Specula: Mirrors from the Middle Ages

Alison Croggon


Speculum [L. f. base of specere, look, see; cf. -ULE.]  1.  A surgical instrument for dilating orifices of the body so as to facilitate examination or operations.  2.  A mirror or reflector (of glass or metal) used for some scientific purpose; specula, lens 1646.  b.  spec. A metallic mirror forming part of a reflecting telescope 1704.  3.  Ornith.  A lustrous mark on the wings of certain birds; = MIRROR sb,. III b. 1804.

Shorter OED

This paper traces my engagement with the writings of women mystics in mediaeval Europe, which resulted in a series of poems.  I want to stress that this is not an explanation or justification of the poetry, and also that I am by no means an expert in mediaeval writing.  It was written simultaneously with the poetry, perhaps in sympathy with Jack Spicer’s admonition: “We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in the poems.  Let it be consumed, paragraph by paragraph, day by day, until nothing of it is left in our poetry and nothing of our poetry is left in it.”[1]  So the relationship between what I say here and what the poetry turned out to be, apart from their common points of departure, is uncertain; they are perhaps entirely parallel investigations driven by the same interest.

I’ve called it Specula, mirrors, a common mediaeval trope for the book, because I found reading these mystic writings generated all sorts of reflections on my own and other contemporary writings.  My dialogue with the texts has been primarily as a poet: this means an opportunistic, argumentative, cannibalistic and disrespectful relationship, organised only by unpredictable structures of responsiveness and preserving jealously a certain irresponsibility which is totally at odds with scholarly study. Despite this, my interest led me to some cogitations which may masquerade as scholarly: and that’s as far as my apologia for this essay goes.  Here I aim to explore why these writings attract me, to briefly sketch their context and nature, and also to reflect briefly on a couple of aspects of contemporary poetics which this essay into the Middle Ages have highlighted for me. 

To read mediaeval texts in Europe, where everywhere are old stones bearing the mark of human habitation stretching back thousands of years, is one experience: there one is aware of the gap of time, but also of concrete continuities.  To read them in Australia, where European history goes back only slightly more than 200 years, and where most of the buildings that surround you are much less than a century old, is another.  It makes reading a uniquely linguistic experience: the writing is unsupported by the architectures of inhabited landscape, the landscape which has been shaped by European language and which has shaped it.  I look out my window, I walk through the suburbs, and nothing in my environment supports these historical experiences: I see no ruins, no churches below the level of the contemporary street, no sense of “old stones” beneath the bright commercial surfaces. 

Like its landscape, Australian history is vast, stretching back 140 millennia, and becomes mythological: myth being the stories we inscribe across the blankness of geographical time.  This span of time yawns behind our tiny European history, just as the inner deserts dwarf our urban habitation.  It’s not unlike how the shadows in an enormous theatre in which only tiny patches of human activity are lit can create an enormous poignancy, a physical sense of the mortality and insignificance of human beings. 

A few years ago I paid a brief visit to Lake Mungo, which is near where the borders of Victoria, South Australia and NSW meet.  Here it is red earth Australia, an entirely different landscape to the somewhat Europeanised one I’m used to in Victoria: the vegetation is aqua, a result I think of the salt content of the soil, and the leaves have different, strangely primitive shapes.  Lake Mungo itself is strictly speaking a plain: it was an actual lake 30,000 years ago.  What is left is miles of level red earth, sprinkled with the low blue fuzz of saltbush and bounded by high white sand dunes which once marked the shores.  There is a constant, punishing wind which bruises your skin and continually shuffles the dunes.  Lake Mungo has now turned into a tourist attraction; there are the outbuildings of a now deserted sheep property, and a small modern museum which houses some of the fossils of now extinct species which have been found there, like the giant marsupial wombat, and Aboriginal relics.

What struck me with particular piquancy were the 30,000 year old camp sites which have left their traces in the sand dunes.  Buried in the sands are the remains of ancient meals: shells from molluscs which were gathered from the vanished lake, bones of cooked animals, the blackened earth of a fire extinguished millennia ago.  The wind, in its constant movement of the dunes, continually brings these traces to the surface: usually all too briefly, since such exposure signals the beginning of their ultimate obliteration.  You can stand over these ghostly campfires and watch the process of the wind eroding them, the sand blasting away at the shells and bones and blackened earth, until no sign at all remains.

Lake Mungo is one of those places where European language falters.  You can describe the sense of horizonless space and time beyond a human scale, the overpowering feeling of human insignificance, mortality and poignant persistence, but really you are left with a palpable sense of the inadequacy of words.  It throws up a challenge to the limits of language, and so suggests the edges of mysticism.  In Aboriginal languages and systems of meaning, this is a landscape of presence, harsh perhaps, but speaking of vitality and life, impregnated with myths of creation which are ongoing, a primordial time which exists within, not before, the present.  But a European mentality ends up describing everything in terms of absence and negativity: to a European eye, this landscape has an indescribably desolate beauty, the kind of godlessness which to some minds invites an image of God, a drastic alienness which shocks the self out of its comfortable linguistic associations. 

This sense of dislocation extends to my relationship to the English language, as I am a first generation migrant from England.  That dislocating shock of alienated language is part of my primary experience and has had a profound affect on how I write poetry.  Perhaps this partly explains my attraction to the mystical texts.  I discovered a surprising contemporaneity in these 700 year old writings, in their displacements of self and contradictorily empowering strategies of speaking, in their assertion of interiority as a public act.  Without projecting an imaginary feminism onto them, it seems to me that the writings of mystic women can be seen as visualisations of possibility rather than, as has been often said, simply expressions of “hysteria” or sexual lack, or the self indulgent expressions of the frustrated egos of women.  The fantasies of the female mystics could go so far as to reshape an obdurate reality to more rightly fit their desires, however temporarily, and functioned as expressions of freedom in a world in which women’s voices were “stifled, imprisoned by an ethic that treated sins of the tongue as gluttony and as harbingers of worse, of lust and pride.”  In such a society, “women who presumed to speak out publicly only compounded the sin” of speaking at all.[2]  They remain potent traces of a successful struggle by the silenced against silence.

