Saints or Heretics?  A Novel of Julian of Norwich and Margery of Kempe

Raised a Catholic, the daughter of a devout Catholic, I learned more about religion from my mother’s example than catechism.  On Sunday mornings we public-school students were hustled off to catechism, held in the depressing old Catholic school across from the church.  The classroom was too hot in fall, too cold in winter and spring. The wooden desks were old and ugly. We read Bible stories in little illustrated books, but not the Bible itself:  that had to be interpreted by the priest. And, ironically, though taught by nuns, we learned nothing about the role of women in the church. The aged nuns, retired teachers, were cross, and who could blame them?  They already had taught three or four generations, and did not want to deal with us.   

 At a certain point, I dropped out of catechism and attended church only sporadically. I was still Catholic, but the anti-woman structure of the church upset me.  The misogyny of the church  still astonishes me in the 21st century:  still no women priests, still no reproductive rights, fewer and fewer nuns, and the Pope living in a  la-la-land of systematic oppression of women.

It would be hyperbolic to say that the church’s attitudes toward women are unchanged since medieval times, but I will say it.  Oh, it was stricter, true, but two famous religious women of the Middle Ages were snubbed by the church and accused of heresy.   Julian of Norwich (1332-?) was a religious visionary who became an anchoress and wrote The Book of Shewings; and Margery of Kempe (1373-?), an illiterate mother of 14 children, began in middle age to preach in open spaces about her visions and conversations with Jesus Christ.  Later, she dictated her memoirs,  The Book of Margery Kempe.

 Margery also went on a pilgrimage to visit Julian and spoke to her through the curtained window of her cell.  Julian of Norwich was impressed by Margery’s courage and urged to continue to preach. She assured her it was not heresy.

Here is something surprising:  I consulted The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, and noted that Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe are absent from these pages. Further research revealed that these two brilliant women were never canonized.   They were rebellious, and there was, of course, a double standard for men and women.  Wealthy Julian of Norwich lost her husband and child to the plague before becoming an anchoress; and Margery’s family life was difficult, since her husband was poor, and she was constantly pregnant and very sick, until Jesus intervened and taught her husband the value of chastity..

I recently read a beautiful first novel by Victoria Mackenzie about Julian of Norwich and Margery of Kempe,  For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain.  It is spare, lucid, very short, and clever, divided into short sections, some from the perspective of Julian, others from Margery of Kempe. 

Julian is especially sympathetic.  The plague was rampant, and she lost several family members.  “The pestilence traveled through the air, like the fog from the river that curled its way under our door in autumn.  My father died, and my nurse Joan died, and my older brother William died.  Then my younger sister Elizabeth died, whom I had always called Betsy.  Thump. Her soft body was thrown away.”

Later, the plague returns.  “When I was nineteen years of age and married, living in the golden mist of my first child, the pestilence returned to our city, slinking through the streets, snuffing out lives.”  Julian loses her husband and baby. She lived with her mother until she died, and then became an anchoress.

Strong, unhappy, but confident Margery takes a lot of flack for sharing her visions of Christ.  “When I told my neighbors that Christ had shown himself to me, they laughed.  ‘Why would he show himself to a woman?’  they said.  ‘Do kings speak to you also?  Does the Pope creep into your room at night and whisper things only for your special sacred ears?  Ha!’”

Julian and Margery were two of the most important medieval writers, unsung heroines of their time. Mackenzie is honest about their arduous lives.  For years Julian was tormented by her inability to adjust to living in an anchorite’s cell. She had pictured serenity, but she could neither pray nor overcome her claustrophobia.  Finally she found the strength, but what a dreadful fate, in my opinion.  Not that she considered it dreadful – she found help in prayer and in writing her book – but she sometimes had regrets.

Margery, on the other hand, has such gory visions of the crucifixion, of being there and seeing every nail hole and touching his wounds, that I felt, like D. H. Lawrence before me, that Christianity is too much a religion of death. 

Victoria Mackenzie is a remarkable writer, though I had difficulty reading about some of the  sublime visionary gore.  That part of religion that never makes sense to me- a bit too much Isis and the Eleusian mysteries, don’t you think?

 But  it is a splendid book, and I remain indignant that these women were not canonized.

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