Medieval English literature is a bit of a boys’ club. Sure, we have plenty of medieval books about women: dragon-fighting virgin saints who endure gruesome torture; ladies who fall tragically in love with knights; and wives who are too loose or too stubborn, only to be punished in due course. We have unruly women, like Chaucer’s infamous serial monogamist, the Wife of Bath of The Canterbury Tales, with her five marriages and gapped teeth. But books written by women? Women authors? At first blush, the pickings in England ca. 800–1500 look pretty slim.
Now, we’re seeing a bloom of books, films, and television that remix medieval stories with a feminist twist. The 2021 film The Last Duel retold the true story of a rape case brought by the noblewoman Marguerite de Carrouges, leading to the last judicially ordered trial by combat in 14th-century France. Lauren Groff’s 2021 novel Matrix, loosely based on Marie de France, a woman writing in 13th-century England, used a community of cloistered nuns as a backdrop to stage questions about creation, ambition, and lesbianism. For whatever reason (an acute sense that our gender politics are regressing, and the rights of women, nonbinary, and trans people are being systematically stripped away, perhaps?) our interest in narratives about medieval gender is currently piqued.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, a debut novel from Scottish writer Victoria MacKenzie released in January 2023, follows in this trend of fictionalizing the lives of real medieval women. The book centers on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, authors who lived in England during the 1300s and 1400s and met one another in real life. For Thy Great Pain imagines Julian and Margery’s worlds and how their writing may have been influenced by their famous encounter with each other. Both were “mystics,” meaning that their devotional writing considers personal relationships with the divine in ways that are “affective, visionary, [and] contemplative,” to quote the scholar Nicholas Watson. Mystical writing is often profoundly moving in its negotiation between emotional experiences and orthodox belief. In that sense, it’s also a ripe genre for exploring gender, which often requires navigating intimate personal experiences within larger, unequal systems of power.
For Thy Great Pain is a book by a modern woman about medieval women writing books. We could say it’s a book about “women authors”—though we quickly run into quicksand with that term. On one hand, medieval women and authorship seem, to many modern people, like oxymorons. And at the same time, when I teach Julian and Margery’s books in English classes at the University of Virginia, my female students often expect to be able to relate to these “women authors,” only to find themselves perplexed, because Julian and Margery’s lives were so vastly different from their own. Amid the tangle of stock ideas about medieval women, authorship, and women in general, it’s hard to see Julian and Margery in all their complexity and glory. But let’s try, nonetheless, to meet them where they’re at.
Allow me to introduce you to Julian first. Her book Shewings (also called Revelations of Divine Love, and one of the source books for For Thy Great Pain) is a devotional treasure. It’s full of intimate and expansive meditations on the body, vulnerability, and Christian piety as Julian describes the visions she experienced during and after a near-death illness. Julian was an “anchoress”—which is, as it happens, an extraordinarily metal way to be. To become an anchoress, she would have undergone a ceremony that resembled a funeral, then devoted her life to prayer as a recluse, cooped up in a cell attached to the St. Julian’s Church. Kind of like being entombed in a shed. It would be as if, I tell my students, you lived the rest of your life in your first-year college dorm room.
Shewings provides Julian’s first-hand account of her (sometimes erotic!) visions of Jesus—unexpected for most modern audiences, to say the least. When Julian’s visions aren’t saucy, they have a cryptic, paradoxical quality—as if to fully grasp them is just beyond Julian and the reader’s reach. In one of Julian’s most famous visions, God shows her a hazelnut-sized object. “What may this be?” she asks him as she holds it in her hands. He replies: “It is all that is made.” Something so tiny, containing everything created? Both Julian and the reader are left with a searching, questioning feeling, uncertain of why this paradox is possible, and of what it all means.
