Nov 092016


Today is the celebration in the Anglican community of Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438), an English Christian mystic, known for The Book of Margery Kempe, which she dictated and which is generally  considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Her Book chronicles her domestic tribulations, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honored in the Anglican Communion, but she was never made a Roman Catholic saint even though she was a devout Catholic; her views were not considered orthodox at the time, nor now. My considered opinion is that she is not hailed as a saint within the Catholic church because she was a woman and has been written off as a “crazy lady,” whereas if she had been a man and done what she did, she’d be in the list of saints.


She was born Margery Burnham or Brunham around 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, mayor of the town and Member of Parliament. His mercantile fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy of the 1390s (especially in the wool trade), although he was clearly a successful politician. The first record of her Brunham family is a citation of her grandfather, Ralph de Brunham in 1320 in the Red Register of Lynn. By 1340 he had joined the Parliament of Lynn. Margery’s kinsman, possibly brother, Robert Brunham, became a Member of Parliament for Lynn in 1402 and 1417. That is, unsurprisingly, she was well connected and had considerable means at her disposal.

Margery was almost certainly illiterate, although scholars do seem to want to hash out this point now and again. No records exist of any formal education for Margery and, as an adult, a priest read to her “works of religious devotion” in English, which suggests that she was unable to read them herself.  She seems to have learned various texts by heart which would have been common for an illiterate, but intelligent, person. Margery appears to have been taught the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), Ave Maria, the Ten Commandments, and other “virtues, vices, and articles of faith.” At around 20, Margery married John Kempe, who became a town official in 1394. Margery and John had at least fourteen children, some of whom likely died during infancy. A letter survives from Gdańsk which identifies the name of her eldest son as John and gives a reason for his visit to Lynn in 1431.


Margery was an orthodox Catholic and, like other medieval mystics, she believed that she was summoned to a “greater intimacy with Christ,” in her case as a result of multiple visions and experiences she had as an adult. After the birth of her first child, Margery went through a period of physical crisis for nearly eight months. During her illness, Margery reports that she envisioned numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to “forsake her faith, her family, and her friends” and that they even encouraged her to commit suicide. Then, she reports that she had a vision of Christ in the form of a man who asked her “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?” Margery affirms that she had visitations and conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures and that she had visions of being an active participant during the birth and crucifixion of Christ. These visions physically affected her bodily senses, causing her to hear sounds and smell unknown, strange odors. She also reports hearing a heavenly melody that made her weep and want to live a chaste life. Margery was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Margery did not join a religious order, but did carry out her life of devotion and crying quite publicly. Her visions provoked public displays of loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing which frightened and annoyed both clergy and laypeople. At one point in her life, she was imprisoned by the clergy and town officials and threatened with the possibility of rape. However, Margery does not record being sexually assaulted. Finally, during the 1420s Margery dictated her Book, known today as The Book of Margery Kempe which illustrates her visions, mystical and religious experiences, as well as her sexual temptations, her travels, and her trial for heresy.


Nearly everything that is known of Margery’s life comes from her Book. In the early 1430s Margery decided to record her spiritual autobiography. In the preface she describes how she employed as a scribe an Englishman who had lived in Germany, but he died before the work was completed and what he had written was unintelligible to others. A 1431 letter discovered in Gdańsk suggests the likelihood that this first scribe was John Kempe, her eldest son. She then persuaded a local priest, who may have been her confessor Robert Springold, to begin rewriting on 23 July 1436, and on 28 April 1438 he started work on an additional section covering the years 1431–4. The complete text in Middle English can be found here: There are “translations” available in modern English, but you should be able to read the original.


The narrative of Margery’s Book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. After describing the demonic torment and the apparition of Christ that followed, Margery undertook two domestic businesses: a brewery and a grain mill (both common home-based businesses for medieval women). Both failed after a short period of time. Although she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, she dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, in the summer of 1413 Margery negotiated a chaste marriage with her husband. Although Chapter 15 of the Book describes her decision to lead a celibate life, Chapter 21 mentions that she is pregnant once again. She later relates that she brought a child with her when she returned to England. It is unclear whether the child was conceived before the Kempes began their celibacy, or in a momentary lapse after it.

