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Mysticism or Madness? Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

If you listened to our last episode "Mysticism or Madness: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich" you know how fascinating and unusual the titular women from that episode are. However, they aren't actually all that unusual. Both women had other female mystics to look up to who, even if they didn't meet them personally, they had heard of or even read about. At this point in time, although it wasn't normal to communicate directly with God, it wasn't such an absurd notion as to be an indicator of insanity. If one's behavior or worldview goes against societal norms and makes it impossible for that person to function harmoniously within society, then that person may be considered insane. In today's world, many people consider hearing voices in your own head or seeing images that no one else can see are a sure indicator of mental illness, (or at the very least a result of fever or extreme exhaustion). Our perception of the world is one defined by testable, knowable facts, and the people who can see a world that defies those do not fit into our definition of insanity. However, in 14th century Europe, hearing voices or having visions did not go against society's definition of normalcy and was actually essential to the establishment of authority in the church in the prior centuries. Therefore these women ought not be written off as ill or insane. Indeed, several other renowned thinkers, artists and writers throughout history have heard voices—Socrates, William Blake, Sigmund Freud, and Ghandi, to name a just few. We highly esteem these people (all men, not coincidentally) and remember them for their accomplishments rather than get caught up discussing their mental state. Yet it is impossible to research Margery or Julian for more than five minutes without coming across assumptions about their potential diagnoses through the overbearing lens of modern psychology.

I think it's easy to call what was happening to Julian and Margery a type of madness. And, even though it's my preferred theory, it's equally as easy to blindly accept their experiences as authentic mysticism. The harder thing to do is accept that it doesn't matter and to be comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing. The true challenge is to acknowledge that what is true for someone else doesn't have to be true for you, and that doesn't make their truth any less valid.


Mysticism/ Historical Context:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature ed. Stephen Greenblatt

Caciola, Nancy, 2003, Discerning Spirits, Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Caciola, Nancy, 2000, “Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42: 268–306.



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