I’ve always been fascinated with the women mystics, such as 12th century powerfrau and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, the heroine of my 2012 novel, ILLUMINATIONS. Likewise my new novel, REVELATIONS, which will be published in April 2021, is centered on two 15th century English mystics, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. Like Hildegard, they were women of faith facing the roadblock of institutional, male-dominated religion that sidelined them. But instead of letting this beat them down, they found within their own hearts a vision of the divine that mirrored their female experience. I believe it’s no mere coincidence that both Hildegard and Julian dared to create a theology of the Feminine Divine, of God the Mother. All three women seized their power and their voice to write about their encounters with the sacred, preserving their revelations to inspire us today.
While Hildegard and Julian are iconic, Margery Kempe is a more marginal figure–well-known among medievalists but much less known to a general audience. I first encountered Margery in a post-grad course entitled Late Medieval Belief and Superstition. I was blown away by the story of this enterprising woman who survived postnatal depression and a soul-destroying marriage to become an intrepid world traveler and literary pioneer. The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436–38) is the first autobiography in the English language.
Margery’s story explodes our every stereotype about medieval women.
She was not just a desperate housewife and mother of fourteen. She rebelled against the straightjacket of an abusive marriage by becoming an entrepreneurial businesswoman. First she ran a brewery, then a grain mill. When both businesses failed and she’d had enough, she left her husband behind and took to the road as a pilgrim, traveling to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. This in an age when very few women traveled even in the company of their husbands, Margery blazed her own trail across Europe and the Near East.
Alas, like strong women throughout history, her independence and eccentricities drew suspicion. Before long she found herself on trial for heresy. A guilty verdict would have seen her burned at the stake, yet she kept her spirits high by regaling the Archbishop of York with a parable of a defecating bear and a priest.
Before leaving on her monumental pilgrimage, Margery sought the counsel of her sister mystic, Julian of Norwich. This was an exceedingly vulnerable time in Margery’s life. In leaving her husband and children behind, she had broken all the rules, and she was filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Julian’s advice to trust her inner calling and not worry too much about what other people thought seemed to have a profound and empowering impact on Margery. While Julian had chosen to wall herself into a cell and live as an anchoress, she gave Margery her blessing to wander the wide world.
Sadly, some historians and theologians try to pit Julian and Margery against each other. Julian is held up as the real saint, the real deal, while Margery is dismissed as a hysterical wanna-be. Because she had the habit of copious weeping when in the throes of mystical experience, many people, both in her time and ours, have refused to take her seriously.
Yet a number of fascinating synchronicities connect Margery and Julian. In so many ways, their stories intertwine and complement each other.
Margery was born in 1373, the same year that thirty-year-old Julian received her “showings”—the divine visions that would inspire her landmark book Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman. Both women lived in Norfolk, in cities less than 45 miles away from each other. Both women were literary pioneers whose lifework was lost to obscurity, only to resurface in the twentieth century.
Immersing myself in Julian’s radical theology of the primacy of divine love was a profound experience. Like Margery, I often found myself moved to tears by the beauty of Julian’s visions, by her absolute assurance that no matter how dire things may seem, all will be well.
But what took me by surprise was how revelatory Margery’s dance with self-doubt was for me. In writing this book and delving into medieval mystical texts, I discovered that our doubts, as painful and wrenching as they are, aren’t a flaw or hindrance. In fact, they lead us deeper into the divine mystery, the vast “Cloud of Unknowing” where God dwells. Only when we set aside our preconceived notions of what we think we believe the divine to be, can we enter this numinous place.
As a mystic, Margery’s especially fascinating to me, because she found her spiritual bliss not in the cloister, but as a laywoman, in the full stream of worldly life with all its wonders and perils. May we all have the power to reinvent ourselves as courageously as Margery did.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.