Performing The Love Of God And The Struggle With The Devil: The “Theatricality” Of Medieval Mystical Culture

Performing The Love Of God And The Struggle With The Devil: The “Theatricality” Of Medieval Mystical Culture

Sikorska, Liliana

Medieval English Studies, vol.10 (2002), No.1


The dramatic quality of medieval mystical culture can be observed through its two aspects, i.e. the performed love of God and the struggle with the devil. On the one hand, we encounter various forms of affective piety which influence, for example, Angela of Foligno’s (c. 1249~1309) moment of true conversion and Margery Kempe’s (1373~after 1438) dramatization of nativity and passion. On the other hand, all saintly women of the time report both an internal and external battles with various forms of temptation and evil. Catherine of Sienna (1347~1380) is literally beaten by the devil. Margery Kempe has inordinate sexual and erotic visions of (having sex with) all the young clerics in the church (it is she who throughout her saintly life has to struggle with her sexuality). Julian of Norwich (1342~1416) is tempted and tormented by the devil. The emergence of more individuated religious practices in late medieval culture, which shifted the emphasis from exterior penance to interior penitence, did not diminish the performative nature of the public penitential practices. Most mystics perform their own version of psychomachia. They dramatize the struggle with the devil not only in spiritual but primarily in physical terms enhancing, as is the case of Mechthild of Magdeburg (1217~1282), the internal struggle between vices and virtues. Several attempts have been made to place mystical culture in the performance context so as to grasp the significance of popular devotion in late medieval Europe. Gail McMurray Gibson sees Margery Kempe’s “performances” as “devotional theater” revising the meaning of affective piety. This paper is concerned with the revision of the concept of psychomachia, the didactic theater in the context of medieval penitential tradition, which is the key for understanding not only affective piety but also medieval mystical self-fashioning within the “theatricality” of penitential ethos.

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