Historically, Western woman has been, by definition, not a literary being, a maker of original texts: at best she was a helpmeet to male fertility; at worst, she simply didn’t exist.  To confidently assert the right to speak against this historical weight can be mentally taxing, even now; in the Middle Ages, when the legal rights of women were minimal, and their right to speak in public barely extant, it is surprising they managed to speak in this way at all.  Yet there are dozens of texts in which women articulate their desire to speak, from educated aristocratic women like Christine de Pisan to the often anonymous hagiographies of Beguine nuns and the estimated one per cent of female troubadours.  The creative ways in which women have attacked and subverted the prescription of silence are manifold and have been traced in many ways by many people, and it’s not my intention, nor within my ability, to do more than look at a very small part of what is an enormous subject.  Specifically, I want to look at the energising freedom to be found in the extremities of the female mystics, a throwing off of linguistic constraints in the midst of the very act of bowing to conventions.

Here I simply intend to make a couple of very sketchy general observations of the institutionalised cultural misogyny in the West, and its venerable history.  In Christian society, the myth of Eve is a dominant symbol in the representation of women and their relation to language.  Eve, Dante said in De Vulgari Eloquentia, was the institutor of language; she was, after Satan, the first to use language to seduce and mislead, and her tongue was the originator of her sin and of humankind’s misfortunes.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve addresses the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as the “best of Fruits”, “whose taste… at first assay / Gave elocution to the mute, and taught / The Tongue not made for Speech to speak thy praise”.  Significantly, in Milton’s version the most tempting quality of the fruit is rationality: Eve sees that the Serpent “knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discernes” and, desiring this “intellectual food”, she eats the apple, greedily gorging “without restraint”.  A woman’s intellectual curiosity, inseparable from sensual abandon, precipitates the Fall of Mankind, instates the central myth of nostalgia in Western symbology, and is a synonym for disaster. 

A major expression of this myth has been the traditional prescription of silence for women, a silence posited in relation to women’s reputed loquacity.  It is important to remember that the language and rationality of men has never held the same dangers as that of women, although of course heretics of both sexes (both within and outside the church) have always been persecuted and murdered.  Heretic men chose to speak outside a public arena already prescribed for them; women had no such arena.  In Mediaeval France women were not even allowed to testify in court; the only case in which their word was considered reliable was if they had to attest (a word in itself derived from male sexual organs!) which of twins arrived first.  “Teach women neither reading nor writing,” said the theologian Philippe of Novarre.  He was more extreme than many, but nevertheless the untrustworthiness and triviality of women’s tongues is a byword: we still, for example, speak of trivial timewasters of either sex as “old women”.

The Romantics’ spin on traditional misogynistic ideologies was their appropriation of feminine qualities, metamorphosed into the ability to give birth and nurture, into the male body of a Genius.[3]  The Romantic relationship of Genius to the patriarchal God is clear in Thomas Carlyle’s description of the Man of Genius:

The most precious gift that Heaven can give to the Earth: a man of ‘genius’ as we call it; the Soul of a man actually sent down from the skies, with a God’s-message to us ... A messenger he, sent from the Infinite Unknown ... We may call him Poet, Prophet, God ...” [4] 

Male Genius, however, appropriated into itself the feminine qualities of sensitivity and nurturance, even morbidity and hysteria; great artists “gave birth” to their work, gestating them behind their magnificent foreheads.  Women’s bodies were too fragile to sustain the fiery daemon of Genius without causing harm to themselves; talented women, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were condemned to illness and early death.  If by some freak of nature they survived their Genius they were held to be, like George Sand, deviant men.  Women’s creative impulses were totally fulfilled in childbirth and any woman seeking fulfilment in art was a freak of nature, a perversion.  It is not, alas, an idea which has vanished.  As recently as 1989, George Steiner was able to ask seriously:

Is there in the almost total absence from drama of any major woman writer some formidable hint?  Is the biological capacity for procreation, for engendering formed life which is cardinal to woman, in some way, at some level, absolutely primordial to a woman’s being, so creative, so fulfilling, as to subvert, as to render comparatively pallid, the begetting of fictive personae which is the matter of drama and of so much representative art? [5]

Aside from Steiner’s apparent total ignorance of the fact that theatre is the most social of all the arts, and that this might have implications for women’s participation in it, he rather traditionally couches male genius as an envy of female procreation (and the creativity of a patriarchal God), and metaphorically assimilates the act of “birth” to the male.  This infusion of female potencies into the male corpus was an idea carried forward enthusiastically into modernism through such writers as Nietzsche, although, as we shall see, it is an ancient trope.  A typical C20th explication of male and female creativity is Jung’s analysis, in which he permits a woman the role of helpmeet, and reserves originatory creativity for men: 

Just as man brings forth his work as a complete creation out of his inner feminine nature, so the inner masculine side of a women brings forth creative seeds which have the power to fertilise the feminine side of the man.  [6] 

The confusion of the ideas of female and feminine and the almost non-existent interrogation of notions of masculinity in relation to men make this a particularly confused area in post modern thinking, where femininity has sometimes been valorised despite an almost total exclusion of the female in a depressingly familiar way.  This appropriation works through a mask of neutrality, an apparent genderlessness which permits the male to stand as the signifier for all humankind and to deny his maleness, putting the burden of sex wholly on women, who are defined continuously by their sexual status.  I’d like to orient my discussion by quoting from Maria Black and Rosalind Coward’s 1981 essay, Linguistic, social and sexual relations:

