April 05, 2014

Julian and Margery EDP weekend feature Apr 5 2014

The mediaeval mystics Margery Kempe of Lynn (c1373-1438) and Mother Julian of Norwich (1342-c1416) lived within forty Norfolk miles of each other and were twin pioneers of female self-determination in a patriarchal age,
And they are as different as oil and water.

Julian was an anchoress, a religious recluse voluntarily walled up in an enclosure she’d vowed never to leave. Margery chafed at bounds all her life. After fourteen pregnancies, she bought a vow of celibacy from her husband. Against female custom, and church orders, she undertook independent pilgrimages.

Julian’s spiritual status is secure; Margery’s still agitated for. The episcopal precedence of Norwich over Bishop’s Lynn may have been a factor. For ‘Bishop’s Lynn’ read Bishop of Norwich, ruling Lynn from his palace at Gaywood. Claiming a Saint or a genuine vision was a huge coup (it was the making of Walsingham for instance.) It is interesting to speculate whether a Margery of Norwich supported by the leading monk and future cardinal Adam of Easton, as Julian was, might have received more official support.
Mother Julian lived in the chief market town of the most thickly populated district of mediaeval England, with an unusual number of merchants and ‘strangers’ (Europeans) in its midst. Its living legacy is a mediaeval wall as long as London’s and a greater density of mediaeval buildings than any other English city. This includes Julian’s extraordinary cell, in St Julian’s Church, off King St, rebuilt after WW2 bombing.
Think a mediaeval version of matchday crowds, with the Canaries contending for the Premiership, in a Norwich well on its way to becoming the second city of England. In the midst of this but behind a wall, Mother Julian lived quietly, writing up her ‘showings,’ giving spiritual succour through an aperture to the worldly, loved by her community and a notable feather in her bishop’s mitre. In the hearts of her supplicants, and the official eye of the church, her peaceful presence was a blessing.
Margery lived as a burgess’s wife, pregnant for two decades, brewing and managing a horse-drawn grain mill (not very successfully) in England’s leading Hanseatic English port, at the hub of Wash waterways and busy sea routes.
This was the age before Atlantic exploration and trade opened up the West. Norfolk was the heart of England: advanced, bristling with impressive churches, densely populated and close to Europe. The Hanseatic League linked this heart with Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic.

Margery lived on this teeming international waterfront, close to her beloved St Margaret’s Church, daughter of the leading merchant and five times mayor of Bishop’s Lynn. But with eyes only for Jesus.
A giant harbourside cross welcomed pilgrims to the port, the pilgrim goldrush and a skyline dominated by five imposing friaries which were ‘the motorway service stations of the age.’ From here pilgrims would walk the marathon to Walsingham. Margery did so herself.
Mediaeval women knew their place was serving husbands at home or following a religious vocation in a convent or cell like Julian. Margery broke all the rules, mixing two church-approved states of womanhood. She undertook Hanseatic journeys, and pilgrimages in self-appointed white robes, without the sanction of her confessor, asserting she was ‘directed to do so by God.’
A loving wife, she bought a vow of celibacy from her husband, along with his conjugal rights. And, ahead of her time as always, she wrote the first autobiography in English, not letting a little thing like illiteracy get in her way. She narrated it in the third person as ‘this creature’ - ‘a being created by God.’
It all started with the traumatic delivery of her first child and the harsh interruption of her ‘death-bed’ confession by a censorious priest. This gave her a mental breakdown and precipitated her first vision - of a beautiful gentle Jesus.
Unlike Julian’s ‘showings’ Margery’s mystical visions were judged as ‘deceptions.’ Her by-passing the all-powerful priests in a direct personal relationship with The Trinity might have been acceptable if like Julian she had been literate, learned and officially dead to the world (walled up and with the burial service read over her.)
But Margery’s visions were eccentric, illiterate, ‘common.’ Her holy spirit is a robin. Her Jesus is dishy, clad in purple silk and every handsome Italian she saw in Rome later evoked him. She’s too literal. Her saintly love-metaphors have too much of the living world about them.
She was active, noisy, allegedly unorthodox, even heretical, and certainly at odds with the authorities of a church she fervently loved. Despite impressed support from local churchmen who believed her visions and helped her record them, and who credited her with miraculously saving St Margaret’s from the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421, she continually disturbed fellow parishioners with loud weeping and crying out at mass, any mention of Christ’s suffering likely to set her off.