Some time around 1413, Margery visited the female mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich at her cell in Norwich –  According to her own account, Margery visited Julian and stayed for several days. She was especially eager to obtain Julian’s approval for her visions of and conversations with God. The text reports that Julian approved of Margery’s revelations and gave Margery reassurance that her religiosity was genuine. However, Julian did instruct and caution Margery to “measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians.” Julian also confirmed that Margery’s tears were physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in her soul.

The manuscript of the Book was copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, and contains annotations by four hands. However, Margery’s Book was essentially lost for centuries, being known only from excerpts published by Wynkyn de Worde in around 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521. In 1934 a manuscript (now British Library MS Additional 61823, the only surviving manuscript of Margery’s Book) was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family. It has since been reprinted and translated in numerous editions.


Margery and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual life, Margery was challenged by both church and civil authorities on her adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, were involved in trials of her allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). Margery defended her orthodoxy in each case. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade women from preaching.

I am particularly interested in Margery’s travels and pilgrimages which would have been unusual for a Medieval woman, and which show her perseverance in the face of difficulties. She was initially motivated to make pilgrimages by hearing or reading the English translation of Bridget of Sweden’s Revelations. This work promotes the purchase of indulgences at holy sites (much railed against by Chaucer and, later, Luther). Margery went on many pilgrimages and purchased indulgences for friends, enemies, souls trapped in Purgatory, and herself.


In 1413, soon after her father’s death, Margery left her husband to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the winter, she spent thirteen weeks in Venice but she talks little about her observations of Venice in her book. From Venice, Margery travelled to Jerusalem via Ramlah. It is thought that she passed through Jaffa, which was the usual port for people who were heading inland. One detail that she recalls was her riding on a donkey when she saw Jerusalem for the first time, probably from Nabi Samwil, and that she nearly fell off of the donkey because she was in such shock from the vision in front of her. During her pilgrimage Margery visited places that she deemed holy. She was in Jerusalem for three weeks and then went to Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the supposed tomb of Jesus, and the supposed cross itself. Finally, she went to the River Jordan and Mount Quarentyne  (supposedly where Jesus had fasted for forty days), and Bethany where Martha, Mary and Lazarus had lived, and where Jesus is reported to have stayed on visits to Jerusalem from Galilee:

After she visited the Holy Land, Margery returned to Italy and stayed in Assisi before going to Rome. Like many other medieval English pilgrims, Margery stayed at the Hospital of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Rome. During her stay, she visited many churches including San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santi Apostoli, San Marcello and St Birgitta’s Chapel. She did not leave Rome until Easter 1415.

When Margery returned to Norwich, she passed through Middelburg (in today’s Netherlands). In 1417, she set off again on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, travelling via Bristol, where she stayed at Henbury with Thomas Peverel, bishop of Worcester. On her return from Spain she visited the shrine of the holy blood at Hailes Abbey, in Gloucestershire, and then went on to Leicester. Margery recounts several public interrogations during her travels. One followed her arrest by the Mayor of Leicester who accused her, in Latin, of being a “cheap whore, a lying Lollard,” and threatened her with prison. After Margery was able to insist on the right of accusations to be made in English and to defend herself she was briefly cleared, but then brought to trial again by the Abbot, Dean, and Mayor, and imprisoned for three weeks. She returned to Lynn some time in 1418.


She later visited important sites and religious figures in England, including Philip Repyngdon (the Bishop of Lincoln), Henry Chichele, and Thomas Arundel (both Archbishops of Canterbury). During the 1420s Margery lived apart from her husband. When he fell ill, however, she returned to Lynn to be his nurse. Their son, who lived in Germany, also returned to Lynn with his wife. However, both her son and husband died in 1431. The last section of her book deals with a journey, beginning in April 1433, aiming to travel to Danzig with her daughter-in-law. From Danzig, Margery visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack relic. She then traveled to Aachen, and returned to Lynn via Calais, Canterbury and London (where she visited Syon Abbey). There is no record of her death.

Margery spent a good part of her life avoiding meat, so a Medieval vegetable dish is warranted to celebrate her life today. This recipe for spiced fennel comes from the Forme of Cury, a 14th century collection of recipes I have called on before. Here’s the original text:


Take blades of Fenkel. shrede hem not to smale, do hem to seeð in water and oile and oynouns mynced ðerwith. do ðerto safroun and salt and powdour douce, serue it forth, take brede ytosted and lay the sewe onoward.

