English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




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Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




*** 10. Vision and protest ***   


Christian mysticism
Vol. 1A, pages 559-591 from Longman 3rd ed.
"Vernacular Religion" and "Margery Kempe."
Also Vol 1A pages 658-665
"Christine de Pizan" and "Book of the City of Ladies."

Texts and materials on Margery Kempe
 are available online at Luminarium

Wycliffe's Bible is available online from
University of Michigan


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

Is Margery Kempe a saint? Is she insane? Is she a troublemaker? How should the church have dealt with her?

What perspectives do Margery Kempe and Marie de France bring to their writing that is different from the male perspectives we have seen in other lessons of this course?

How did the development of literature in the Middle Ages change religion? Did it free the imagination or did it undermine faith?








 See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003).

Richard II meets rebels





Left: scene from Froissart's Chronicles of young Richard II meeting with rebels during the Peasant's RevoltThe remarkable rise of the people during the 14th century was stimulated in part by literature in English.

Vernacular Religion and Repression
For centuries after the Norman Conquest, in
Angevin England, Caesar's three classes of British society remained--the workers, the warriors, and the priests--but they were not on speaking terms. English was the language of the working people, French was the language of the aristocrats, and Latin was the language of the church.

But as communications barriers in the long run tend to break down, so one language gradually came to dominate, and that was the language of the majority. As Old English incorporated plentiful borrowing from French and Latin, it turned gradually into Middle English forms, which were increasingly expressive versus their purer but less inclusive rivals. Things could be said in Middle English that could not otherwise be said. Shades of meaning were available in Middle English that were not available in other languages. If freedom of expression did not yet exist according to modern standards, nowhere in Europe was there more such freedom than in the England of Wycliffe, Chaucer, and Langland.


William LanglandEnglish returned to high fashion under the last Plantagenet kings, and especially under the final one of them, Richard II (1367-1399). In that era, not only Chaucer and the Gawain poet but John Gower, John Lydgate, John Trevisa and others writing in English enjoyed the favor of the aristocratic magnates and the royal court. At the same time, English writing also circulated among a newly literate commons, as attested by  Piers Ploughman, the popular  alliterative poem by William Langland (d. 1386?), so critical of England's political and religious corruption that the poet was obliged to dream up toned down revisions.


Left: the poet William Langland having a dream that was to be held up by rebels in the Peasants Revolt as a call to arms for social and religious reform. Poetry and mystical experience like Margery Kempe's are closely aligned with the rise of Protestantism in 14th century England.


The advance of English was opposed, of course, and often it was opposed successfully. Opponents gained the upper hand in 1399 when Richard II was overthrown by the Lancastrian usurper Henry IV with French backing. When the expressivity and broadened readership of Middle English served the aims of social and religious dissent, it brought official condemnation, censorship, and even judicial murder, as many Lollard preachers learned.

Hostility toward use of English can be seen, among other places, in the harassment of Margery Kempe (1373-1439?), whose “holy conversation” in public was characterized by some church officials as unlawful preaching without a license. The practices of oral preaching and debate underlie Margery's prompt and (when necessary) highly organized responses in her many and sometimes dangerous moments of public confrontation and clerical inquisition. The Duke of Bedford, whose men arrested Margery (pages 587-588), was the chief terrorist in the administration, the usurper's brother.

As our editors point out, "Latin became a protective bulwark for clerical authority and the institutional church" (559). On the other hand, the church had to communicate to some degree with the common people, and so those same authorities who censored their competitors' views also promoted certain kinds of (uncritical) devotional writing in Middle English, like that of monk Nicholas Love (d.1424).  Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ combines biblical narrative with a good deal of legendary material to create an emotive, even sentimental picture of scenes from the life of Christ. The simple but eloquent morals he draws from these scenes urge his readers to passive virtues that do not threaten the status quo: poverty, meekness, and bodily penance.

The Lollards, however, had out maneuvered the old church through their recognition of the strategic power of the vernacular, and in particular the power of text. The popularity of their efforts, even in the face of author burning and book burning, is reflected in the fact that there are some 240 surviving manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible. (That is a big number. It compares with 82 or 83 surviving manuscripts of Canterbury Tales, and about 56 of Piers Ploughman.)