Julian and Margery, whom she called ‘sister,’ spent several days together as Kempe checked whether there might be any deception in Kempe’s own visions, ‘for the anchoress,’ she says,’ was expert in such things.’
The most important documentary source for Julian’s life is actually Margery, whose description of Julian’s conversation accords with the doctrines and personality that emerge from Julian’s own Book of Showings, later called Revelations of Divine Love.
In return, Julian endorses Kempe’s way of life. ‘When God visiteth a creature with tears of contrition, devotion or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost dwelleth in his soul…. There (is) no evil spirit in these tokens, for tears torment the Devil more than the pains of hell.’
Julian is extraordinarily precise about the sixteen visions she had at the age of thirty and a half on May 13 1373. These mystical experiences never returned. Margery’s are lifelong. Julian’s Book of Showings represents fifteen years of profound meditation in her cell about what they meant.
A short version of Julian’s Showings grows into a longer one distinguished by greater clarity and richness as her gifted mind ponders the ‘revelations’ in the light of her extensive knowledge of the Bible and of mediaeval theology in both English and Latin.
Julian is the anchoress as mediaeval metaphysician. She expresses profundities in homely English images: the sinner as a frightened child running to its mother for comfort and help; the blood of Christ like rainwater dripping from the eaves of a house. Sophisticated theology is distilled in such nutshells as ‘love was his meaning’ and the famous ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ stolen like a thread of gold by TS Eliot for his Four Quartets.
In an age where priests were all-powerful and all male and where ‘no women should preach’ Julian, despite her adopted masculine name, emphasises God’s female side. ‘The second person of the Trinity is our mother. And thus is Jesu our very mother…he may (directly) lead us into his blessed breast by his meet open side…bearing us in his body, giving birth to us as the Christ.’ And, again- ‘The Father is truly our Mother. The holy Spirit is truly our mother.’
Julian finds authority for these meditations in Biblical precedent; a tradition of English devotional prose that goes back to Old English and complex scholarship. Margery, an illiterate, itinerant mediaeval laywoman, has only oral religion; role models of married celibacy like the Blessed Dorothea of Prussia (1347-94) whose cult status reached Lynn via its strong links with Germany, and her personal visions.
For a married woman and mother of fourteen children to claim the Son and Mother of God had given her a mission and instructions for a holy life was controversial enough. Margery added to it a new Franciscan emphasis on love experienced in a direct relationship with Christ and a highly emotional style of religious expression that riled church, citizens and pilgrims alike. Yet, ordered by the archbishop of York to swear not to teach in his diocese, she defended her right to speak her conscience. This brave stand is made a century before Luther – and by a woman.
Her alleged disregard for the role of the church as intermediary between God and human soul laid her open to charges of Lollardy. This heresy, rife in in Norfolk, condemned her parish priest William Sawtrey to burning. He was the first heretic burned in England. Without her status as a former mayor’s daughter and her Book’s much-tested acknowledgement of church authority, she may well have joined him.

The following three ballads are published in my 2015 Poppyland book of new ballads about Norfolk heroes and heroes "Doin different" and the link below takes you to further information about Margery, Julian , Sawtrey and many other figures from Norfolk and East Anglian history.

1.   The Ballad of Julian of Norwich

“He said not 'Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased'; but he said, 'Thou shalt not be overcome…’ 
‘All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’
Mother Julian Revelations of Divine Love.

Love buried me alive in here,
A dead they’ll never raise
The maid a parish comes to love,
A movement comes to praise.