We do not see the problem [of sexism in language] as one of the suppression of female meanings, nor do we see the solution as simply validating everything produced by women, as the expression of pre-existent feminine values.  We see one of the major political problems confronting feminism to be the need to force men to recognise themselves as men.  The discursive formation which allows men to represent themselves as non-gendered and to define women constantly according to their sexual status is a discursive formation with very definite effects.  It allows men to deny the effect of their gendered subjectivity on women.  ... What is available to them is a discourse where gender and sexual identity appears to be absent.... Men are sustained at the centre of the stage precisely because they can be ‘people’ and do not have to represent their masculinity to themselves. [7]

The mystic texts captured my attention initially because of their often amazing sensuality and eroticism.  But they are also interesting because they are instrumental in inaugurating a new Western vocabulary for inner consciousness which has been influential to this day.  Historian Danielle Régnier-Bohler points out that lexical studies have shown that Meister Eckhardt and Ruusbrook would not have written as they did had it not been for the women who preceded them.[8]  These influences can be traced in later writings, such as those, for example, of St John of the Cross in the erotic mysticism of the Dark Night of the Soul, the more famous descendants eclipsing their forerunners in much the same way as Elvis Presley appropriated and obscured the music of black musicians.  “They invented a novel diction,” says Régnier-Bohler of the Beguine nuns: “a comprehensive language that made room for the body in the spiritual vocabulary”.  This has clear resonances with contemporary ideas about writing the body: but there are important differences.  One is the emphasis placed on rationality in many of the Mediaeval texts, and another is the mystic erasure or elision of self, which can be seen, rather than an abnegation of power, as an appropriation of the male right to be sexless and ungendered: the right to represent humankind.

It is commonplace to attribute the sometimes extreme mysticism of the women of that time to hysteria, the madness traditionally supposed to be caused by vapours rising from the womb which cloud and destroy judgement.  Julia Kristeva’s take on mystical elements in literature is not, I think, inaccurate, but it is incomplete: “...literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociolo-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so — double, fuzzy, heterogenous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.”  [9]  However, Kristeva’s analysis of abjection and its relation to the excluded maternal/female “filth”, which is at once violently rejected and sacralised, takes the male subject as its normative centre.  The female, or the feminised Jew, is the “Other”, dealt with only in its distorted relationship to a normative male subjectivity.  This refuses the possibility of another subject, a female subject which asserts itself as its own centre.  (I use male and female advisedly here, since I do not wish to enter into discussions of masculine and feminine as free floating values, as they seem to adhere stubbornly to a male norm.) 

It is this re-placed subject which interests me, because I see its possibility shining fitfully through these texts, obscure and difficult and ambiguous as they are.  It is precisely in these ambivalences and violations of social norms that I believe this subject situates itself very carefully in relation to the prevailing orthodoxies. Adducing these strategies as a kind of sexual hysteria elides and trivialises their possibilities, by focussing on the pre-linguistic feminine at the expense of the desire towards the forbidden fruit of intellectual rationality.

In discussing the rash of prophetic outbursts which occurred during the Interregnum after the English Civil War, the historian Keith Thomas notes that women were denied access to any public expression in church, state or university.  He says, a little myopically, that women who attempted to break into these male preserves were “very liable to develop a bizarre exterior”.  “Indeed, the prominence of women among the religious prophets of this period is partly explained by the fact that the best hope of gaining an ear for female utterances was to represent them as the result of divine revelation”.  And he adds, though this time not in relation to female prophecies:  “The claim to divine inspiration was an accompaniment to radical politics... the overwhelming majority of those who claimed divine authority for their utterances were seeking authority for a religious or social program”.  [10]

Without suggesting that these women had any sense of modern feminist consciousness, it seems a fair supposition that female prophets were asserting their right to be articulate and public human beings, able to comment on and perhaps influence public life, and using what resources were then available to them: in this case, that of divine revelation.  I think this strategy is particularly clear earlier in The Book of Margery of Kempe

In the Middle Ages, despite the prevailing misogynies, gender and sex were fluid concepts:

Medieval medical views of sex, inherited from Aristotle and Galen, suggested that one’s sex category was located along a continuum; the distinction between males and females was essentially that the genitals of the males were outside and the (identical) genitals of the female were enclosed...; hermaphrodites were that rare instance of a place in the middle of the continuum (emblematic of the Adamic state). Moreover, the Patristic assertion, attributable as far back as Jerome and repeated in the Middle Ages, was that a woman could in some way become a man by vowing chastity and living an ascetic life. This commonplace of spirituality itself would suggest that gender was viewed in the Middle Ages at least as much as a performance, a construction, as it was viewed as a biological given, an essential or ontological state of being. The history of medieval transvestism would also seem indicative of such a performative notion of gender.... Bynum concludes that medieval theory acknowledged the “permeability or interchangeability of the sexes,” although “the male body is paradigmatic” [11]

This suggests a window of possibility which was fully exploited by the Beguines and other women who wanted to adopt the “male” role of speaking in public or obtaining spiritual authority.  Educated humanists such as Christine de Pisan could battle for the right to speak in the narrow arena of letters and had no hesitation in picking up the battle to defend her sex, especially in her famous arguments against the Roman de la Rose and in her epic poem The City of Women.  But in order to do so, de Pisan first transformed herself into a man, “unsexing” herself, like Lady Macbeth, in order to be a literary male: Insignis Femina, Virilis Femina

The mystics were in many cases doing something even more subversive.  They developed what Danielle Régnier-Bohler calls an “emotional dialect, well adapted to vigorous self expression, to spontaneity and immediacy.  They “aspired to speak not the language of men, but a language that was at once less and more”.[12]  They demanded that language express the inexpressible and in so doing stretched its boundaries to include their own experiences and desires.  In theatricalising the self, as did Margery of Kempe, or erasing it, as in the immolatory love theologies of women such as Beatrice of Nazareth, they challenged the central supremacy of the male subject and placed their own desires and passions centre stage.

