major treatise of Sufism could be composed only by a person who was recognized as having attained the highest level of Sufi knowledge. Yet despite the fact the [this poet] had attained such knowledge,” al-Kalabadhi never provides a name for her. But, as you know now from the pronoun I just used, he does acknowledge her gender.

This unnamed woman is depicted as giving significant insight to man who would go on to great renown as a Sufi, and Al-Kalabadhi’s treatment of her is both out of step and in keeping with the treatment that women receive at his hands in the remainder of the treatise. Along with the Saint Rabia al-Adawya, this nameless woman provides clear evidence that women could be among the most knowledgeable Sufis; yet Al-Kalabadthi nonetheless insisted women were generally “deficient in their knowledge and practice of Islam” because during their “monthly periods they are prohibited from praying or fasting” (Elaroui Cornell, Sufi Women 17). In his work, and in many other treatises that would follow Al-Kalabadhi’s, there might be a few exceptions to the so-called “norm of female inadequacy,” but even these examples would not be understood by male authors as evidence of gender equality. Rather, Elaroui Cornell notes, “when good women are invoked it is as a rebuke to the majority of Muslim women, who were considered unable to attain the same level of spirituality” (18). In fact, there is some evidence of a propensity to un-gender the ones who did: in the words of one 13th century poet, Farid al-Din al-cAttar, “When a woman is a man on the path of the Lord Most High, she can not be called a woman” (Elaroui Cornell 45).

Although women are not absent from the many treatises on Sufism from the 8th through the 11th centuries, the excerpts that you read for today, As-Sulami’s A Memorial of Sufi Devotees is perhaps exceptional in highlighting them exclusively. It is one of some 700 works by As-Sulami, a canon Elaroui Cornell describes as “Sufi best-sellers” (38) during his lifetime. These works are best conceived of as chapters or sections of larger works rather than whole books, and they fall into three main categories of text: 1) sacred biographies, works on the lives of famous teachers 2) treatises of Sufi institutions and practices 3) exegetical works that explicate the Quran.

The book from which our excerpts derive is an example of the first kind, (called tabaqut) are biographies in the modern and has a counterpart in another text by As-Sulami, Tabaqat as-Sufiyaa, or Generations of the Sufis, which contained short accounts of 100 Sufi men. In much of the scholarship on our assigned reading written prior to 1990, the portions on women were thought to be a lost appendix of the biographies of male Sufis, often alluded to as something invoked in 10th century works but no longer extant. But in 1991, the manuscript was discovered in a library in Saudi Arabia, bundled amongst 26 additional titles of theretofore unknown works by As-Salumi. From internal evidence in this manuscript, scholars are able to date the text in 1081 and to posit that it was not written as an appendix of the other work, but rather, was intended to stand alone as a separate work.

In her introduction to the book from which your excerpts come, Cornell notes that “within the context of institutionalized Sufism, the segregation of the sexes remains the norm” (19); accordingly, “Al-Sulami’s book of Sufi women is challenges the legitimacy on modern instructions on women’sparticipation” by highlighting their clear participation and status “in Sufism’s formative period,” — it suggests that in that period, “women were not so often excluded from the public aspects of spiritual life” (19-21). Within its pages, we see “numerous Sufi women who served their male brethren, studied with them, supported them financially, and even, at times, surpassed them in their knowledge” (19). They are “full equals of their male counterparts in religion and intellect, as well as in their knowledge of Sufi doctrines and practices” (20).

Experts in the field of Islamic History are able to understand these Sacred Biographies in light of a long tradition of Arabic literature composed prior to 1900, a body constituted of roughly 40,000 unique titles.

images from Maxim Romanov’s recent essay (link at right)

Using the methods afforded by digital transcriptions of thousands of pre-20th century texts, one historian has been able to survey 8,800 authors and over 40,000 book titles — with most authors being attributed 1 to 4 titles, to come up with a staggering four hundred thousand biographical entries, showing us not only a wide range of writers and biographical subjects but also a compelling sense of the regions represented by these subjects and the places these accounts reached.

