Margery holds the distinction of having
dictated the first known autobiography in the English language. This seems
a likely task for one who was very focussed on herself! Her case is an
extreme illustration of how one’s will can be turned to God when one genuinely
seeks union with him – even if the particulars are not to be imitated.
Margery is a prime example of how God’s grace not only works through our
failings but quite in spite of ourselves (in a Christian tradition begun
with a manipulative conversation initiated by a criminal who hung next
to Jesus on the cross).
Much of this disjointed, and often very
confusing, work is quite hilarious, particularly when Margery recounts
dialogue. Yet there is an underlying tragic quality, because she clearly
had a mental disorder which caused extremely obsessive thought and behaviour.
Margery references a sin for which she would seek to "atone" for the remainder
of her life, and all of her history shows one of terrible agitation and
an intense need to be humiliated and punished.
Mental illness hardly precludes holiness,
but Margery shows none of the detachment of the saint. First to last, her
concern would be her mystic experiences. She states, repeatedly, that those
who heed and support her will be blessed – those who do not, quite the
contrary. She constantly seeks assurance of the validity of the experiences,
yet sees the hand of God as ready to smite anyone who questions them. Sadly,
Margery is completed centred on herself (undoubtedly because of her illness),
and even the few occasions mentioned when she serves others who are ill
(including her husband) show concern only for the service being an atonement
for her sins, not for the welfare of the other.
Margery’s contrition (for that unnamed
sin of youth and for others) is genuine, and one could not doubt her seeking
union with God, however misguided her efforts may have been. Her love of
neighbour expresses itself in her willingness to share her mystic experiences
with others, assured, as she imagines was revealed by God, that "he who
worships you(Margery) worships Me." Many of the "revelations" are far off
the mark theologically, but, though Margery feared diabolical deception,
she does not seem to have had the wise caution about self-deception
which was characteristic of the mystic saints.
As with most of us, the traits which Margery
mentions as having led her into sin (slander, over attachment to wealth,
and vanity) will surface in her attempts at practising virtue. She not
only recounts, at great length, how wrong and evil were those who opposed
her, but assumes not only their motivation but the divine punishment that
is ahead because of this rejection.
I class Margery as an "also ran", because,
while her "seeking" is unquestionable, there is much in her reflections
that shows one far short of "seeing" holiness.
Margery was suspected of being a Lollard because
her preaching was seen as assuming a function reserved to the clergy, and
therefore as a denial of the apostolic succession. She was brought before
the ecclesiastical courts at least twelve times, but never made any heretical
statement and was invariably released. (The Inquisition, of course,
was not active in England. The attitude towards heretics, unless they were
heads of bands of criminals, was usually more aimed at silencing than burning,
and the violent heretical groups were not native grown. Contrary to popular
misconception, inquisitors did not sit up nights looking for obscure figures
to chase, and it is clear that Margery’s approach was highly vocal and
public for them to have been interested in her at all.)
Margery has a lack of detachment: certain
self-centred qualities, self-importance
There is something horribly painful in the
picture of one so tortured with guilt that she would carry atonement to
an obsessive extreme. Excess in penance was not unusual then, but by contrast
to, for example, Francis of Assisi, Margery’s words are not mainly about
the glory of God but about herself. (Margery does not fall into the "oh,
what I rogue I am" characteristic of those who are not genuinely repentant
but enjoy reciting their past failings. However, there is a strong, continuous
theme of "…and look at the unprecedented graces that I have now." )
Continuous theme of her fear of damnation
– seems to motivate her more than divine love. Unfortunate mediaeval stance
of "Christ’s Passion was not enough atonement."
Tells everyone of her experiences "to see
if they have any value." The mystic saints not only were cautious about
believing special gifts were genuine, but were highly reluctant to reveal
Many saints reference conversion (directly
related to serious sins of their own – not merely metanoia) in their histories.
However, Margery’s recollections are profoundly unsatisfying. She emphasises
that there was a secret sin of her early life that she would rather have
send her to hell than confess. (Sacramental theology of the time and place,
such as Walter Hilton expresses, did not see sacramental confession as
essential for forgiveness, but rather as a means of reassurance
for the individual. Still, considering that Margery clearly believes it
is essential in that sense, a position of "I’d rather be damned" shows
that she indeed was to experience a singular grace of contrition that turned
her to the "good will" the other writers mention.)
When her first child was born, Margery received
a revelation that Christ had ‘been there all along.’ Her obsession with
damnation had led her more to despair than to repentance.
Underlying feeling that Margery wanted her
own way to quite an extent! Her revelations are presented in such
a way that one wonders if she is trying to convince herself, constantly,
of her own holiness. Her maddening habit of wishing to know others’ sins
and reveal them to the others as a means of encouraging repentance seems
quite well-intentioned, and one wonders if this predilection made her multiple
confessors uneasy or in awe to the point that they never told her to stop
Easily misunderstood today: Chastity was viewed
(until the latter part of the 20th century) as a way of greater
perfection, that is, greater asceticism. (This is downplayed now through
the incorrect notion that this implied that marriage or sex was evil. Not
so – ascetic practises always involved sacrificing one good for another
that would be beneficial to one’s relationship with God.) An ascetic practise
(in fact, in some minds, even those already a matter of obligation) was
also more perfect when vowed, because a vow added an act of worship to
the action. Margery refers to her chastity as a great sorrow – it is safe
to assume that she made the vow because of a predilection for always doing
what was most difficult.