Considerations of these texts must also take into account the politics of the vulgate: of which, more later.  And it is important to remember that they were heavily mediated and reviewed by Church authorities.  Many mystics were illiterate, and had to rely on male scribes to relate their experiences, some of whom ingeniously sought to “improve their style”.[13]  Their decision to write down their experiences so others could read them always followed mediation with a confessor, which confuses the provenance and transparency of the texts still further.  Almost all the writings begin with protestations of the woman’s unworthiness to speak: quite often, this melds with a surprising confidence in the woman’s divine vocation for revelation.  A typical example is this passage from Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias:

And I, a human being, neither ablaze with the strength of strong lions nor learned in their exhalations, remaining in the fragility of the weaker rib, but filled with mystical inspiration, saw:  [emphasis mine][14]

where Bingen’s confession of innate female weakness and her lack of scholarly credentials serves rather to intensify the force of her mystical inspiration, and the authority of her vision. 

Underneath the tropes of apology and humility, the unworthiness, the necessary abjection of a woman daring to speak at all, one reads again and again the making of a new space, a gap, which constitutes an assault on the language of the times.  Usually unlettered in Latin, and without the intellectual tools of educated men, they wrote in the vulgate: Dutch, French, German, English.  Into the semantics of written language, and drawing on the established traditions of “love mysticism” and courtly poetry, they introduced a powerful and vivid metaphoric vocabulary of sensual perception.  Marguerite d’Oingt describes a vision of a tree with five branches, on which were written the names of the five senses; the texts again and again resort to erotic imagery to describe the ecstasy of union with the Godhead.  Spiritual states are described in terms of hunger, intoxication, and physical passion, and in terms which made of the body a theatre of violence: Beatrice of Nazareth, for example, speaks of love which “wants and devours all things” which causes “the heart to beat so fast and furious that it feels wounded through and through ... The veins seem to open, the blood to run out, the marrow to wither.  Bones crack, the chest explodes, the throat is parched...”[15]   

For these mediaeval women, the articulation of emotional and spiritual lives was the reverse of private: it was their means of un-privatising themselves, of moving out of a domestic or cloistered sphere in which they were habitually confined into a public space inhabited almost exclusively by men.  This had practical force: as a result of her writings, Hildegard of Bingen embarked on a lecture tour of Europe when she was sixty, and corresponded with the important European leaders of her time, and Margery of Kempe made herself both adored and reviled, and most certainly noticed, by her behaviours. 

However, the subversiveness of these writers does not exist simply in the assertion of feminine values against a phallic logocentric dominance.  This assumption has led to some misleading conclusions: for example, in this statement, which suggests a mediaeval “proto-feminism” in Julian of Norwich’s visions of a feminised Christ who gives suck and endures pregnancy:

The ‘mother-text’ does not manifest itself merely by the production of maternal imagery, but maternality and the text seem to become inextricably interwoven.  Further, I wish to illustrate that femininity and femaleness fuse with matrifocality — ‘the voice mixed with milk’ — forming a counterdiscourse which disturbs the patriarchal discourse of Christian theology.[16]

This ignores the established Christian-Judaeic tradition, prevalent in Mediaeval times, of the appropriation of feminine imagery of fertility into a male figure.  Dr Thomas E. Long traces this image from Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy, in which Philosophy gives suck to the feminine soul, and also as a long recognised trope of Jesus-as-Mother deriving from Anselm.  He points out that the three stereotypes of motherhood used in this tradition — pregnant and sacrificial, loving and tender, and nurturing — are also tropes used most often by male writers in describing themselves. [17]  Which is to say that Julian’s vision of a maternal Christ disturbed no patriarchal discourse but rather, existed comfortably within it.  As I noted earlier, the potent feminised male is also a trope of Romantic genius and, as Luce Irigaray comments, a characteristic of Jacques Lacan, who reserved to himself — and not to women — the authority to speak of female pleasure.[18]

A simplistic view of feminine assertion trivialises the ingenuity of the tactics used by writers such as Julian of Norwich or Margery of Kempe, who worked creatively within the limits of contemporary orthodoxies, appropriating their authorities to validate their own experiences and their right to speak.  In order to escape accusations of heresy they had to work within recognisable conventions, on pain, literally, of death, while pursuing an agenda which, even within its limits, was radical enough: to speak publicly as women.  On more subtle levels, it’s possible to find ingenious inversions of gender stereotypes.

A suggestive example is Julian of Norwich’s insistent coupling of moisture with life, and dryness with death.   Mediaeval Aristotelian and Galenic definitions based the innate inferiority of women on their moistness and coldness.  Heat and dryness were male virtues, signifying wit and ingenium, but females were, as Galen said, “imperfect, and it were, mutilated” due to their coldness and wetness; assumptions which underlie later Romantic ideas of fiery male Genius.[19]  In the light of this assumption, it’s interesting to read Julian’s vision of Christ dying:

I saw His sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying. ...

This was a pitiful change to see, this deep dying. And also the [inward] moisture clotted and dried, to my sight, and the sweet body was brown and black, all turned out of fair, life-like colour of itself, unto dry dying.

Bloodlessness and pain dried within; and blowing of wind and cold coming from without met together in the sweet body of Christ. And these four, -- twain without, and twain within -- dried the flesh of Christ by process of time. And though this pain was bitter and sharp, it was full long lasting, as to my sight, and painfully dried up all the lively spirits of Christ’s flesh. Thus I saw the sweet flesh dry in seeming by part after part, with marvellous pains. ...