The other source text for For Thy Great Pain, Margery Kempe’s book—named, appropriately, The Book of Margery Kempe—is a sort of spiritual, autobiographical tell-all. It’s a wild, riveting read. As Margery describes her life, the reader quickly realizes that she was both passionate about Jesus and a bit of a loose cannon. The daughter of the mayor of Lynn, Margery experienced Jesus speaking to her while she lay in bed after a traumatic labor with her first child (of 14). Unhappy in her role as wife and mother, she began acting out. First, she attempted to cheat on her husband, John—unsuccessfully. Then, she negotiated a celibate marriage with John, before pilgrimaging to Jerusalem and other holy sites—trips that revealed her to be one of the world’s most difficult travel companions. Her habit of loudly crying about Jesus in public made people uneasy and led her to make many enemies. She was even tried for heresy by the archbishop of Canterbury and found innocent. Finally, Margery ended up back in Lynn with her husband, whom she cared for after he became disabled. Margery, too, had spicy visions of Jesus. Julian and Margery, big Jesus stans, both.
As you might imagine from these descriptions, when I read these books with my students, I get baffled looks, puzzlement. It’s a generative confusion; reading Julian and Margery as “women authors”—then realizing how strange they are to us—forces us to confront the term’s fundamental incoherence. Works by medieval women tend to offer us “affective styles, cultural priorities and values, modes of authority, narrative trajectories, and other features that differ from conventions established by male authorship,” as Geraldine Heng puts it, requiring readers to “recover an archeology of women’s lives, labor, spirituality, relations, and communities” in order to read them effectively. But then when we try to define a “feminist aesthetic” or otherwise think categorically about women’s art, we come up continually against the fact that “the very idea of a single, common femaleness is a metaphysical illusion,” as Rita Felski says. It requires a lot of back-bending to imagine that Julian, who spent all day thinking about Jesus in a tiny cell, or Margery, who couldn’t read or write, have much in common with me, a harried graduate student, or with the women I teach, who text under their desks on iPhones.
It’s worthwhile to continue drawing attention to women’s experiences—and to ask what we mean by “women’s experiences.” It matters to keep thinking about gender historically and politically, especially in the early periods.
We can’t rely on the body as definitive touchstone around which to organize the term woman, either. After all, not all women have bodies that have been historically coded as “feminine,” and, as For Thy Great Pain reminds us, those who do don’t necessarily experience them the same way. Menstruation, for example, is an entirely different ballgame without access to modern menstrual products, as MacKenzie highlights when Margery laments having to “roll strips of linen and push them inside [herself].” For MacKenzie’s Julian, meanwhile, motherhood is a great gift; while for Margery, it is a psychic terror. Pregnancy itself would have meant something fundamentally scarier to medieval women than it does to many modern women, since childbirth was exponentially more dangerous without modern medicine—though still today, pregnancy is far from a safe or monolithic experience. In the United States, for instance, poor women and women of color suffer disproportionately from obstetric violence in the forms of inaccessible abortion and high maternal mortality rates.
Reading For Thy Great Pain, I do wish that MacKenzie had done more to engage with how Julian and Margery sometimes seem to undermine the idea of women’s bodies altogether. Julian and Margery—the writers, not the characters—often experiment with embodiment in ways that are fundamentally category-defiant. When Margery reclaims her virginity in her Book, for example, becoming celibate and donning white clothing, she may be radically reimagining her body’s relationship to gender. Carolyn Dinshaw suggests we could think of her embodiment as queer, while scholars including Jacqueline Murray and Sarah Salih have long argued that medieval religious identities, and particularly virginity, may have constituted third genders. MacKenzie neglects to engage with these prominent readings, despite the robust historical and literary research that structures her book.
Julian, too, strongly challenged the binary assignment of gender to bodies. As the historian Caroline Walker Bynum famously noted, she prays to God for “his sweete moder love” (his sweet mother love) and compares receiving Jesus’s love to falling “into our Lords brest as the child into the moder barme” (into our Lord’s breast as the child into the mother’s bosom). (Jesus’s breasts do appear in MacKenzie’s book, but only in glancing reference). What does it mean for Julian’s conception of womanhood when she deploys gender in this way, remarking on “his”—God’s—breasts? These moments are particularly important in light of recent medieval gender histories that have excavated nonbinary and trans experiences from the archive, like Leah DeVun’s The Shape of Sex (2021) and the edited volumes Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography (2021) and Trans Historical: Gender Plurality before the Modern (2021). We risk missing something critical about Margery and Julian when we think too narrowly about the relationship between the body and gender, as at times MacKenzie does in her book.
