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Monday, 7 May 2012

1.5 – Margery Kempe: A Case Study

Fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe experienced visions that she understood to be sent from God. Her records of these revelations expose certain likenesses between her own experiences and contemporary documentation of visions, despite coming from vastly different cultures and separated in time by almost four centuries. In this chapter I hope to clarify the similarities and differences between the two states with close reference to Margery Kempe. I will discuss whether it is possible, or indeed right, to diagnose her (or any medieval saints) as schizophrenic in the modern sense of the word, or whether it be erroneous to deny the fact that she had the transcendent relationship with God that she claimed to.

Margery lived in a patriarchal and forthrightly misogynistic society. During the medieval period women were subjected to either of two stereotypes: They were the subject of clerical misogyny that saw women as the incarnation of every evil or docile, virginal martyrs – both extreme presentations. However, in a time when women’s voices were generally very rarely heard, female mystics who experienced ‘signs from God’, (such as visions), were empowered to speak out and challenge the social perceptions of themselves. Such signs enabled women to act as powerful mediators between the personal, social and spiritual, and as their authority came ‘directly from God’, it could even surpass that of the misogynistic male clerics who ruled the institutional church. Petroff identifies this and presents a sense of the kind of social and political power that women with the status of orthodox mystics enjoyed.

Visions led women to the acquisition of power in the world while affirming their knowledge of themselves as women. Visions were a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from conventional female roles by identifying her as a genuine religious figure. They brought her to the attention of others, giving her a public language she could use to teach and learn.[1]

As Petroff’s analysis clarifies, a mystic’s possession of a ‘public language’ gave her the ability to act not just within a ‘women’s culture’, but in a ‘man’s world’ as well,[2] which would have otherwise have been impossible considering the social climate of medieval times.  This highlights the desirability of such revelations and helps explain why women were so impelled to embark on lifelong quests to attain unity with God and experience visionary sequences.

Born in 1373 to a wealthy family, Margery Kempe is a key example of a visionary whose sanity was questioned. ‘Conflict and controversy surrounded [her] during her lifetime’,[3]  and she has been labelled, ‘everything from a hysteric, to a heretic, to a heroine’.[4]  While there is no dispute that Margery was a fiercely religious woman, her peculiar behaviour and exuberant character resulted in debate regarding her status as a mystic and visionary. She married at the age of twenty, but although her life seemed comfortable she began ‘raving in madness’ after the birth of her first child – probably the results of a difficult labour, post-natal depression and an unsuccessful confession. This ‘raving’ preceded her first vision of Christ:

Our merciful Lord Christ Jesus, ever to be trusted, worshipped be his name, never forsaking his servant in time of need, appeared to his creature, who had forsaken him, in likeness of man, most seemly, most beautiful, and most amicable that ever might be seen in man’s eye, clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bedside.[5] 

Following this vision, and despite claiming to be ‘stabled in her wits and reason’, she once again reached crisis after a number of failed business ventures. Out of this crisis she experienced a sequence of visions in which she saw Jesus and a number of other New Testament figures. During her first labour she held, ‘a neurotic fear she would be damned’,[6]  as she had not formally confessed her sins, and after she had conceived, she was laboured with great attacks of illness until the child was born . She despaired of her life, thinking she might not live.

It has been proposed that Margery’s suicidal depression and hysterical behaviour suggest that she was suffering from the modern understanding of post-natal depression.[7]  This condition is characterised by severe dejection, despair, and spells of delirium, which would not only explain her suicidal depression but also her ensuing visions of Christ. Glasscoe supports this supposition, stating that, ‘[Margery’s] trouble at the birth of her first child has now been recognised as postpartum depressive psychosis with features of agitation brought on by guilt’.[8] For eight weeks she felt herself to be tormented by devils, suffered from suicidal depression and loss of faith, mutilated herself and was forcibly restrained and tied up in her room.  Such hysterical and depressive behaviour acts as a strong implication, and advocates the verity of Margery’s mental illness as both are typical characteristics of psychological imbalance.