And methought the drying of Christ’s flesh was the most pain, and the last, of His Passion.

For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. [20]

Throughout these passages, again and again, the word “dry” occurs as a motif of deathliness, while moisture signifies life.  Later Julian associates fluidity with prayer and godliness.  This qualitative shifting of activity and life to moisture and passivity and death to “drying” inverts a dominant metaphor about femininity and femaleness.  But, as Dr Thomas E. Long warns, it is notoriously difficult to untangle Julian of Norwich’s discourse from the surrounding traditions to find a “feminist” consciousness.  What counts is her assertion of her authority to speak at all:

What is irreducible... in Julian of Norwich’s Shewings are the traces of [an] authorized voice, insistent upon its authenticity against the canons of the male-dominated religious establishment, the besouled body from her cell empowering other more public women like the vexed and vexing Margery Kempe. [21]

Perhaps the most significant elision imposed by simply seeking a feminine imaginary in the texts is the common assertion by mediaeval women of their right to the “intellectual fruit” of rationality.  In her 12C adaptation of the Latin text of the life of Catherine of Alexandria, Vie de sainte Catherine, [22] written in Anglo-Norman octosyllabic couplets, Clemence of Barking was described an intelligent and eloquent woman whom “no dialectician on earth could defeat”.  When Catherine took the Emperor to task, to “prove to him by logic” that his law was wrong, he called on rhetoricians to “confound her so that she can make no further reply and has to surrender publicly” and “maintain his honour and his law” against this “powerful woman”.  She not only defeated the rhetoriticians, but converted them to her point of view. 

Elizabeth K. Schirmer, in her essay Orthodoxy, Textuality, and the “Tretys” of Margery Kempe, looks in detail at Kempe’s strategies of appropriation and subversion of the Church’s textual authorities.  “By 1413,” writes Schirmer, “any layperson who claimed that his or her spiritual welfare was independent from the institutional structures of the church, or whose theology seemed independent of its teachings, could be tried for heresy and persecuted for treason”.  The church sought to protect its authority by strictly controlling lay vernacular spiritual texts.  Bishop Arundel was the architect of the Lambeth Constitutions, which sought “to bring the spread of reading and writing among laypeople firmly under the control of Arundel and his church, thus preserving the clear distinctions between cleric and lay, literatus and illiteratus, upon which rested so much of that institution’s spiritual and temporal authority.”

In doing so, he sought to establish and enforce an implicit dichotomy between two ways of reading the Bible as text: the laity were to read the Bible as a structure of narratives, narratives that do their work in the realm of the devotional imagination; the clergy were to read it as a structure of words, words that provided them with the basis for developing and defending orthodox theology and doctrine. It was, to risk a simplification, an attempt to enforce a strict division between propositional logic and emotional response, intellect and affect. [23]

In this context, Kempe’s bounteous weeping and assertion of a direct relationship with God were clearly dubious, and she was in fact accused of lollardism, the heresy deriving from John Wyclif which demanded vulgate translations of religious texts so lay people could develop their own unmediated experience with God, directly threatening clerical authority.  In one episode in her book, Kempe is brought to task by Bishop Arundel himself.  The result is that Kempe, like Catherine of Alexandria, converts the Bishop, who commends her “manner of living” and proclaims her to be “hyly inspyred wyth the Holy Gost”.

Again and again, she defends her orthodoxy in ways that work against the very heart of Arundel’s project: attacked for living a life deemed inappropriate for a married woman (her detractors often mention her wearing white and travelling alone, and at least one fears she will persuade other women to follow in her footsteps), and accused by clerics of heresy due to her “preaching” and her knowledge of the scriptures, she successfully defends herself by citing the scriptures, once even in Latin, in the course of remarkably theological-sounding debates. And just as Kempe proves her orthodoxy by appropriating a discourse (theological debate) that could prove her heresy, so she uses her ... meditations to legitimate exactly the behavior that calls her orthodoxy into question in the first place: “preaching,” travelling alone, living chaste as a wife, and so forth. [24]

Schirmer argues, like Lynn Staley, that Kempe is properly “author” of her text, whether or not she in fact wrote it (it is possible that she wrote it herself, using the intervention of a priest merely as a necessary distancing trope but, like most of the book’s claims, it is impossible to verify either way.) Arguing that many of Kempe’s stories are fictional, Staley claims that the Book is a carefully composed text that makes use of strategies such as appropriation and manipulation of generic conventions to the deployment of deliberate ambiguities, familiar from post modern literature. [25] Such techniques recall the literary strategies of Merrano Jews in Inquisition Spain, the tradition which inflected Spinoza’s texts, and which permitted him, for example, to propose ideas such as the historical reading of the Bible in a context of Judaeic orthodoxy in Holland.

Schirmer argues further that, through her Book, Kempe gives textual status to her life:

The text is not unlike Kempe’s tears, in that both authenticate her experiences and make them public, linking her interior and exterior, her spiritual and worldly lives and serving as a publicly visible conduit between them.