Why then apply the lens of “women’s authorship” to Julian and Margery at all, if the term is so troubled? Perhaps because we’re still dealing with questions about whether women wrote in the medieval period at all. For example, Bloomsbury, For Thy Great Pain’s publisher, asserts in the first line of the jacket copy: “the year is 1413 … a time when women do not read and certainly do not write.” As a scholar, I’m duty bound to rain on that parade. Medieval women faced tremendous oppression and misogyny, and, as I mentioned, it’s true that we don’t have many instances of literature that we know for certain were written by women. Certainly, literacy on the whole, and women’s literacy in particular, was much lower than it is today.
But women did read and write in the 1400s, and not just Julian and Margery, and that matters. As scholars like Mary Erler have shown, some women even collected and owned books—especially rich women, and especially those in religious communities. We should be extremely wary, of course, of conflating illiteracy with a lack of agency or textual culture. Though many women were not themselves literate, they still would have heard texts read aloud—a much more common practice in the Middle Ages. Particularly relevant here are women’s devotional texts, like Margery and Julian’s, which employed what the scholar Jessica Barr calls “intimate reading”—reading practices that “blu[r] [the] boundary between the reader and this subject.” Through reading or hearing these devotional works, in other words, readers felt close to both the divine, the text, and to each other.
Bloomsbury’s marketing copy is not just wrong, it’s also interesting—because it tells us about which images of medieval womanhood and authorship sell. We like to fantasize, Handmaid’s Tale–style, about women who were thoroughly illiterate, irredeemably oppressed, completely atextual. For some reason—perhaps because we are finding that feminist progress is actually not so linear—we want to fudge the numbers a little, to make the arc of justice look steeper, insisting that medieval women had no voice whatsoever and patting ourselves on the back for our own. But our monolithic ideas about women in 1400 often do not match the lived experiences of those women—which were themselves variable and depended on where a person lived, how much money she had, on her religion, on her race, on her assigned gender, and any number of other conditions—just as they do today.
Good historical fiction pushes back on the faulty images we project onto the past—even if it depends on them for marketing. And MacKenzie, unlike the publishing house, clearly has done her homework. To her immense credit, she does not court a reductive vision of medieval women’s literacy. Instead, as she describes Julian losing her husband and child to the plague and Margery brewing beer, she sketches out a robust medieval women’s religious textual culture. In both For Thy Great Pain and The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery prays to St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth, who was so immensely popular in the Middle Ages that pregnant people often held copies of the story of Margaret’s life while enduring labor pains. Margery also references St. Bridget of Sweden in both books, a 14th-century visionary whose experiences circulated in writing. MacKenzie’s Julian, meanwhile, reads books about seclusion: Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection, a religious treatise on contemplation; and Ancrene Wisse, a medieval guide for daily life as an anchoress.
Occasionally these references come across as heavy-handed, but I nonetheless appreciated how MacKenzie reminds us that Margery and Julian operated within a border-crossing, multilingual culture of religious writing for, and occasionally by, women. Through MacKenzie, we glimpse a written culture in which women’s devotion and connections to each other took center stage. And so MacKenzie skirts the less interesting narrative that the marketing copy imagines of silenced medieval women “finding their voice.” Instead, she allows us to probe what writing meant to Julian and Margery and how writing shaped their sense of their own devotional womanhood as well as their relationships with each other.
Mystical writing is often profoundly moving in its negotiation between emotional experiences and orthodox belief. In that sense, it’s also a ripe genre for exploring gender.
That said, MacKenzie does not always manage to completely avoid the thicket of issues surrounding women’s authorship and voice. For example, in For Thy Great Pain, we hear Julian’s voice as it comes through in the Shewings—its sense of self-possession, its profoundly meditative qualities. But this provokes the question: Why not just read Julian herself? To renarrate Julian, who wrote her own book in the 14th century, seems to eclipse her voice—to simply substitute the medieval woman author for a modern one. In her epilogue, MacKenzie considers the manuscript transmission of Julian’s text but does not grapple with the questions that revoicing Julian raises. To be sure, some readers will find Julian’s own works through MacKenzie, which is fantastic. But rewriting medieval women without confronting these issues is, in a way, to write over them—it scratches our itch to speak for the medieval woman, whom we want to believe could not speak for herself.
