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The Anchoress and the Self-Proclaimed Prophet: Medieval Female Writers in Ecclesiastical Society
By Jenna Tynan
Discoveries, No.9 (2008)
Introduction: The medieval mystic who embodied an intersection between the divine and earthly realms challenged not only the authority of the clergy but also the dogmas of the church. Medieval mystics became mediators between God and humanity, an intermediate position only attributed to the community’s priest (Gen 14.18).
According to The Oxford English Dictionary a mystic was “any person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into God, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths which are beyond the intellect” (Mystic). Though this definition opens the mystical realm to all genders, two of the most prominent English mystics were Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both illiterate women who desired to preserve their mystical experiences textually.
Though these women used scribes to chronicle their mystical revelations, both authors, nevertheless, successfully asserted their authority in the ecclesiastical and literary realms. Even though Julian and Margery surmounted similar adversities in creating their visions, both women revealed their greater authority in the ecclesiastical and literary community differently. Julian established her authority while still maintaining an analytical persona and the “quietness and full submission” valued by Christian fathers (I Tim 2.11).
However, Margery asserted her dominance by openly subverting scriptural censure of women (I Tim. 2.12–14). From the images that both women use, to their method of disseminating their mystic visions, to even the manner by which each woman structures her work, the reader can discern Margery’s more intrepid claims to pious authority. Though Margery’s overwhelming emotional displays may have caused consternation among her community, her establishment of religious piety displayed such temerity that her text exerted even greater female religious authority than that of her mentor and predecessor, Julian of Norwich.