Before the 1970s the study of the history of religion in England was bound by a ‘confessional straightjacket’. Until that point the history of Protestantism was almost exclusively written by Protestants and dominated by the ‘whig’ narrative of progress; the Reformation was characterised as the ‘midwife delivering England from the Dark Ages, papal and ecclesiastical tyranny to the threshold of modernity’, to borrow a phrase from Ian Hazlett. The history of pre-Reformation England was largely left to be written by members of the Catholic religious orders, and the history of Catholicism in England after the Reformation was, in the words of Alexandra Walsham, ‘a subfield, if not a ghetto occupied by the ancestors of those who had suffered for their faith’. Confessional stances and ideological viewpoints had generated a history of religion in England in which the country was Catholic, then suddenly Protestant. Thankfully through the work of J. C. Aveling, John Bossy, Christopher Haigh, J.J. Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy (among others) this narrative has been substantially revised, the vitality of the pre-Reformation English Church reinstated, and the continuation of Catholicism in England addressed (although not all of them agree on what form this continuation took!). Scholarly attention has now shifted from why and when to how England became a Protestant nation, a new nuanced direction in the study of a ‘long Reformation’.
Yet this earlier approach to the Reformation has left scars in several areas of historiography. One of the most noticeable is the concept of a group of ‘medieval English mystics’. Widely accepted and arguably overused, it is a phrase which has a suspect history, one which originates in studies of ‘mysticism’ written before the 1970s. My newly published article in Women’s Writing argues that this construct has been highly damaging to the study of these ‘English mystics’ and calls for a wider awareness of the confessional origins of a term which is common currency in contemporary studies. Here I want to give a brief overview of those arguments, which are expanded in greater detail in the published piece.
The ‘medieval English mystics’ found their greatest supporter in the form of Benedictine monk and Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, David Knowles. The group was argued to consist of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and the controversial and much maligned Margery Kempe. Together they formed a ‘medieval English mystical tradition’ which, for Knowles, proved the vitality of Catholicism before the Reformation. The concept was created as a defence against the prevailing ‘whig’ narrative of a weak and passionless late-medieval Church by stressing the deep spirituality these writers possessed. Knowles had used them to prove the vitality of the Catholic Church before the Reformation, but almost completely surrendered the possibility of mystical theology continuing to have influence in post-Reformation England, which was seen to be the domain of Protestant scholars. This illusion that interest in mystical theology in England vanished after the Reformation is something my PhD thesis aims to correct.
The concept has since been subjected to intense criticism. Nicholas Watson has argued on several occasions that medieval English mysticism is an ‘imported, anachronistic, and, above all, essentially evaluative term’, one which has ‘long been a thing unto itself, little influenced by and scarcely influencing work on other writers’. To place these five writers with a sort of ‘mystical vacuum’ has greatly limited our understanding of them, and for a time almost completely erased our understanding of the continental influences working on these writers. Denise N. Baker has recently reaffirmed Watson’s conclusions by arguing that any similarities between the five were due to their ‘common participation in the rich discourse of the contemplative tradition’ rather than any direct knowledge of each other. It is hard to justify how entire journals, conferences and books have dedicated themselves to studying a group of ‘medieval English mystics’ who barely knew of each other, if at all!
Building on the feminist scholarship of scholars such as Diane Watt and Liz Herbert McAvoy, my article argues that the two women writers of the group, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (who did know of each other) should rather be placed in the flowering transnational tradition of feminized affective piety in the period, rather than confined to be influenced only by their English male contemporaries. By tracing similarities in their mystical visions with those of Bridget of Sweden, one of the most visible and influential female figures of the late-medieval period, I argue that similar visions of Christ’s crucifixion and the suffering of the Virgin Mary found in all three women’s accounts suggests that Julian and Margery owed much more to Bridget than any of their ‘English mystic’ counterparts. I posit that their texts and the manuscripts they are preserved in suggest a self-confidence brought about by the wider positive and influential role religious women had obtained in late-medieval society.
The myth of the ‘medieval English mystics’ is thus a warning about the confessional nature of historical study. Despite Knowles’s work being published in the hay day of confessionalized accounts of the Reformation almost 50 years ago, the consequences of such accounts still resonate today. As my PhD shows, the very word ‘mystick’ did not exist in the English language until the seventeenth century, and was just as loaded with confessional meaning then as it was when Knowles was writing. It serves as a reminder that the words we use often have complex pasts and histories themselves, and that we need to be sensitive to the consequences of these in our own historical research.
My article ‘Returning the English “mystics” to their medieval milieu: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden’ is available online here.
The article is based on my MRes History dissertation ‘Gender in late medieval English Mysticism’ which was generously supported by a Northumbria fee-waiver studentship.