Kempe was not alone among the mystics in introducing a new range of language to the written word: the language of sobs, cries, sleep, tears, screams, the “interstices of language”, which shifted written language beyond mere words.   Margery of Kempe’s excessive tears and screams drew priestly disopprobrium, a sign she converted into further proof of her holiness and used as an occasion to voice severe criticisms of the church.  It was women who understood Kempe’s extreme behaviour, which perhaps expressed what they wanted to say themselves, and they “only loved her the more”[26].  This wordless emotional identification and its reactive expression against gendered silencing is not confined to mediaeval women; for example, Andrea Brady notes, in her essay 100 Days, Poetic Pathos and Political Apathy:

In Cretan funerals in the early 20th century... the lament of the widow was instrumental rather than resigned: her complaint caused others to identify with her suffering, and thus subverted the misogynist authority which consigned her to poverty and diminished status.  Widows linked their own personal experience to collective representations of grief in order to sadden their audience; for them, the lament stalled the social invisibility which creeps over an isolated (unmarried) woman. [27]

Through its expression, emotional identification becomes an instrument of belief and action.  When Kempe was dictating her biography, it moved the priest to tears himself, so much so that his vestments were drenched in them, and converting him to the deep empathy required to write her story.  And this investment of the body with spiritual authority extends into eroticism.  Sometimes the language can take a modern reader aback: one of the high points of Margery of Kempe’s Book is a conversation with Christ in which he tells her, using the intimate “thy”, that “you may boldly when you are in your bed take me to you as thy wedded husband and your dearworthy darling and you may boldly kiss my mouth”.   This invests the metaphor of “Bride of Christ” with an intriguing literalism, and when taken in tandem with Kempe’s struggle to attain chasteness and the somewhat comical bargain she finally strikes with her husband (she agrees to pay his debts in exchange for relinquishing his rights as a husband) begins to suggest a fascinating possibility of female satisfaction, rather than abnegation, in the idea of chasteness. 

It is clear throughout her Book that Kempe’s erotic attraction to men does not disappear with her enlightenment, but it begins to take another form: when she sees handsome men in Rome, for example, she is overborne with emotion because of their similarity to Christ.  The focus of her desire is her relationship with Jesus, an ideal lover who is “always pleased” with her, and in whom she finds bliss unattainable elsewhere.  (Perhaps it is important to remember at this point that Kempe had already had thirteen children when she began her mystic visions).  By asserting her orthodoxy and the direct nature of her divine inspiration, Kempe clears a space in which her own desires take centre stage.

Georges Bataille’s history of eroticism in the Christian church is somewhat eccentric, since it ignores the rich history of sacred erotic writing through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and its expression, for example, in the work of Bernard de Clairvaux, based on the Songs of Songs, which was a crucial starting point for the mystic love theology of the Beguines.  He asserts, however, the central place eroticism holds in religious experience:

Eroticism is the most moving of all realities; but it is nonetheless, at the same time, the most ignoble.  ... the contradictory aspects of eroticism appear in some way innumerable; their profundity is religious — it is horrible, it is tragic, it is still inadmissible.  Probably all the more so because it is divine.... In casting eroticism out of religion, men reduced religion to a utilitarian morality.[28]

Bataille is discussing, as he makes clear, male eroticism — the “essence of man”, as he describes it — which he carefully divides from an implicitly anerotic female sexuality of childbirth, care and nurturance.  The dark depths of sexuality, its sadism and connection with death, are clearly a male concern, and Woman, as represented in text and picture, is merely the object of inadmissible desire and fear, the Other on which is projected or enacted male desire.  For all Bataille’s eccentricity, he reflects a conventional discourse which dominates discussion of eroticism, the central male subject and the object of desire (boy, girl, Woman) predated by Death or the fixing gaze of the male onlooker.

The sacred eroticism in the writings of mystic women is often no less violent than that lauded by Bataille.  But it includes a strikingly wider range of sensual reference than permitted into Bataille’s definitions: for example, Julian of Norwich’s rich descriptions of fluidity and flow in her lactating Christ, whose blood is milk; the places of all the senses in the writing, vision, touch, smell, taste, hearing; its insistence on “delight”, however it might be placed in the midst of suffering.  Gertrud of Heflta rehearses a typical trope:

O most lovable radiance, when will you satisfy me with yourself?  If only I might here perceive the fine rays of your Venus-like beauty for a little while, and at least be permitted to anticipate your gentleness for a short time and pleasantly beforehand to taste you, my best share.  Ah, turn around now a little so that I may fix my look on you, flower of flowers.[29]

And until recently commentators have treated tended to skirt around such visions as Margareta Ebner’s suckling the infant Jesus:

I have a statue of our Lord as a child in the manger.  I was powerfully attracted to it by my Lord with delight and desire and by His gracious request.  This was spoken to me by my Lord: “If you do not suckle me, then I will draw away from you and you will take no delight in me.”  So I took the image out of the crib and placed it against my naked heart with great delight and sweetness....

I am set afire by the ardent love coming from Him and am filled up by His presence and by His sweet grace so that I am drawn into the true enjoyment of His divine essence...

The eroticism of breast feeding has been so suppressed in contemporary life that a few years ago newspapers reported the case of a woman who rang an American radio station distressed by her sensual feelings while she was feeding her baby, and was arrested for child abuse.  (If that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is.)  But this points to one reason why many expressions of female eroticism have been overlooked by commentators, apart from androcentric myopia: they are collected and neutralised under the anerotic rubrics of “motherhood” and, more complexly, those of “wife” and “bride”.

I do not have the space here to trace the suppression of female sexuality through the ages, from Aristotle to Freud, nor to examine in any but a schematic way the writerly intrigues inherent in the mystical texts.  But I am suggesting that these texts show women authorising their right to express themselves in writing and to speak in public as women in a multiplicity of ways: as neuter representatives of humanity in general; as rational and logical intellects; and as erotic, sensual women.  They do so by skirting the orthodoxies which limit their expressiveness with a variety of creative strategies.  To examine their works from a singular point of view is not enough; they must be read with a multiple awareness which takes into account the orthodoxies which surrounded and limited them.  And, as specula, as mirrors, these texts suggest intriguing ways of looking at contemporary practices.  They are most subversive in how they assert their rational basis within contemporary orthodoxies, which permits them to clear a space for a largely unheard female vocabulary which then becomes its own authority.  Mere emotion is not enough; mere intellectuality would not satisfy their desires nor permit a language for female expressiveness.  I find myself admiring the ingenuity of the mystics I’ve considered here in negotiating these contradictory necessities.  It seems to me a deeply poetic praxis.

