Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp from a Psychological Perspective.

Having studied Psychology in my undergrad it is impossible to imagine that it doesn’t influence my interpretation of a text or author. The same way early modern readers influenced the construction and representation of Jonson and Taylor’s authorial identity, my biased is of the psychological variety. I found my inclination to view texts from a psychological perspective came to the fore in my study of Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich.

Julian attempts to de-humanize herself within her text. In her attempt to reach enlightenment and become closer to God she lives life as an Anchoress, locking herself away from the world. This demonstration of what we would normally consider an unnatural isolation is used to show us that Julian believes that physical isolation does not mean that God is not there. She believes that God cannot be absent from any place and so the idea of loneliness for her, simply does not exist. This lifestyle choice, however, does lend itself to the idea of unending voyeurism. Her decision to exclude herself from society follows a long established ascetic tradition by earlier religious figures. Julian was the queen of a kingdom of isolation and that alongside much self-deprivation would have caused a lot of psychological disturbances. She gives herself entirely over to mysticism which may well have had detrimental effects on not only her body but also her mind. The word anchoress is derived from the Greek verb ‘anacwre-ein’ meaning ‘to withdraw’. An Anchoress such as Julian, who was attached to the church would have had three windows including the ‘squint’. The squint was the Anchoress’ access to the church, so it was possible to receive communion, the second window was for the exchange of food and refuse and the third was for those looking to seek advice from the anchoress. (Alchin). This isolation and meagre existence would have been quiet traumatic. It is possible that this traumatic existence was the trigger for some of Julian’s visions although there is little evidence to back this up.

Julian of Norwich

Margery Kemp also suffered her own share of psychological trauma. From the conception of her first child Margery’s psyche began to suffer. She describes how ‘aftyr that sche had conceyved, sche was labowrd wyth grett accessys tyl the child / was born’ (Kemp 132-133) Her first vision of the devils at her bedside during the birth of her first child may have been a result of the trauma of the pregnancy or of internal feelings and insecurities about not wanting to be a generic maternal figure. Her actions after her fourteenth child may be considered an extension of this, possibly untreated post-natal depression or potentially manic post-natal depression. “The notion of the maternal instinct underpins the contemporary construction of motherhood. It underlies notions of femininity and required maternal behaviour, and its absence is used to explain women’s maternal failures’ (Nicolson Post-Natal Depression 14). Margery displayed certain actions after her pilgrimage such as constantly crying or wailing in the presence of anything that reminded her of God’s suffering or wearing white, a symbol of virginity and a rebellion against her previous life, actions and self. These actions suggest she may have been suffering from a psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatics believe in the physical manifestation of our psychological state. Alongside this is the bio-psychosocial model. The bio-psychosocial model views the being as a whole and that any physical or mental illness is a combination of your biology, psychology and social environment. It believes that these are intrinsically linked and cannot exist independently. Margery’s actions such as when she ‘cryed […] and wept wythowtyn mesur / that sche myth not restreyn hirself’ may have been a coping mechanism for her body when she was unable to put into words the impact that all of her experiences had on her (Kemp 1653-1654). Margery also appeared to be suffering from severe anxiety. She is hugely insecure and is continuously searching for verification of her visions. She expresses fear throughout her text and her inability to trust that her visions are from God suggests that she has no self-belief. She even crossed paths with Julian of Norwich ‘for the ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd / gevyn’ (960-961). Margery’s quest is not merely a search for enlightenment; it is a quest for authority, a quest for her worth and the validation of her visions.

 

Looking at the way these women are presented from a psychological perspective is significant as it gives us an insight not previously gained through literary criticism alone. It allows us to strip each person down and view them as humans and as equals but obviously due to temporal restrictions as well as dependency on biased literary accounts, it is hard to offer more than conjecture.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Works Cited

Alchin, L.K. Lords and Ladies. Retrieved 16/07/12 from www.lordsandladies.org.            Web. 02/02/2014.

Kemp, Margery. The Book of Margery Kemp. Ed. Lynn Staley. Middle English Texts Online. University of Rochester, 1996. Web. 04/04/2014.

Nicolson, Paula. Post-Natal Depression Psychology, Science and the Transition to Motherhood. London and New York: Routledge. 1998. Print.

Images Cited

Jtneill. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. 2009. Image. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 02 Feb 2014.

Rocketjohn. Julian of Norwich. 2010. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

 

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