No motion have I now, my course
Is inward, grave and still;
The church behind my every move,
The tomb my anchored will.

‘They plead with parrot prayers -’ 'O hush.
In silence are no lies.
These dreads and longings come to dust. 
The spirit never dies.'

‘I’m out of here if that’s your tale,
My column talks the town.
I’ll lose my pitch, my job, my mind,
I’ve got to nail them down.’

‘O frightened child, just run to Him,’
I’m not like you – you’re dead!
‘Dead to the world yet still attached,
All shall be well, He said.'

‘He showed into my mind a nut.’
I’m seeing one, they grin
‘In it we seek its maker, rest
Where there no rest is in.’

‘You saw Eternity last May
Through Death’s wedged-open door!?’
‘This crucifix - like rain from eaves,
I saw its hot blood pour.’

‘I saw in sixteen shewings how
We must – we can - abide
Dis-ease, travail and storm, for we’re
The thorn in God’s soft side.

‘Which side is that?’ ‘His female side’
‘The Trinity has another?’
‘Christ bears us all upon His breast,
His wound’s our womb and mother.

‘O frightened child, just run to him,’
I’m not like you – you’re dead!
‘Dead to the world yet still attached,
All shall be well, she said.' 

2.   The Ballad of William Sawtrey of Lynn

William Sawtrey of Bishop’s Lynn, Margery Kempe’s parish priest, was the first heretic to be burned for his beliefs in England. He was charged under the Statute of Heresies (1400), ‘examined’ by the Bishop of Elmham and burned in London in 1401. Much of ‘Lollardy’ - a uniquely English heresy - would resurface later as Protestantism. Whether Sawtrey was the first Protestant martyr or the ‘Morning Star’ (Lucifer) of the English Reformation depends which side of the Eucharistic bread you’re on.

“If by this act I can light a flame
Feed the wax of Flesh to burn Love’s Name
In the unlettered lives of Jesu’s people,
The ground down to earth, the poor, the meek, the faithful:
The pain of Flesh passing is well worth the candle.
It’s a heaven to die for!”
(from A Nice Guy: The Burning of William Sawtrey)

They told me that the bread became
Christ’s Body not His Ghost.
I said a priest’s no sorcerer
That did it: I was toast.

They tortured me, ‘recant
Your reasoning, or roast!’
I said ‘I cannot bear your Cross.’
That did it: I was toast.

They told me that Richeldis saw
Our Lady not a ghost.
I said ‘chalk eggs to Falsingham!’
That did it: I was toast.

They said a Roman prayer or Mass
Would keep me in my post.
I said ‘An English sermon’s best.’
That did it. I was toast.

‘Our Sacraments are spirit gold,’
The brassy bishops boast
‘And all that gilders isn’t God!’
That did it: I was toast.

They Credo-bashed, defrocked and lashed
My body to their post.
I answered them with Balaam’s ass.
That did it: I was toast.

They told me that the bread became
The hostage not the host.
I said ‘Man needs the bread as well.’
That did it: I was toast.

They burn me like a fallen Eve,
A holy without smoke,
I climb up like a morning star,
The dreamer’s gleam of hope.

3.   The Ballad of Margery Kempe

I cut a dash through Bishop’s Lynn,
Proud daughter of its Mayor,
My cloaks with modish tippets slashed,
And gold pipes in my hair.

I burned to die, I sinned a sin
That’s never been confessed
- Except to God - a Lollard sin
To hold it in my breast.

This Book I weep in blood
Up from the heart’s deep well
Would drown the earth in heaven tears
And church the tongues of hell. 

But hearing heaven’s Song of Songs
I shun the gutter’s Ouse
And though you rule me, husband, priest,
A single life I choose

And every pilgrim step I trudge
From wedlock’s grave mundane
And married flesh and churchman’s plot
Is singing with God’s name.

This Book I weep in blood
Up from the heart’s deep well
Would drown the earth in heaven tears

And church the tongues of hell. 

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