Ascetic practises (involving physical pain,
extensive fasting, etc.) were common for the medieval saints – but there
is something lacking in Margery’s mention of this. There is none of the
sense of joy and detachment found in the writings of the holy ones.
Hard to accept her "self-knowledge" as such!
Her practises seem rooted in her early tendency to do harsh penance of
her own to avoid confessing the secret sin. She constantly speaks of diabolical
deceptions. It is likely that her wish to make vows before a bishop was
a confirmation that the Church accepted the penance – that it was not the
old diabolic despair. Nonetheless, there is grace here, even if perceived
through a twisted mind. One who did anything to keep apart from the Church,
even at risk of damnation, seems to have progressed in turning to a bishop
at all – though Margery was to inflict her prophetic gifts of insight on
him as well. There was some act of faith in the Church here – and
even in her marathon of sacramental confession.
Even for one steeped in medieval studies it
is extremely difficult to explain the approach to penance in the middle
ages, particularly because it did work very well in its time! (We find
most of the physical penance revolting, because, thanks to Freud who’d
have enjoyed Margery’s case, we associate it with pathology or sexual deviance
– which usually was not the case at all. Margery, though a clear pathological
case, actually does not mention extreme physical penance – more
sacrifices and pilgrimages, and enduring the scorn and derision of others.)
Though some forms of physical mortification (fasting, for example) are
still used today, it usually is for the sake of discipline or for austerity
to eliminate distractions (or even some sign of solidarity with the poor).
(We would think of "temporal punishment" as being dealing with natural
consequences of our actions.) The medieval idea was that all sin had punishment
attached to it, whether on earth or in purgatory, and also that, since
we are one church, my penance could remit your temporal punishment. Such
ascetic practises, then, could involve an act of worship in acknowledging
divine justice – an imitation of Christ, where one bears pain out of love
for another – an act of atonement (of sorts) in expressing that one’s own
sins "put Jesus on the Cross", and an act of faith in this plus a "comforting"
of the suffering Saviour. Discipline then was not an act of asserting one’s
own control (fasting was not anorexia!), but of submission to divine authority
– a very vivid concept in a feudal society, where authority and mutual
dependence were daily realities.
Ascetic practises which involve sacrifices
are valid only if what is sacrificed is good in the first place. Margery’s
obsessive concern that she’d taken too much pleasure in sexual relations
is not characteristic of the era of bonnie and buxom at bed and board –
this can be a mistaken impression in the post Puritan and Jansenist time.
Since, in one of her times of being questioned, Margery reveals on oath
that she has had no lovers other than John, the past sin to which she devoted
so much attention clearly is not adultery.
Considering her overall fears of having been
vain about clothing, her fixation with fasting, her "constantly wanting
more remission of sin" and so forth, it appears more that she feared her
past sin required huge penance that she had neglected. It does not seem
that she grasped that asceticism is aimed more at the practise of virtue.
Margery was quite a trial as a penitent! No
confessor (and she had quite a procession of them!) could stand in the
way of "God’s will" – and he’d be punished if he tried. Margery made her
confession and related her consolations, so she related, up to three times
daily… and one cannot help but wonder whether the latter disclosure was
the greater trial for the listener!
Margery was a very simple woman, and
her confessors (even allowing for that the recollections are sifted through
an ill mind – Margery clearly was honest, and indeed one of this select
group was the scribe for this autobiography) may well have been just as
simple and not much more educated than she. They probably unwittingly reinforced
some of the obsessions, at least partly because, during the Middle Ages,
odd happenings were seen as the hallmark of the blessed. (As well, Margery
may have had a particularly keen sense of intuition and observation, which
can be astonishing in those with serious mental illness.) One confessor
regularly asked that Margery "reveal the future" to him – though saints’
having gifts of prophecy was a staple of mediaeval hagiography, this priest,
perhaps in total innocence, hardly aided Margery’s cause by using her for
a fortune teller. (His agreeing to record her recollections in this book
was contingent on her revealing future happenings.) Another used his own
"gift of prophecy" to predict Margery’s trouble with her maid, and "staked
his soul" on Margery’s apprehensions being genuine. Tempting though it
is, in a time when Mass offerings and indulgences could be quite profitable,
to wonder if they catered to Margery’s belief that she was a mystic because
she was generous in turn, it is very possible that ignorance rather than
malice or greed was the problem. General reminder here (blind leading blind!)
of how we should not undertake apostolic work when we haven’t a clue as
to what we are doing!
Satisfied Life : Medieval Women Mystics on Atonement - Jane Ellen McAvoy
- Interesting treatment of the theology of atonement and its application
in the lives and writings of vastly different mystics, including Margery.