However, such a diagnosis does not account for the majority of Margery’s revelations, as post-natal depression is a transient illness, and Margery’s erratic, eccentric, and hysterical behaviour was lifelong. Instead, her traumatic childbirth may have acted as a catalyst for another ailment, namely schizophrenia; a notion based partly on Newman’s claim that schizophrenia may be triggered by childbirth, bereavement, and the exhaustive demands of a religious life.

The form schizophrenia takes is directly linked to the cultural and social influences to the patient, and in the pre-scientific mass psyche of the Middle Ages, schizophrenia understandably manifested itself religiously:

When schizophrenics complain that their minds are being invaded by unseen forces, in North America and Europe these forces keep up to date with technological developments. So, in the 1920s, these were often voices from the radio, in the 1950s, they often came from the television, in the 1960s it was satellites in space and in the 1970s and 1980s spirits were transmitted through microwave ovens. In cultures where witchcraft is considered common, the voices or spirits would be directly unseen forces under the control of demons.[9] 

Similarly, visions are one of the primary symptoms of schizophrenia, and in medieval times, the patient would not know they were ill, and therefore may mistake their schizophrenic visions as signs of hyper-religiosity. Margery Kempe fostered delusions and experienced auditory and visual hallucinations in the form of divine and religious experience, and the religious fervour and climate of the Middle Ages logically resulted in this direct link between her illness and the cultural climate of her time.

Margery displayed several signs of modern-day schizophrenia. Characteristically, in extreme cases of schizophrenia the sufferers ‘do not make or keep friends’, and cannot interact normally in social situations. Margery’s own writings reveal that her eccentric and bizarre behaviour alienated many people, and that she was brusque, self-absorbed and scornful of others. She was an undesirable travelling companion on pilgrimages as she refused to talk about anything other than religion, which reflects the obsessional aspect  of her nature and of the disease.  Her spiritual fixation was clearly excessive, even for the religious milieu of the time, and the Book is filled with examples of her fanatical behaviour, specifically regarding delusions. She reveals that she would ‘cry, roar, and weep, as though she had seen Christ in his childhood’[10], whenever she saw a baby with its mother. While this may simply have been viewed as religious enthusiasm, the reactions of her contemporaries vouch for the fact that her behaviour was extremely overzealous. Margery becamepersona non grata in many churches as a result of her incessant weeping, which could be seen as an example of schizophrenic behaviour, whereby the individual is unable to appropriately express their emotions. However, Margery was acutely aware and unabashed by her crying fits however, seeing them as the direct cause of the grace of God. Whether or not her behaviour was ‘appropriate’, it was certainly carried out in full awareness, with purpose and meaning.

Schizophrenics also characteristically display a distinct preoccupation with the self; an attribute that Margery clearly demonstrates throughout her work. Prior to her conversion she claimed that her ‘neighbours were very jealous of [her], whilst her 'only wish was to be admired'.[11]  Her written work also reveals a ‘morbid self-engrossment’,[12]  and unlike other visionaries she lacked detachment and exuded an air of self-importance, focusing on herself rather than on the glory of God. Deikman states that experiencing one’s self as unified with God or the universe is the hallmark of mystical experience, regardless of its cultural context,[13]  but Margery, ‘even while acknowledging that all of her visionary understanding [was] a gift from God, believed that it was to count as if it were her own merit to earn her reward in heaven.’[14] 

Schizophrenia is also characterised by intense anxiety and Margery’s writings reveal a soul tortured by guilt. She had an eternal fear of damnation, twinned with a need to verify her experiences as though she knew not whether they were genuine. She frequently referred to diabolical deceptions and suffered huge anxiety regarding sin and its punishment to an almost obsessive level. The notion of guilt and its atonement plagued her. However, as there is no tangible proof available, it is extremely difficult to assert whether the voices within the visions experienced by Margery and other visionaries, were indeed divine revelations, or manifestations of mental illness. Jantzen asks of Julian of Norwich:

How, for instance, would all these intense experiences differ from hallucination or indeed from drug-induced phenomena? Julian was after all extremely ill, and when the previous intensity of her life and prayer are taken into account, it becomes plausible to suppose that she might have been susceptible to unusual hallucinations of a religious variety.[15] 