Between the realities of the written text and the read text, what was experienced and what is imagined, there remains an unbridgeable gulf: historical, geographical and experiential.  I can refer only to the words on the page, and what is primarily communicated to me, as a secular contemporary reader, is a world of feeling.  But it is a singularly displaced experience of emotion, very far from the communications of feeling that are experienced, for example, in reading contemporary “confessional” poems: there is a sense in which these texts are radically impersonal, using distancing techniques and un-selving strategies in ways that can strikingly recall some contemporary poetics.  And there are other affinities with mysticism: for example, in his tract The Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Bruce Andrews demands “abjection”, a “humble and often ingratiating spirit”, for the act of reading.  He wants “The self, the imagined integrity, wrecked”, to release a state where “subjectivity gets felt as a complex bodily surface, with the familiarities of the person subject to an ecstatic clearing and extension”.  He asks: “Inscription on the body: shouldn’t we admit that this is how radical texts work?”   Andrews writes of the “flesh igniting”, as the mystics wrote of being devoured by the fire of love, and defines reading as atemporal, just as mystic texts assert visionary experiences exist “outside time”.[30]

However, Andrew’s approach differs from the mystical “aesthetic”, if I may call it that, by eschewing meaning and rationality as harbingers of the textual authority his poems wish to disrupt.  This idea derives from the feminist practice of writers such as Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who have explored the Lacanian notion of the feminine imaginary as a liberating focus for female expressiveness.  I am not saying that this is not a rich field for work, since I also work with some of these principles.  But I find a certain problem in this valorising of the pre-linguistic state as uniquely feminine, in that it does not greatly disturb traditional female ascriptions.  In the case of Bishop Arundel, it is clear that a purely emotional reaction to texts and scripture by lay people was considered desirable by the English Church, because it left intellectual textual interpretation to the authorities.  It is no accident, I believe, that writers as diverse as Gillian Rose and Lyn Hejinian have recently defended the idea of Reason, in different ways both severing reason from authority; they perceive that not to do so is to leave rationality as the unquestioned property of power.  Feminine irrationality courts the seductive danger of appearing to be subversive while in fact satisfying all sorts of time-hallowed prejudices about femaleness, and, if valorised within an implicitly male subject, can easily become again a category which leads to the exclusion of dissenting or strong female voices. 

To conclude with a brief sojourn in the present, I have begun to think that the biggest effect of September 11 on me personally has been a return to concentrated thinking about gender and sex.  I was taken aback, in the days after the event, by how gendered arguments were hastily, even aggressively, dismissed on listservs, as if the issue of gender and sex is just a secondary, somewhat wimpish consideration in such extremities and has nothing to do with “important” discourses on the mechanisms of power.  I clearly think otherwise, and in looking into the mirrors of women writing 700 years ago, perhaps I was trying to clarify for myself some questions about what I see operating around me, in different ways, admittedly, but also in patterns which have a depressing familiarities. 

Female silencing, as I hope I have shown, is a complex matter, and I add that such silence must be thought of in terms which admit aphasia as a possible silence.  The most potent silencing of women is, in a liberal democracy, that censorship observed by themselves.  David Howard’s recent complaint on the Poetryetc listserv is not untypical of many comments I’ve heard from poetry publishers over the past two decades:

When I founded ‘Takahe’ in 1989 the submissions in poetry were overwhelmingly from men — however the fiction submissions were far more balanced between men and women. This was the case for the five years of my stewardship. I pursued a policy of ignoring gender (and race, religion, height, weight, sexual tastes, colour of hair, favourite football team etc) in determining the make-up of any given issue. This meant that some issues featured work by nine men and three women, while others (generally through fiction contributions from women) reversed the statistical bias. It was, of course, only a statistical bias — something a few critics, including my successor as poetry editor, didn’t appreciate. After my retirement an unspoken quota was put in place which, in my view, undermined the fairness of the editorial process and reduced the overall quality of the journal. As Berenice Rubens commented, “I don’t want to be regarded as a Jewish British female novelist, I want to be regarded as a novelist who happens to be Jewish, British and female.’[31]

I’ll gloss over the question held in the words “statistical bias” here, because I want to focus on the question of women moving into public space.  My personal experience of editing shows me that the ratio of manuscripts submitted vary between one third and one quarter from women, and Voices, the magazine once published by the National Library of Australia, which kept records of all submissions, recorded a similar disparity.  I am certain that this is more the norm than otherwise.  This suggests that the prescription of silence for women is still active and still working, but it seems to be primarily activated by an inner censorship which makes it both difficult to define and very complex to trace.  And the old Romantic model of the male Poet is still alive and well, as Frances Presley points out:

Linda Russo’s point that “to be human and male is to write Poetry; to be female is talk and to grieve” holds true in England as in America. We even have a male poet laureate for such occasions. It seemed hardly less true of the avant-garde when at a large benefit performance held in London there were very few women performers. 

The avant-garde of its nature suggests a male militaristic activity, and historically has tended to exclude women even more than its conservative counterparts. [32]

The problematic public articulations of feeling over the past year or so suggest other areas of conjecture.  In her discussion of the political manipulation of public grief, Andrea Brady says public expressions of feeling inevitably are manipulated by conservative interests: “the reduction of political motivation to feelings, like maternal care, and political thinking to intuition, effectively restricts the political imaginary to local amelioration.” 