Rather than contextualize them in this Islamic literary tradition, I will place them in the broader context of life-writing, including secular works by Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, (75 CE) and Christian texts such as St. Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus, (392–3 CE). The or contains 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, as well as four unpaired, single lives; the story of Timoclea features in the section on the life of Alexander the Great. St. Jerome’s “Of Illustrious Men” includes 135 people; 135 is St. Jerome himself. It is essential to note that the purposes of compiling these accounts is often a didactic one rather than an effort to preserve the truth of a person’s time and existence. That is, whether secular or religious in nature, these works construct people’s characters as a way to offer moral instruction of a sort and therefore what’s valuable about them is not their veracity. The same of course is true of the Memorial of Female Sufi Devotees as well as Dame Julian’s Shewings and The Book Margery Kempe.

The Memorials of Female Sufi Devotees can be placed within a more specific literary tradition of books assembling stories about women, including Plutarch’s Mulierum Virtutes, in his Moralia, another work that relays the story of Timoclea, and three additional texts by authors we will read in the upcoming weeks of C&E.

Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women

For instance, Boccaccio wrote De Claris Muliberus (concerning famous women); Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women (where the legend in the sense of an unverified or mythic story, but rather more like the same of a legend on a map)…

…and then there’s The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan.

LeMoyne’s Gallerie des Femme Forte (1647)

This tradition continues into the period I study with the amazing La Gallerie des femmes fortes (1647) by Pierre Le Moyne, an assembly of female worthies that features portrait engravings of each subject accompanied a sonnet and an elegy as well as commentary with moral questions and comments.

This one of Joan of Arc is my favorite.

LeMoyne on Joan of Arc (La Pucelle)

For those of you in the room who remember the 2012 election, the tradition also includes Mitt Romney, whose claim to having asked for “Binders Full of Women” earned him relentless mocking but also praise for the fact that 50% of the people he hired as the governor of Massachusetts were women.

2012 Coverage of Mitt Romney in the Boston Globe

And for those of you who went to the Brooklyn Museum with Dr. Bennington and me during Welcome Week, you will remember another one, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a triangular table with place settings for 39 noteworthy women, among them Sappho and Christine de Pisan.

39 Place settings

The space inside containing the names of 999 other women, including ones you’ll know from C&E and the few others I’ve mentioned here: Margaret Cavendish, the painter Elisabetta Sirani, Hildegaard of Bingen, as well as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

Despite living hundreds of years earlier, the women in the Memorial of Sufi Female Devotees have some things in common with these last two women: they all were active participants in their respective spiritual traditions and managed to hold a significant degree of authority and influence within those traditions. Their experiences are not all similar, but they nonetheless can all be categorized under a broad rubric of charismatic practice called mysticism, a concept that manifests in classical as well as Christian traditions, though it may be familiar to you through representations of indigenous cultures in the Americas as well. These forms of mysticism can be quite distinct from one another, but they share some basic features.

When visited by the god Love, characters in Plato’s Symposium describing experiencing a kind of ecstasy that is felt physically but also goes beyond the body; in Christian versions, there’s a similar sense of bodily experience, being seized with rapt attention or rapture, that goes along with deep meditation on Christ’s passion. The mystic is put by this experience into an altered corporeal state, one that comes with knowledge that might be contrary to, or at least cannot be found explicitly in, law logic, orthodox notions of conduct, or a sacred text. Another way to describe mysticism is the phrase “Affective piety,” that is a form of devotion that manifests as affect; it is emotional more so than rational, and sensory more so than intellectual or doctrinal.

We see this in the accounts of dreams you read in A Taste of Hidden Things, where wives function as mediators for husbands through their dream-state encounters with the divine. We also see it in several account of Female Sufi Devotees. Rabia emeges from services weeping and “staggering like one inebriated.” She describes her devotion as a form of intoxication. We see erotic overtones in this account as well as that of RAYJIANA THE ENRAPTURED: In her story, we see her speak to the divine as she might a human beloved: “You are my Intimate Companion, my Aspiration, and my Happiness, And my heart refuses to love anything but You. Oh, my Dear, my Aspiration, and Object of my desire, My yearning is endless! When will I finally meet You? My request is not for Heaven’s pleasures; I desire only to encounter You” (74).

