How to Be a Medieval Woman: On Mary Sharratt’s “Revelations”

June 5, 2021   •   By Lucia Tang

Revelations

Mary Sharratt

THE LATE-MEDIEVAL MYSTIC Margery Kempe might have been the Anglophone world’s first autobiographer, but she shied away from using the genre’s favored pronoun. In The Book of Margery Kempe — the 97,000-odd words she dictated to a succession of male amanuenses — the word “I” is conspicuously absent outside of dialogue. Instead, Kempe refers to herself within her text as “this creature.” In adopting this makeshift humilific, Kempe seems to relish relating a life of constant ignominy. Whether at home in Norfolk or abroad on pilgrimage, she endures scoffs, dismissive sighs, and even spittle from neighbors and strangers alike. But humiliation works to her advantage: her beloved bridegroom has assured her that he loves her better, “the more shame, contempt, and rebuke” she suffers for his sake.

Of course, this lover, who comforts her when she’s jeered in public and who embraces her in the lonely dark, is none other than Jesus Christ. A beautiful man clothed in purple silk, he begins appearing to Margery after the birth of her first child — a traumatic experience that saw her harassed by devils, tearing at her own skin until she had to be restrained. The Son of Man saves her from this living hell — and becomes the love of her life.

By the time she’s given birth to her 14th child, Margery can no longer bear to sleep with her earthly husband. She leaves her hometown of Bishop’s Lynn to go on pilgrimage, where all her attention is riveted on Jesus: his body in her bed, his voice in her soul, the tears that she cries for him, roaring wildly, when she encounters anything that reminds her of his Passion. It’s this loud, irrepressible weeping that so irritates Margery’s fellow Christians, supplying her with an endless fount of ridicule she can alchemize into divine love.

In her new novel Revelations, Mary Sharratt — a stalwart of historical fiction who has penned books about Alma Mahler, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and the 12th-century Benedictine polymath Hildegard von Bingen — tackles Margery’s adventures with a lively earnestness, recounting them in the first person. (In a neat reversal of the source text, Kempe’s characteristic “this creature” appears often enough, but only in dialogue, placed inside the mouths of hostile clerics.) Unlike her counterpart in the original, Sharratt’s Margery is compelled to travel not just by her bridegroom’s urgings and the stirrings of her soul — she’s also doing a favor for a fellow lover of God. The anchoress Julian of Norwich, who in Kempe’s Book offers only “holy conversation,” here hands over her own manuscript, the Revelations of Divine Love, which recounts her visions of God. “I am enclosed within a house of stone,” Julian points out. “But you, my sister, wander free.” She solicits Margery’s help to spread the text across Europe. It’s a call to adventure that Margery is touched enough to accept:

All my longings, all my prayers, all my visions had led me to this place, this eternal moment with the sun pouring through the stained glass to wash our clasped hands as red as the blood of the passion. My lonely path converged with hers. “Yes,” I whispered fiercely. “I will carry your book.”


I felt as though I were Ruth pledging my troth to Naomi. […] I knew I would find the strength to endure whatever happened to me from that moment onward. For now I knew that my life mattered.


In Sharratt’s account, Julian’s mission has a more powerful transformative effect than God’s own miraculous presence at Margery’s bedside. But Revelations also approaches Margery’s postpartum conversion with a lightly psychologizing touch. When Jesus materializes in her room, he wears the face of her dead first love, Martin, the handsome son of wine merchants who was the young Margery’s choice over gray-bearded John Kempe. The two teenagers had resolved to marry once Martin had made his fortune on an overseas trading mission, but violent winds led to his death by shipwreck. “My beloved sank to the bottom of the sea, taking my heart with him,” a mournful Margery reflects. “I didn’t even have his corpse to weep over. His blessed, beautiful flesh. Beata viscera.” Afterward, she finds herself in John Kempe’s marriage bed.

The Latin here — beata viscera — rings somewhat false. The phrase, which has unshakable religious overtones, was used most often, in late-medieval settings, to describe the Virgin Mary nourishing the Christ Child with her blessed flesh. Encountering the phrase in this context undercuts the impact of an unconverted Margery’s first brush with grief: it imposes a layer of emotional distance on a narrative moment that should feel untrammeled and raw. “Beata viscera” is a distracting rupture in the story, a modern author’s imprecise gesturing at the medieval — an attempted historicism that collapses into anachronism. More charitably, though, it may point to Christ’s own transtemporal powers in the story. What is his appearance before Margery, after all, if not a rupture? This seemingly out-of-place Latin phrase does neatly foreshadow Martin’s reemergence in Margery’s life, the godhead shining through his dead, beloved face.

