The 'medieval English mystics' found their greatest supporter in the form of Benedictine monk and Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, David Knowles. The group was argued to consist of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and the controversial and much maligned Margery Kempe. Together they formed a 'medieval English mystical tradition' which, for Knowles, proved the vitality of Catholicism before the Reformation. The concept was created as a defence against the prevailing 'whig' narrative of a weak and passionless late-medieval Church by stressing the deep spirituality these writers possessed. Knowles had used them to prove the vitality of the Catholic Church before the Reformation, but almost completely surrendered the possibility of mystical theology continuing to have influence in post-Reformation England, which was seen to be the domain of Protestant scholars. This illusion that interest in mystical theology in England vanished after the Reformation is something my PhD thesis aims to correct.
|Julian of Norwich (and her cat)|
Building on the feminist scholarship of scholars such as Diane Watt and Liz Herbert McAvoy, my article argues that the two women writers of the group, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (who did know of each other) should rather be placed in the flowering transnational tradition of feminized affective piety in the period, rather than confined to be influenced only by their English male contemporaries. By tracing similarities in their mystical visions with those of Bridget of Sweden, one of the most visible and influential female figures of the late-medieval period, I argue that similar visions of Christ's crucifixion and the suffering of the Virgin Mary found in all three women's accounts suggests that Julian and Margery owed much more to Bridget than any of their 'English mystic' counterparts. I posit that their texts and the manuscripts they are preserved in suggest a self-confidence brought about by the wider positive and influential role religious women had obtained in late-medieval society.
The myth of the 'medieval English mystics' is thus a warning about the confessional nature of historical study. Despite Knowles's work being published in the hay day of confessionalized accounts of the Reformation almost 50 years ago, the consequences of such accounts still resonate today. As my PhD shows, the very word 'mystick' did not exist in the English language until the seventeenth century, and was just as loaded with confessional meaning then as it was when Knowles was writing. It serves as a reminder that the words we use often have complex pasts and histories themselves, and that we need to be sensitive to the consequences of these in our own historical research.
My article 'Returning the English “mystics” to their medieval milieu: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden' is available online here. The article is based on my MRes History dissertation 'Gender in late medieval English Mysticism', which was generously supported by a Northumbria fee-waiver studentship.
- Baker, Denise, N., ‘Julian of Norwich and the Varieties of Middle English Mystical Discourse’ in Liz Herbert McAvoy (ed.) A Companion to Julian of Norwich (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008), pp. 53-63.
- Hazlett, Ian, The Reformation in Britain and Ireland: An Introduction (London: T&T Clark Ltd, 2005).
- Knowles, David, The English Mystical Tradition (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961)
- McAvoy, Liz Herbert and Watt, Diane, ‘Writing a History of British Women’s Writing from 700 to 1500’ in idem, (eds.), The History of British Women’s Writing 700-1500, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 1- 30.
- Temple, Liam Peter, 'Returning the English “mystics” to their medieval milieu: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden', Women's Writing (2015).
- Walsham, Alexandra, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
- Watson, Nicholas, ‘Introduction’, in Samuel Fanous and Vincent Gillespie (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 1-28.
- Watson, Nicholas, 'The Middle English Mystics’, in David Wallace (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 539-65.