Not complicated, although there’s some question as to spices. The recipe calls for “powdour douce” (sweet powder) which is about as useful as saying “mixed herbs” as you sometimes see in modern recipes. My recipe here is probably a decent approximation, but cooks would have made their own choices, and you can too. Ginger is known to have been the principal ingredient. Most likely the ingredients would have been grated or ground in a mortar.


Sweet Powder


3 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered cloves
1 tsp powdered nutmeg


Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container.

The braised fennel recipe is not difficult to recreate. You can add some white wine to the braising liquid, or use stock if you like instead of water.


Fenkel in Soppes


1½ lb trimmed fresh fennel root, sliced
8 oz onions, minced
1 tbsp sweet powder (above)
1 tspn powdered saffron
2 tspn olive oil
6 slices of wholemeal bread


Put the fennel, onions, spices, oil and salt to taste in a lidded pot and barely cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered for about 20-30 minutes or until the fennel is cooked but not mushy. Stir occasionally during cooking process.

Toast the bread.

Place a slice of bread in a soup bowl and pour over it the fennel and cooking juice.

May 132014


Today is the day we celebrate Julian of Norwich (ca. 1342 – ca. 1416) an English anchoress who is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics. She is venerated in the Anglican and Lutheran churches, but has never been canonized, or officially beatified, by the Roman Catholic Church, probably because so little is known of her life apart from her writings. Even if you are not particularly sympathetic to Christianity I would urge you to read about her, here and elsewhere, not least because she was revolutionary in many ways. I am going to call her a proto-feminist, for starters, because she was the first woman author published in the English language, and also because she shocked many contemporary theologians by insisting that God is both mother and father. Many of her thoughts are still too radical for many in the church.

Almost nothing is known about Julian’s life, not even her name. She is called “Julian” simply because her anchorite cell was built into the wall of the church of St Julian in Norwich in Norfolk (pictured). We also know, from her writing, that she had a series of visions when she was 30 years old while in the throes of a severe illness. She dates the start of these visions to when she was “30 years and a half.” They ended on 13 May 1372, and so her birth is placed at around 1342 (and hence she is remembered on this date). Subsequent to the visions she became an anchoress (religious hermit) and lived the rest of her life alone in her cell in Norwich. There is no evidence that she was a nun although she is frequently portrayed as such. Just about everything else concerning her life is conjecture and I will not bother you with the details.


At the time of Julian’s life, Norwich was the second largest city in England and an important center of commerce. Plague epidemics were rampant during the 14th century across Europe, so it was a time of great social instability, as well as uncertainty within the church. Norwich, like most urban areas, was hit hard. Many within the church saw the plague as a sign of God’s wrath against humanity, although Julian did not. By the end of the pandemic one person in three had died. No one was left untouched. Whole villages were wiped out and are known now only from soil impressions visible only from aerial photography (pictured). Thus Julian’s revelation made a profound impact on a society filled with uncertainty.

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Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened (although the text may not have been finished for some years), in a version of the Revelations of Divine Love now known as the “Short Text.” This narrative of 25 chapters is about 11,000 words long. It is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390’s, Julian began to write a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as “The Long Text,” which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,500 words. This work seems to have gone through many revisions before it was finished, perhaps in the first or even second decade of the fifteenth century.


Julian became well known throughout England as a spiritual authority even though her works themselves were not widely disseminated. The English mystic Margery Kempe, who was the author of the first known autobiography written in England, mentioned going to Norwich to speak with her in around 1414. The Short Text survives in only one manuscript, the mid-15th century Amherst Manuscript, which was copied from an original written in 1413 in Julian’s own lifetime. The Short Text does not appear to have been widely read, and it was not edited for print until 1911. The Long Text appears to have been slightly better known, but still does not seem to have been widely circulated in late medieval England. The one surviving manuscript from this period is the mid- to late-fifteenth century Westminster Manuscript, which contains a portion of the Long Text (not naming Julian as its author), refashioned as a didactic treatise on contemplation.

