My new novel REVELATIONS is drawn from the lives of two medieval mystics who changed history—Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, two very different women whose paths converged and who, I believe, have much to teach us today.
Women’s spiritual experience is a theme that keeps coming up in my novels. Perhaps some of you have read my novel ILLUMINATIONS, about the visionary abbess, composer and polymath, Hildegard von Bingen.
As a spiritual person myself, I’ve always found it frustrating how women have been side-lined and marginalized in every established religion in the world. Yet from time out of mind, mystic and visionary women of all faith traditions have offered radical resistance. They have subverted institutional patriarchal religion from within and found their own direct path to the divine by plunging into the deep mysteries of the soul on a path of inner revelation. Julian of Norwich called God Mother and devoted her life to writing about the Motherhood of God. Similarly, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about her visions of the Feminine Divine. This isn’t a modern feminist interpretation. It’s right there in the original texts.
Like us today, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe lived in a time of pandemic and social upheaval, yet both women bore witness to the divine promise that ultimately all shall be well.
During a near-death experience, Julian received a series of divine visions and spent the next forty years unpacking them in her luminous theology of an unconditionally loving God who was both Mother and Father. Julian offered radical counsel to Margery Kempe, a failed businesswoman and mother of fourteen, who was haunted by her own visceral mystic experience. With Julian’s blessing, Margery walked away from a soul-destroying marriage and became a globe-trotting pilgrim-preacher and rabble rouser. Though these two women might seem like polar opposites—Julian, the enclosed anchoress and recluse, and free-roving Margery experiencing her visions in the full stream of worldly life—they complement each other. Together their lives and work form a Via Feminina, a distinctly female path to the divine.
As an author I’m on a mission to write women back into history. Both Julian and Margery serve as all too poignant examples of how women are written out of history.
Julian of Norwich, whom we consider iconic, was nearly lost to history forever. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English written by a woman, fell into obscurity and only surfaced again in 1901 with Grace Warrack’s modern English translation.
Margery Kempe, despite her astonishing life and accomplishments, is only known to us today thanks to a bizarre incident at a country house party in Derbyshire, England in 1934. A group of bright young people was playing Ping-Pong at Southgate House, a stately home owned by the Butler-Bowdens, a venerable family of the gentry. When one of the players destroyed the Ping-Pong ball by treading upon it, they rooted through the cupboards in search of another one. Instead they found what was described as “an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish, leather bound books” of great antiquity.
One of the books soon came to the attention of the American feminist medievalist Hope Emily Allen who identified it as The Book of Margery Kempe, written between 1436 and 1438—the first autobiography in the English language.
While Julian’s and Margery’s stories are now well-known to theologians and medievalists, that’s not enough, in my opinion. They shouldn’t be the preserve of the academic ivory tower. I wrote my novel Revelations to make their lives and work accessible to a general audience.
After all, Julian wrote her book not in Latin but earthy, colloquial Norfolk English so ordinary people could understand it. She famously said, “God is homely”—ie God is cosy and familiar, not some elite, faraway thing. Margery was such a vital, earthy character, she certainly wouldn’t want to be in an ivory tower. She’d want to be down in the tavern drinking beer with all of you!
I hope you will consider reading my book about these two unforgettable women, which you can order here.
For a deep dive into Julian and Margery’s mysticism, I’m offering a one-day mini-retreat in partnership with Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts. You can learn more and register here.
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 mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.