If the scientific theory that mystics suffered from schizophrenia is believed, then one would suppose psychologically-induced hallucinations to be the answer as to why mystics experienced visions and heard voices. Therefore, Margery’s visions would be understood as hallucinations, manifested religiously, but wrongly interpreted. There is no concrete evidence to prove this, or indeed the alternative, but there is however, reasonable evidence to suggest that these visions were not apparitions of God. For instance, there are various telling idiosyncrasies in her work. Margery recalls a vision where: ‘As this creature prayed to God that she might live chaste by the leave of her husband, Christ said to her mind, ‘You must fast on Friday both from food and from drink, and you shall have your desire by Whitsunday, for I shall suddenly slay your husband’.[16]  Her primary work reveals that her husband in fact lived for decades after this premonition, and in addition to inaccuracy, this morbid prophecy is indicative of ‘paranoid schizophrenia’ – one of the three subdivisions of the illness.

Paranoid schizophrenia refers to, ‘an individual who has delusions of persecution’,[17]  and Margery’s perpetual fear of damnation, deception and guilt could support this diagnosis. Sufferers’ visions are also often of a grandiose variety, and Margery’s were no different. She had ‘delusions’ of a direct relationship with Christ and compared herself to Mary Magdalene, attributing herself the role of the mother of Christ: ‘Then our lord Jesus Christ said to his creature, ‘by these tokens may you know well that I love you, for you are to me a very mother.’[18]  It is also interesting to note, in relation to the above quotation, that auditory hallucinations in schizophrenics are manifested in the third person: ‘Patients hear voices talking about themselves, referring to them in the third person…Such voices may be experienced as commenting on the patient's intended actions… or describing his current actions…’[19] Margery’s autobiographical work is presented in the third person, and she refers to herself as ‘this creature’ throughout. While this was a prominent literary custom of the period it may still be of interest when noted in conjunction with her other ‘symptoms’.

[1] Elizabeth Petroff, ed. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, p.6.
[2] Laurie A. Finke, Mystical Bodies, in Maps of Flesh and Light, pp. 32-33.
[3] Voaden, R, God's Words, Women's Voices, p.109.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by Lynn Staley, p.8.
[6] Marion Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith, p.270.
[7] Depressive mental illnesses are not a new phenomenon. Hippocrates of Cos II (c. 460 – 370 BC) applied Empedocles’ theory to mental illness and was insistent that all illness or mental disorder must be explained on the basis of natural causes. He wrote about the condition of melancholy, or what is now known as depression, saying in his Aphorisms that, “If a fright or despondency lasts for a long time, it is a melancholic affection”. The word ‘melancholia’ or ‘melancholy’ comes from the Hippocratic concept of the four humours. The human personality was supposed to be dominated by four basic bodily fluids (“humours”), each of which had its accompanying personality trait. Black bile was associated with melancholy, and if a person had too much black bile in their makeup, melancholy would predominate. Unpleasant dreams and anxiety were seen as being caused by a sudden flow of bile to the brain, melancholia was thought to be brought on by an excess of black bile, and exaltation by a predominance of warmth and dampness in the brain.
[8] Glasscoe, M, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith, p.274
[9] Richard Brislin quoted in, Gross, p.208.
[10] Kempe, M, The Book of Margery Kempe, p.63.
[11] Ibid. p.23.
[12] Glasscoe, M, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith, p.257
[13] Arthur Deikman, The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, p.255.
[14] Ibid. p.273.
[15] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian, p.77.
[16] Ibid.
[18] Kempe, M, The Book of Margery Kempe, p.31.


  1. Great article, although one thing I noticed...the image doesn't fit! Kempe was illiterate and wrote her book using the assistance of two scribes. Cheers for the interesting read!

  2. Not necessarily. Because we write as a matter of course, does not mean that was always the case. The intellectual ability to read did not automatically mean you could write. This was a mechanical act and scribes could be employed to write what you dictated. Your status and ability to read trumped their lower social standing even though they would have been able to do both.