Also noteworthy of these accounts is the degree to which the body figures as a site of religious devotion and a vessel through which the divine communicates through intense pain and pleasure. In some cases, physical suffering is a voluntary response on the part of the devoted; for instance, Munisa wears a hair shirt: ‘’To learn how to endure suffering” (174). Another exalts in the pleasure of fasting and withholding, describing these practices as metaphorical replacements for rich sweets, fats, and spices:

Take the sugar of the divine gift, the starch of purity, the water of modesty, the butter of self-awareness, and the saffron of recom­pense, and strain them in the sieves of fear and hope. Then place under the mixture a tripod of sorrow, hang the sauce-pots of grief, seal it with the lid of contemplation, light beneath it the fire of sighs, and spread it out over caution until it is touched by the fragrant breeze of the night-vigil. When you take a bite of it, you will become one of the wise and will be liberat­ed from vain fantasies.

And then there’s Maryam, a contemporary of Rabia, who takes such pleasure in lecturing and hearing Sufi doctrine that her spleen ruptures and she dies during the service. Finally, in these selections we see accounts that highlight Women’s relationships with other women, where women teach and learn from other female devotees. This last feature is something that is particularly interesting about Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, fifteenth century English women, similarly experience religious devotion through affective means; their accounts each include metaphors that figure devotion as a kind of spiritual eating and drinking and they likewise feature physical suffering and intense meditations on the diety — albeit in their cases, the body of a human Christ. Kempe in particular has a simultaneously chaste and erotic relationship with that body, but both she and Julian are overwhelmed by, and ecstatic about, being the subject of God’s love. Both Julian and Kempe reject worldly pleasures, though unlike Julian, who left the world entirely to live in anchorite’s cell, Kempe was very much out and about in it. Of course, the fact that Julian was an anchorite did not mean she could not have visitors; although there were prescribed rules for the size of their cells and the number of windows, the reclusive life “did not preclude ties between anchorites and their communities,” and some anchorites even had servants.

The moment in the Booke of Margery Kempe when Julian receives Margery at Norwich is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it speaks to the influence of women on other women; it is also meaningful simply because it represents, in terms that are proto-Bechtel, that women desired conversation with one another. Of course, because their discussion is about God, it’s hard to discern whether they talk about something other than a man. In this case, we might recall Julian’s depictions of a multi-gendered, multi-positional godhead, one that is not only husband and Father, but also a merciful Mother. But, that language is absent from the passages where there meeting is relayed.

Here’s the specific moment when “Margery Met Julian”:

And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich] who was called Dame Julian. And she did so, and displayed to her the graces that God had put in her soul of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and full many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord had spoken to her soul, and many wonderful revelations, which she told to the anchoress to learn if there was any deceit in them; for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.

This passage begins by figuring the meeting as something that an obedient Margery does to serve the will of God, who wants her to see Julian. But by the last sentence here, we see Margery’s own investment in receiving the benefits of Julian’s expertise: Julian is then, at least momentarily, a spiritual intercessor and figure of authority; she’s not a confessor, nor quite a confidante or friend. We might then say that they are not just talking about God in this instance; in fact, they are also talking about Margery. Julian’s role here is to validate the experiences Margery has based on her own experience as a woman who has likewise seen the truth revealed to her by God.

The way the text frames Julian’s response is perhaps even more interesting; she not only offers her own assurance, but also takes recourse to Sts. Jerome and Paul:

The creature who receives these signs must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weeping beyond saying, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mourning and weeping so plenteously that the tears may not be counted. No evil spirit can give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell.

To some extent, Julian has ceded her own spiritual authority to masculine figures, but it’s worth noting that neither woman follows Paul’s injunction to learn at home with their husbands. Moreover, Margery’s Julian invokes both Paul and Jerome in a way that both validates and universalizes Margery’s practice of excessive weeping. It seems worth noting that in her own text, Julian does not make these sort of references, and the idea that she would assure Margery in this manner calls attention to Kempe’s role in constructing the encounter.

By noting this fact, I don’t mean to cast doubt on the prospect that the two women met, nor to argue that Julian did not really bring up up Paul. But it is also the case that this appeal to Paul and St Jerome is entirely in keeping with something Margery does throughout the book, which is point to precedents for her experiences.

