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Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe

Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe

Liz Herbert McAvoy
Volume: 5
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 286
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  • Book Info
    Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe
    Book Description:

    The writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe show an awareness of traditional and contemporary attitudes towards women, in particular medieval attitudes towards the female body. This study examines the extent to which they make use of such attitudes in their writing, and investigates the importance of the female body as a means of explaining their mystical experiences and the insight gained from them; in both writers, the female body is central to their writing, leading to a feminised language through which they achieve authority and create a space in which they can be heard, particularly in the context of their religious and mystical experiences. The three archetypal representations of woman in the middle ages, as mother, as whore and as 'wise woman', are all clearly present in the writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe; in examining the ways in which both writers make use of these female categories, McAvoy establishes the extent of their success in resolving the tension between society's expectations of them and their own lived experiences as women and writers. LIZ HERBERT MCAVOY is Lecturer in Medieval Language and Literature, University of Leicester.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-261-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-27)

    These words, attributed to Eve by the playwright of the N-Town play entitled The Creation of the World: The Fall of Man, serve to identify in her a restlessly transgressive desire to move out of her allocated space at the side of Adam and access the more marginal realms beyond. Instead of being compliant to her ontological role as Adam’s helpmate and companion, the N-Town Eve displays a wanderlust which draws her away from Adam to enjoy the delights of the garden independently of her partner. In contrast, in the same play Adam is depicted as ‘a good gardenere’ and...

  6. 1 Motherhood and Margery Kempe
    (pp. 28-63)

    Writing these words in the context of her investigation into the lives of medieval women, Judith Bennett could indeed have been referring specifically to Margery Kempe,² whose book has been ploughed endlessly as a rich source of information for historians, theologians, literary critics and even psychologists since the rediscovery of the only extant manuscript in 1934. Bennett’s findings have suggested that medieval women – of whom Margery Kempe is perhaps one of the best documented – were frequently able to search out and appropriate a myriad of ways of functioning more comfortably within a society which imposed the ‘pressures of...

  7. 2 The Motherhood Matrix in the Writing of Julian of Norwich
    (pp. 64-95)

    One could be forgiven for interpreting these disembodied words from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as the representation of the experiences of an anchoress following the act of enclosure. The door to her cell has been sealed and she is left with a sense of her own separation from the ugliness of the world and with an awareness of the brightness of the crucified Christ who alone remains with her. As the physical darkness of the anchorhold descends, so her consciousness begins to merge with the illuminated crucifix and we feel we are witnessing the approach to spiritual...

  8. 3 Discourses of Prostitution and The Book of Margery Kempe
    (pp. 96-130)

    By the time Chaucer came to write these words in the context of his depiction of the Wife of Bath in the late fourteenth century, the country was in the throes of major economic and social change. The Black Death of mid-century had brought about the loss of up to one half of the population in some areas and had contributed to what R. H. Britnell has identified as a ‘mid-century crisis’.² During Margery Kempe’s lifetime this population deficit had not recovered; on the one hand it had created a decline in the demand for certain commodities within the market,³...

  9. 4 ‘3yf thowe be payede,’ quod oure lorde, ‘I am payede’: Hermeneutics of the Holy Whore in Julian of Norwich
    (pp. 131-169)

    Julian of Norwich’s negotiation of contemporary sexual attitudes towards women is an aspect of her writing which has been largely overlooked, in spite of the fact that so much has been written about her perception of God as specifically maternal. One possible reason for this oversight is that her status as an anchoress (and, by implication an a-sexual or desexualised religious) has acted as a modern-day screen to such investigations. Or, perhaps, the now largely rejected theory that she was a nun at Carrow prior to enclosure has also been thoroughly internalised by modern commentators, leading them to treat her...

  10. 5 Margery Kempe: Wisdom, Authority and the Female Utterance
    (pp. 170-204)

    These words, spoken by Proserpina to her husband Pluto in Chaucer’s ‘Merchant’s Tale’, take up a common thread in medieval literature – that of women as being unable to control their voices. Within this paradigm, the female voice is often represented as a monstrosity which is always threatening to break out and damage the socio-religious or the domestic status quo.² Like a monstrous pregnancy, its progeny will necessarily burst forth and spread its poison into the world of men. Such a discourse of the disruptive female voice is everywhere apparent in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and throughout the collection we see...

  11. 6 Julian of Norwich: Voice of the Wise Woman
    (pp. 205-234)

    At the climactic moment as the Long Text draws to a close, Julian of Norwich admits to having experienced a secondary vision ‘xv yer after [the original vision] and more’ (LT, 135). Julian tells us that it was in this secondary revelation (which must have occurred some time during or after 1388) that she was made privy to the crucial and transforming insight that ‘love was our lords mening’ (LT, 135), and it is an insight which crowns the entire Long Text and brings it to its close:

    And I saw ful sekirly in this and in all, that ere...

    (pp. 235-237)

    So speaks Eve to her many children from the lonely heights of her deathbed. According to an apocryphal tradition which records the post-Edenic life of Adam, Eve and their offspring, on Adam’s death and prior to her own demise Eve instructs her son, Seth, to set down their lives in tablets of clay and stone in order to make permanent for posterity their transgression and suffering. Although he knows no writing, following his mother’s death Seth’s hand is guided by God as he writes the lives of the first mother and father into clay and stone, becoming essentially the first...

    (pp. 238-262)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 263-276)