In MacKenzie’s Margery, we encounter a kind of inverse of this conundrum: Margery wasn’t literate, and so when Margery’s voice feels hollower than Julian’s in For Thy Great Pain, it may be because the source material itself doesn’t provide us with a sense of her style or tone. Her Book exists because she narrated her life story to scribes, insisting that they write it down for her. It was tremendously difficult for Margery to find people to write on her behalf; that we know her story at all is an accomplishment, one owed to the sheer force of Margery’s will. Scholars have argued at length about the issue of authorship when it comes to Margery. Surely we can call her one if we can call Milton or Joyce authors, both of whom dictated parts of their work.
Still, when we encounter Margery in her Book, it is in third person—there is, to my mind, a distinct persona in the pages, just not one that is completely Margery’s own. MacKenzie disagrees, arguing in the epilogue that “Margery cannot have checked what was written and how true the scribe was to the words she spoke,” but nonetheless “a distinctive voice comes singing from the pages” of Margery’s autobiography. Me, I’m not convinced. I can’t help feeling that in insisting on using the first person for Margery, MacKenzie performs a kind of ventriloquizing, making us even more acutely aware of her absence. In some ways, the real Margery feels further away than ever.
This is, of course, a problem germane to historical fiction: how to weigh the past on its own terms with the need to make it meaningful and legible today. In one scene in For Thy Great Pain MacKenzie appears to wink at the difficulty of finding that balance. In Lynn, as Margery is preaching about the Virgin Mary in public, an audience member heckles Margery while she talks about Mary’s and Jesus’s suffering. The spectator jeers: “You were there, were you? … At Jesus’ birth and his death?” What right do we have, the book seems to invite us to ask, to speak to the experiences of those long dead? Later, another woman accuses Margery of puppeteering these figures: “the Virgin Mary talks like a Lynn housewife!” Perhaps MacKenzie is offering wry metacommentary on the possibilities and limitations of historical fiction. We might say similarly that, at times, Margery sounds a lot like MacKenzie. It’s both part of For Thy Great Pain’s charm and part of what keeps Margery at arm’s length.
But whomever Margery sounds like, and whatever my qualms with rewriting Julian, I’m grateful to MacKenzie for inviting us to talk more about them. It’s worthwhile to continue drawing attention to women’s experiences—and to ask what we mean by “women’s experiences.” It matters to keep thinking about gender historically and politically, especially in the early periods. Every year a student looks at me and asks: Were there women authors in the Middle Ages? They’re trying to ask, I think, about the relationship between the past and the present, about how oppressive systems persist. And they are also trying to ask something else: Do I belong to this literature and this history? Does it belong to me? To those last two questions, For Thy Great Pain answers yes, and that continues to be important work.
Though I can’t help feeling that such a straightforward answer misses something. Gender and writing shape Julian and Margery’s work in ways that are far more transgressive than strictly delimited categories of “woman” and “author” can contain. I’m wary of who we leave out, or alienate, or speak over when we insist too strongly on wringing some meaning out of them. Following Joan Scott, I have a sense that “the term gender is useful only as a question”—one that we would be remiss to tie up with a bow.
Historical fiction can show us how the past still haunts the present. However, at its best, it also does the inverse: to help us learn from how the past is strange to modern sensibilities, to see how things were different once and so could be different again. Modern readers may balk at medieval writers’ love for paradox, like Julian and her hazelnut that contains “all that is made.” But maybe we have something to learn from this proclivity for the irreconcilable, and from the searching, open-ended feeling that medieval people courted. In savoring contradiction and the question, perhaps we can affirm that the category of women’s authorship matters and also celebrate its unruliness, its untenability, its propensity to collapse.
Paradox is, I think, a promising place from which to theorize gender and writing for us moderns, one that we should do more to embrace.
The author would like to thank Emma Maggie Solberg, Mary Ruth Robinson, Tarushi Sonthalia, Emma Dove, and Ally Glass-Katz for their generative conversations about the ideas in this piece.
Featured image: Depiction of Julian of Norwich (window in Norwich Cathedral). Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)