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For the First Time, See Two Early Medieval Books Written By Women On Display Together

The manuscripts detail the authors’ experiences

A statue of Julian of Norwich at Norwich Cathedra. She is one of the first-known women writers in the English language. (rocketjohn via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe​ hold the distinction of being two of the oldest recorded women writers in the English language. Now, a London museum has brought their manuscripts together for the first time in a collection that explores the unique qualities and attributes of the human voice. 

While the women led very different lives, both of their works—now on display as part of “This Is a Voice” exhibition at the Wellcome Collection—detail their experiences and relationships with Christianity and the mystical side of the divine.

The works date back to the 14th and 15th century. Julian of Norwich wrote the older of the two, Revelations of Divine Love, which is often considered to be the first book written in the English language by a woman, Nikki Griffiths writes for Melville House. In her work, Julian describes an intense series of visions and mystical experiences she had while recovering from a serious illness. Afterward, Julian withdrew from the world to live an ascetic life devoted to the church.

Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe, is credited as being the first English autobiography. Unlike Julian, Kempe was a middle-class mother of 14 who became devoted to Christianity after several religious experiences. The book, which Kempe dictated to a scribe, details her spiritual evolution as well as pilgrimages she made to Jerusalem and the Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, Elisabeth Perlman writes for Newsweek. The manuscript on display is the only known copy in the world, and has been in the British Library’s collection since it was discovered during the 1930s.

As University of London historian Anthony Bale tells Alison Flood for the Guardian:

“It is very touching that the Julian of Norwich manuscript is displayed alongside that of Margery Kempe: the two women – who can also legitimately be called two of the earliest women writers in English – met in Norwich, probably in the year 1413. Julian’s reputation as a holy woman was already established, and Kempe visited her to see if the ‘holy speeches and conversations’ that Kempe had with God were real or not. Kempe describes how Julian advised and endorsed her, and the two women had ‘much holy conversation’, over the course ‘of many days’ together.”

One interesting facet of their writings is how both women describe their religious experiences as “hearing voices.” In modern times, this is often considered a sign of mental illness, but at the time, most attributed these experiences to the divine.

“What is so interesting is that these two woman actually met because Margaery thought she heard the voice of God, and various other biblical figures,” Charles Fernyhough, one of the exhibition’s organizers, tells Perlman. “She went to Norwich to talk to Julian, the anchoress, about the voices she heard.”

By displaying the two works together for the first time, Fernyhough says he hopes to show visitors that the experience of hearing voices wasn’t always something that was stigmatized.

“Having these two manuscripts would send an incredibly important message—it would say that this experience [of hearing voices] has been around for a long time,” Fernyhough tells Flood. “That hearing voices isn’t new, and that it has been interpreted in more positive ways in the past.”

The manuscripts will be on display at the Wellcome Collection​ through July 31.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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