Grief and other emotions are (if anything) over-articulated and indulged on the box.  The soft-focus morning interventions for housewives, the ‘spirit’ sections in Borders, the ‘Awareness Movement’ have raised an army of consumers of emotional health. [33]

Without arguing with Brady’s principal analysis, with which I agree, there is here an equation between “feminine” feelings (over-articulated and indulged housewives, maternal care) and the sentimental, which it would be well to wary of: it is uneasily close to traditional exclusions of women and women’s concerns from public discourse.   If sentiment can be thought of as a coarseness, failure or even absence of feeling, which I believe it is, then it is the sentimentalisation of public articulations of feeling which is the problem, rather than the expression of feeling itself.   Motherhood is not a priori an area of sentiment: and it might be interesting to inquire why its public portrayal almost always is sentimental, in the spirit of wondering what possibilities are hidden beneath the vaseline.  The commodification of feeling implicit in the phrase “consumers of emotional health” points to the reasons why this might have happened. Articulations of emotion in popular media often seem to me to be suppressions of feeling, rather than its articulation — they are expressions, rather, of aspirational material goals remarkable for their lack of connection to the complexity and liberating possibilities of actual emotions.  The constant conflation of these popular sentimental clichés with actual experiences no doubt accounts for a large percentage of the profit margins of pharmaceutical companies.

In calling for a “language of feeling”, Frances Presley implies that the one we have is inadequate: what we have available is a discourse too easily hijacked by authority.  This suggests to me that the orthodoxies we are working with and against are so dominant as to be barely challenged within their own domains.  On the other hand, there are languages of feeling available to us: poetry being a major expression of them.  How poetry is marginalised and discounted within the wider culture is a whole other story.  I don’t believe this problem is unconnected with many of the questions I’ve raised here, but I’ll leave that for further discussion. 

I’d like to thank Robert Hampson and the Centre for Contemporary Poetics for giving me the chance to think about all this, and all of you for listening.


[1] After Lorca, Jack Spicer: The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980

[2]  Daring to Speak, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber: A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, ed Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, Harvard University Press 1992

[3] Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, by Christine Battersby, The Women’s Press, London 1989

[4] On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle, 1840.  Ward, Lock: London, The World Library ed.

[5] Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber and Faber, London 1989

[6] The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, C.J. Jung, 1945: trans R.F.C. Hull in vol vii of Collected Works, eds H. Read, M Fordham and G. Adler, Routledge, 1953

[7] Linguistic, Social and Sexual Relations: A Review of Dale Spender’s Man Made Language by Maria Black and Roslaind Coward, The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, edited by Deborah Cameron, Routledge, London, 1990

[8] Literary and Mystical Voices, Danielle Régnier-Bohler, A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, ed Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, Harvard University Press 1992

[9] Powers of Horror: An essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva, Columbia University Press, New York 1982

[10] Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, Penguin Books 1971

[11]  Julian of Norwich’s “Christ as Mother” and Medieval Constructions of Gender Thomas L. Long, Presented at the Madison Conference on English Studies, James Madison University. March 18, 1995

[12]  Literary and Mystical Voices, Danielle Régnier-Bohler, A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, ed Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, Harvard University Press 1992

[13] Daring to Speak, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber: A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, ed Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, Harvard University Press 1992

[14] Hildegard von Bingen: Selected Writings, trans by Mark Atherton, Penguin Books, London 2001

[15] Beatrice of Nazareth, Seven Degrees of Love, trans and intro by E. Colledge, Mediaeval Netherlands Religious Literature, NY London House and Maxwell 1965; (adapted with reference to Literary and Mystical Voices, Danielle Régnier-Bohler, A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, ed Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, Harvard University Press 1992

[17]  Julian of Norwich: Essentialist and Feminist?  Dr. Thomas L. Long. Presented at the Society for Feminist Studies Open Panel, Modern Language Association Annual Convention, December 29, 1998

[18] Women’s Exile, Interview with Luce Irigaray, trans Couze Venn, 1977: The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, edited by Deborah Cameron, Routledge, London, 1990

[19]  Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetic, by Christine Battersby, The Women's Press, 1989

[20] Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, trans Grace Warwick (ch)

[21]  Julian of Norwich: Essentialist and Feminist? by Dr Thomas E. Long Presented at the Society for Feminist Studies Open Panel, Modern Language Association Annual Convention, December 29, 1998

[22]  Vie de sainte Catherine, trans Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Glyn S. Burgess, (The Everyman library) J.M. Dent. London, 1996, quoted A Celebration of Women Writers

[23] Orthodoxy, Textuality, and the "Tretys" of Margery Kempe by Elizabeth K. Schirmer, Journal x: A biannual journal in culture & criticism  Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1996

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26]  The Book of Margery Kempe, Edited by Lynn Staley, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University 1996

[27] 100 Days, Poetic Pathos and Political Apathy Andrea Brady, TALKS series, Birkbeck College, University of London October 2001

[28] The Tears of Eros, Georges Bataille, trans Peter O'Connor, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1992

[29] Exercitia sprituali, Gertud of Heflta, A Celebration of Women Writers

[30] The Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Bruce Andrews (Talk delivered in the Textual Operations Talk series, organized by A. S. Bessa, at White Box in New York City, September 25, 2001) 

[31] David Howard, Poetryetc listserv, September 17, 2002

[32] September 11: A View from London by Frances Presley, How2

[33] 100 Days, Poetic Pathos and Political Apathy Andrea Brady, TALKS series, Birkbeck College, University of London October 2001.

BIO: Alison Croggon's most recent publications are The Common Flesh: New and Selected Poems (Arc Publications 2003) and a collection of poems and theatre texts, Attempts at Being (Salt Publishing 2002). She is in the process of writing a fantasy series, the first book of which was shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction (The Gift, Penguin Books, 2002 and Walker Books, UK 2003)  The second book is due out October 2003.  She edits the webzine Masthead ( http://www.masthead.net.au ). For more information see her home page at http://www.alisoncroggon.com

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