Medieval mysticism or psychosis?
By Alison Torn
The Psychologist, Vol.24 (2011)
Introduction: Until the middle of the 17th century, phenomena such as voice hearing were perceived as a special or sacred form of knowledge. Christianity viewed such individuals as supernaturally possessed by either divine or demonic spirits. Thus madness was considered to be closely related to religious experience, making both the experience and the narrative of madness very different from those possible today, where madness is predominantly understood within a scientific paradigm.
The Book of Margery Kempe tells the story of one woman’s spiritual journey in medieval England over a 25-year period, describing her quest to establish spiritual authority as a result of her personal conversations with Jesus and God. Whilst the text is written in the third person, it is generally acknowledged to be both the first autobiography written in the English language and the first autobiographical account of madness. In recent years this medieval account of mystical experiences has been used by clinicians and academics as evidence of the historical provenance of mental illness.
I want to argue, however, that Margery Kempe belongs to a strong tradition of medieval mystics who represented their experiences in detailed and highly naturalistic descriptions. Present-day Western culture has no available framework for understanding the intense physical and emotional expression of religiosity that was characteristic of such medieval spirituality. Instead, mystical experience is perceived as quiet, meditative contemplation, and the demonstrative embodied outpourings of religious experience are cast out into the realm of psychopathology.
Margery Kempe was born in the Norfolk town of Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in around 1373. She was the daughter of a prominent official of Lynn, John Brunham, five times mayor and Member of Parliament. At around the age of 20, Margery married John Kempe, also a prominent citizen, with whom she had 14 children, although virtually no information exists of how many survived infancy. Margery herself was a well-known figure in the town, a woman of both high fashion and business. After the birth of her first child at the age of 20 Margery acknowledges she went through a period of madness for around eight months. Following the failing of two of her businesses (brewing and milling) she turned to Jesus to save her from sins such as lust, pride, greed and envy, paying her penance by abstaining from meat, alcohol and, after a protracted negotiation with her husband over a number of years, sex.