While the ahistorical usage of beata viscera can be justified in the context of Margery’s experiences, other anachronistic slippages are harder to reconcile. Some of these are trivial: a one-scene character, say, burdened with a name coined in the 1800s. Others pose more substantial distractions. Taken together, they make Sharratt’s Middle Ages feel somewhat threadbare, contemporary sensibilities abrading her historical worldbuilding.

In fairness, the world of Revelations is skillfully set-dressed, its players lavishly — and appropriately — costumed. When it comes to the sensory details, Sharratt’s prose is fine-grained and full-bodied, rendering the textures and odors that made up a 15th-century life: spiced claret and undyed wool, cheese that “smelled like a pilgrim’s hot and tired feet.” Sharratt’s grip on historical verisimilitude, however, often slackens when it comes to the contents of her painstakingly attired heroine’s mind. At one point, for instance, Margery worries over the “lewd appraisal” she would invite as a woman traveling alone, concluding that she would only be “left in peace” if she played “the part of a mad gibbering religious fanatic muttering utterances of impending doom.” Margery’s fear of sexual harassment, drawn directly from Kempe’s own narrative, invites empathic identification, but her resolve to play the “religious fanatic” gives me pause. Is this the voice of a 15th-century woman who sleeps with her God and roars with sorrow at his suffering, who listens as he foretells earthquakes and deaths? Or is it the judgment of a 21st-century author, shaping her protagonist to the tastes of a readership for whom mysticism is mere mania and faith can too readily become fanaticism?

As she makes her way from Bishop’s Lynn to Compostela, Sharratt’s Margery takes on, at certain angles, the appearance of a contemporary woman laced into a medieval kirtle, lapsing into interior monologues that feel out of time. At one point, she reflects on one of the accusations that dogs her at home and abroad: an association with the heretical, proto-Protestant Lollard movement. “Where would I fit in a Lollard commonwealth?” Margery wonders:

Would there be a place for women like me, women who refused to be obedient wives or cloistered nuns but chose to wander freely in the world? What if it was true that their women were preachers? That women in their order even served communion? The shock of such a possibility left me giddy. […] If the Lollards won, would women stand shoulder to shoulder with men?


Sharratt isn’t wrong, of course, to foreground the themes of gender that run through Margery’s Book. Kempe, after all, shows herself transgressively donning white — the color of consecrated virgins — long after her 14th child is born. The violence she contends with stems, inescapably, from the fact of her womanhood: she fears sexual assault on the pilgrimage road, and her own husband threatens her with rape. Present-day commentators have been particularly taken with the gendered dimension of Margery’s Book, reflecting movingly on her status as a writing mother, on her determination to redraw the limits of a world that tried to bind her to her home.

The musings that Sharratt places in Margery’s mouth belong to the long-running feminist reception of Kempe’s work. But her Lollardry monologue frames her as a bumper-sticker slogan — the proverbial opposite of the well-behaved woman who rarely makes history. In its style and effect, the passage comes across as ham-fisted, a slickly triumphalist, pussy-hat-era intrusion into a 15th-century world. Inside Margery’s white gown, there’s a well-intentioned Clinton voter who cares deeply, if diffusely, about women’s issues, and who may just now be starting to grapple with the fraught implications of leaning in. Early publicity materials for the novel frame Revelations as a “fifteenth-century Eat, Pray, Love,” and it’s easy enough to picture memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert’s on-screen stand-in, Julia Roberts, playing Sharratt’s Margery as well. With the light of Jerusalem gilding her cheekbone, she’d turn her earnest gaze to the Holy Sepulchre, divulging her longing to “marvel at something” — expressing an inoffensive feminism in her well-modulated voice.

Taken in these terms, Revelations does exactly what it sets out to do: pluck a woman from her burdensome circumstances and send her on a feel-good adventure around the world. In fact, Sharratt’s evident indebtedness to the self-help movement isn’t even the first such interpretation of the source text: five years ago, Penguin Classics republished The Book of Margery Kempe as How To Be a Medieval Woman.

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Lucia Tang is an essayist, critic, and occasional reporter currently based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Electric Literature, and JSTOR Daily, among other places.