Printed versions of the Long Text have been available since the late seventeenth century, but it was not widely known until a newly edited version came out in 1902. From that point on she has been the subject of considerable scholarly study, not least because of the controversial nature of her writings. Numerous editions have been published which have also been translated into French (five times), German (four times), Italian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Catalan, Greek and Russian.


Although Julian lived in a time of turmoil, her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. She believed that God loved everyone and wanted to save them all. Popular theology, magnified by current events that included the Black Death and a series of peasant revolts, asserted that God punished the wicked. Julian suggested a more merciful theology leaning towards universal salvation. She believed that behind the reality of hell is the greater mystery of God’s love, and harbored the hope that no one was beyond redemption.

Although Julian’s views were not typical, nor approved, the authorities did not challenge her theology because of her status as an anchoress. A lack of references to her work during her own time may indicate that the religious authorities did not count her worthy of refuting, since she was a woman. Her theology was radical for her day in three ways: her view of sin; her belief that God is all-loving and without wrath; and her view of God/Christ as mother.

Julian believed that sin was necessary because it brings people to self-knowledge, which, in turn, leads to acceptance of the role of God in their life. She taught that humans sin because they are ignorant or naive, and not because they are evil, the reason commonly given by the mediaeval church to explain sin. Julian believed that in order to learn we must fail, and in order to fail we must sin. She also believed that the pain caused by sin is an earthly reminder of the pain of the passion of Christ and that when people suffer as Christ did, they become closer to him by their experiences.


Julian saw no wrath in God. She believed wrath existed in humans, but that God forgives us for this. She wrote, “For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love.” Julian believed that it was inaccurate to speak of God’s granting forgiveness for sins, because forgiving would mean that committing the sin was wrong. She preached that sin should be seen as a part of the learning process of life, not a malice that needed forgiveness. She wrote that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when human souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder us.

Julian’s belief in God as mother was controversial. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. This notion was not novel in the Middle Ages; Bernard of Clairvaux and others from the 12th century onward had written along the same lines. Julian believed that the mother’s role was the most vital of all on earth. She emphasized this by explaining how the bond between mother and child is the only earthly relationship that comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus. She also connected God with motherhood in terms of “the foundation of our nature’s creation,” “the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins,” and “the motherhood at work.” She wrote metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor and upbringing, but saw him as a brother as well. Julian’s most famous saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” came to Julian in a vision and reflects her theology of optimism.

In 2013, an annual week-long celebration of the life and works of Julian of Norwich was inaugurated in her home city. Through concerts, lectures, workshops, and tours, the week aims to educate all interested people about Julian presenting her as a cultural, historical, literary, spiritual, and religious figure of international significance. This site provides more details The week coincides roughly with 13 May.

There are a few traditional dishes from the region of Norwich but they are not terribly well known. My favorite is Norfolk plough pudding, a suet pudding filled with a mix of sausage meat and bacon, flavored with sage. It was customary to make this for Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany – a major holiday in the farmlands of East Anglia. Brown sugar is a normal ingredient, but I omit it because I don’t like the sweetness. Your choice.


©Norfolk Plough Pudding


8 ozs/230g self-raising flour
2 ½ ozs/70g suet, shredded
1 lb/450g pork sausage meat
8 strips streaky bacon, chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1 tbsp brown sugar
light stock


Combine the flour, suet, and salt in a large mixing bowl so that they are thoroughly mixed. Slowly add cold water, one tablespoon at a time, and knead the dough together to form a soft, pliant dough. Do not let it become sticky.

Take two-thirds of the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Grease a pudding basin and line it with the dough so that it overlaps the edge of the basin.

Pat the sausage meat against the dough so that it forms an even layer with a well in the center. Mix the chopped bacon with the sage and place it in the well inside the sausage meat. Then top up the meat filling with light stock.

Roll out the remaining dough, place it over the basin, and crimp all around the edge tightly. Trim off excess dough. Cover the top with a layer of greaseproof paper and another of foil and bind it securely to the basin with string so that it is as airtight as possible.

Place the basin in a pan of boiling water that comes two-thirds up the sides of the basin. Cover the pot and let the pudding steam for around 4 hours. Exact timing is not critical. Check the water level in the pot periodically, and top it up with hot water if it gets low.

Turn the pudding out on to a warm platter and serve it hot with your choice of steamed vegetables.

Serves 4