As Lynn Staley observes, “The Book of Margery Kempe bears eloquent testimony to Kempe’s fundamental understanding of the conventions within which she situated her work,” — an understanding that is evident to the careful scholar in multiple ways. First, Staley points to the opening of the book, which you all have now read. She argues,

“Kempe meliorates the inherent radicalism of the Book by the ways in which she frames the experience it recounts. We do not come directly to the life of Margery, but enter it through two prefaces, the work of the scribe who supposedly recorded Margery’s oral account of her memories. These prefaces serve to locate the text within the series of conventions associated with female sacred biography. By identifying the spiritual lessons Margery’s career is designed to provide and by underlining the ways in which her story provides solace for those who need evidence of God’s mercy and comfort, the prefaces link Margery to the community of the faithful. Furthermore, the prefaces place in the foreground the story of Margery’s own spiritual growth, the quality of which is signified by the request of churchmen that she make a book out of her “feelings.” Finally, the presence within the text of the Book’s scribes bearing witness to Margery’s veracity implicitly assimilates it to sacred biography in which the lives of holy women….were verified by male scribes (see prefaces, as well as chapters 88, 89, part 2, chapter 1). The combined effect of such prefatory remarks, like the scribal testimonials within the text, creates an elaborate fiction that joins Margery to communal values by establishing a series of shared expectations. The Book presents itself as a token of communal regard for the spiritual example of Margery herself; if she appears to break away from the community, her break is not so radical as to place her outside it.”

In fact, with respect to narratives of popular piety, her account is much less exceptional and more conventional, and the extent to which the book keeps a catalog of people who have had experiences like Margery’s is revealed by looking more closely at the manuscript of the Booke of Margery Kempe. The manuscript contains evidence of the marking of four different hands. Here’s the precise spot where she meets Julian of Norwich, a moment signaled by the marginal cue in red.


The owner of the hand using red ink dates from the 16th century, and we can see that he was particularly invested in annotating the other works and authorities that Kempe refers to throughout her text: among many others, these include Richard Rolle of Hampole, the well-known spiritual author of the fourteenth century Incendium Amoris, described in one notation as “The Prykke of Lo[v]e.” Other marginal notations in the Booke appear at a point that describes Margery’s priest being asked to read of a woman called Maria de Oegines, a reference to a book about a saint by Jacques de Vitry.

That a later reader made a note of these other works is compelling, but it is not more significant than the fact that Kempe herself had her scribes weave these titles into her narrative. The reference to the book about Maria de Oegine’s life, written down two centuries prior to Kempe’s, demonstrates that Kempe was well aware of earlier accounts of pious women, and here too, the account is marshalled overtly to explain the extent of her own weeping. In that book, Marie refers to herself as “christ’s handmaiden” and claims to a priest who is critical of her open weeping that Christ’s “gift of tears could not be resisted.” Because he continues to doubt her, “She asked God to teach the Preist of her church that no one can withstand holy tears, and on that very day, when he sang his mass, he was nearly drowned by floods of tears which soaked his book and his altar cloth” (de Vitry; qtd. in Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim).

There are other interesting parallels between Margery and Life of Marie as it is relayed by de Vitry: “Marie is purported to have received many visions from God, experienced ecstasy and wept uncontrollably when meditating on the Passion of Christ. She did not eat meat, dressed in white clothes, and mortified her flesh in acts of penance” (Atkinson).

I focus on Marie not to suggest that Margery was engaged in copying the life of a female saint, for the parallels we find with De Vitry’s account of her life and Margery’s are also available in many other other texts. Nor is the Affective tradition we see here exclusive to women. It’s a feature of the work of Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and St Bonaventure, and also the Italian Franciscan, John de Caulibus, author of the early fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ.

This text is not unlike the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, for it “called for an intentional, in-depth meditation on certain events in the life of Christ, with the goal of experiencing one’s spiritual presence at those events — or, even more powerful, of identifying oneself with Jesus in those circumstances. Caulibus told his readers:

. . . to make yourself more deeply compassionate and nourish yourself at the same time, turn your eyes away from his divinity for a little while and consider [Jesus] purely as a man. you will see a youth, most noble and most innocent and most lovable, cruelly beaten and covered with blood and wounds. . . . Imagine yourself present and consider diligently everything done against your Lord and all that is said and done by him and regarding him. . . .With your mind’s eye, see some thrusting the cross into the earth, others equipped with nails and hammers, others with the ladder and other instruments, others giving orders about what should be done, and others stripping him.

I bring up the conventionality of both Kempe’s book and Julian’s revelations in part because this is what literary scholars do: connect texts to other texts in an attempt to discern where writers adhere to and break with established practices. Some of us do so because we are invested in the dubious concept of “authorial originality”; I personally am less concerned with that than others, and today, at least, I’m almost exclusively interested in the prospect that we can trace commonalities across cultures and time through texts. But I also draw attention to it in part as a way to work against the tendency of modern readers to focus on these women’s reported physiological connections to divine bodies in order to pathologize them.

There is, in fact, a long tradition in which critics diagnose Kempe with mental illness and hysteria, in some cases as a way to discount the legitimacy of her status as a mystic or authentic devotee, and in others to claim a sort of feminist reclaiming of the challenges of the female body. This last approach is exemplified by an article by Diana Jefferies and Debbie Horsfall, who assert that Kempe suffers from post-natal psychosis. They argue that she recovered from the trauma of childbirth by “strategically refashion[ing] her persona from wife to spiritual figure.” Moreover, they claim,

I suppose that if Margery came to me in a dream and confirmed that she had some form of post-partum depression, I’d be less surprised by that confirmation than the visit itself. But I also wonder whether critics exhibits an equally intense desire to explain the mystical experiences of men by taking recourse to male physiology. Is it a gendered response to assume that we can, from somebody’s words, identify what was going on in their minds and bodies. Are there articles asking whether Paul had a kidney stone? Or essays examining the possibility that Mohammad ate a particular kind of food on the days he had his visions? I suspect there are not, or at least that questions of this nature are not asked as routinely of these figures as they are of women like Julian and Margery. Of course, we might argue that Kempe’s willingness to have the character of Margery presented in her book discuss the matters of pregnancy and sex makes such questions fair game. But there’s quite a lot of Booke remaining after Margery’s negotiates her freedom from the constraints of her marriage, and personally, I find matters of Margery’s relationship to mercantile and proto-capitalist values to be much more intriguing.

Of course, you might wonder then why I didn’t just discuss that aspect of the text today, and it’s a legitimate question. Rather than approach the text as I might do in my scholarship, that is, by examining the cultural and political contexts that inform them, I wanted this lecture to address the more general phenomenon of women’s mystic literature and leave you with some thoughts on how communities of women might form around the stories they tell.

In the interest of concluding on time, I’m going to end with just one example of how this worked, again in the later period I study: Beyond making note of Margery’s visit, the Broadview Anthology introduction to Julian’s Divine Revelations that I provided you offered a rather bleak view on Julian’s immediate influence. Still, there is material evidence that her manuscript found readers in the first four decades of the seventeenth century: Georgia Ronan Crampton notes at least three women who read and quoted from Julian in their own devotional writing: Margaret Gascoigne (d.1637), Barbara Constable (fl.1640), Anne Clementine Cary (1615–1671) (16). By suggesting that her writings “effectively remained buried” in monastic houses (348), the editor of your text is generally accurate, but in a way completely dismisses the actual women readers who access them there. Moreover, I think there is more to say about the 1670 printed edition of Julian’s long text, specifically with respect to the notion of female companionship and the capacity for women’s writing to touch the lives of other women.

1670 Edition of Julian

The dedicatory letter that proceeds the text is addressed to Lady Mary Blount, whos husband had died three years prior. In that letter, Father Hug Cressy explains to her,

The Author is a person of your own sex, who lived about three hundred years since, intended it for you, and for such Readers as yourself who would not be induced to the perusing of it by Curiosity, or a desire to learn strange things, which afterward they will at best vainly admire, or perhaps out of incredulity condemn. But your Ladyship will, I assure myself, afford Her a place in your Closet, where at your Devote Retirements, you will enjoy her Saint-like Conversation, attending to her, whilst with Humility and Joy, She recounts to you the Wonders of our Lord’s Love to Her, and his Grace in her. And being thus employed, I make no doubt but you will be sensible of many Beams of her lights, and much warmth of her Charity, by reflection darted into your own Soul.

I could lecture for 50 minutes just on this letter, which rather charmingly conflates the body and person of Julian with Her book. Unlike how we use the term “closet” now, the late seventeenth century closet was not a place to put your clothes or hide your sexuality; rather, it was a private space for contemplation and reading. In asking Mary Blount to take Julian into her closet, he invites her to take the words to heart and perhaps therein find a new soulmate. And because other women might read the same letter in the text’s circulated in print, other women were encouraged to do so too.

I know there’s much more to say about all of these women that are now in your binders: So with that, I’ll let you get to it.



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.