John Wycliffe (d. 1384), an Oxford professor, founded the Lollard movement, which can be seen as the earliest of all forms of Protestantism. A fierce critic of the clergy, he completed a vernacular English Bible in 1382. He avoided personal harm only because he had powerful defenders at the court of Richard II.

The Wycliffite translation from the Book of John is austerely restrained and carefully non-Latinate in its vocabulary. This contributes to the measured repetition that is part of its aural impact. The Wycliffite sermon based on this passage in John is similarly restrained; it is traditional in form if not in content. It works by going carefully through the Biblical text and using it to criticize clerical abuses in the established church. Its emotional heightening derives again from conscious repetition of phrases and from alliteration.



John Mirk
John Mirk’s sermon, on a passage in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, represents a standard and approved form of Roman Catholic sermon. It entertains as well as instructs. Mirk leaves the text of the Bible passage behind rather quickly, and makes his points by appeal to popular sayings; then he spins a yarn, an exemplum, to illustrate his point. Indeed, this fantastic tale steals the show. It is a romance from the view of a misogynist cleric, casting a wealthy lady as the villain and the poor but handsome knight as her ambitious accomplice. It is the bard with a magical harp who keeps their castle safe on the long-delayed day of divine vengeance, and it is only this harper who survives its conflagration to tell the story.

With its witnesses dead, the harper's tale can't be verified. It may be the sort of baloney that Chaucer’s Parson in his Prologue (l. 35) refers to when he reproaches those preachers who “tellen fables.” It just the kind of miracle story that Chaucer’s corrupt Pardoner tells, cynically aware of how very effective it can be for his sin-forgiving business. Langland does something not dissimilar, though, in Passus 18 of
Piers Plowman, when he introduces Christ as a knight on a quest.


Parliament's law allowing the burning of heretics reflected the real anxiety that the Wycliffites were causing in official circles. It equated religious dissent with political subversion.
The confession of Hawisia Moone of Loddon gives a glimpse of what the religious and political establishment feared. To judge by its highly legalistic style, the confession is quite obviously not the straightforward “true report” that it proclaims itself to be, but instead a clerical statement signed under duress by a terrified woman who is bound by the arbitrary authority of the Bishop of Norwich.

Moone's confession and similar documents suggest that serious religious dialogue was occurring in the villages across the land, where an emerging network of rival preachers were spreading criticism of traditional church beliefs and practices. Moone’s somewhat reductive recital of Lollard tenets should be kept in mind when reading The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe engaged in many practices that Lollards condemned, and yet her enemies in the church accused her of being a Lollard. The charges did not stick, but one may ask whether her judges believed in her innocence or feared to punish her.  




Left: burning for heresy first occurred in England under the usurper Henry IV in 1401, and the last case last occurred under the witch hunter James I in 1612. Images of these events often stealthily pose the question: Who represents the true Christ?



Margery Kempe's Imitation of Christ
Since the discovery of Margery Kempe's manuscript in 1934, no other single medieval text has aroused such strong and mixed reaction. Perhaps this is because of the form of Margery's book: it is a spiritual autobiography as told to her priest. In other words, it is her confession. And she loved to confess, in order to unload any guilt that a secret might imply.

In fifteenth-century Lynn and in twentieth-century scholarship, Kempe generated strikingly similar and polarized reactions. Is she a true follower and imitator of Christ, or is she a pretender, a megalomaniac or self-deceived fraud? Was she seeking martyrdom? Was she causing harm to the church? All that seems clear is that literature held powerful sway over her behavior. Her life became the life of Christ as she imagined it to have been.



Kempe was also influenced by mystics of her time. That is, she sought the kind of direct, affective contact with the love and sufferings of Christ seen in Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich (who are represented elsewhere in our anthology). However, unlike most mystics of her time, Kempe did not withdraw into the inwardness of private prayer and meditation. Instead she transformed the outward conventions of her life. She negotiated tirelessly to abstain from the conjugal debt of sex, to refrain from certain foods, to wear special clothes, to receive weekly Eucharist and so on. She also engaged with Christ through pilgrimage, by visiting both the site of Christ's self-sacrifice and sites of its imitation by vision and martyrdom.

The late medieval clergy found itself beset by unsupervised religious quest, unregulated lay preaching, and even unorthodox or heterodox speculation within its own ranks. It reacted in various ways, from open-spirited negotiation (which Kempe occasionally encountered) to repressive hostility. One manifestation of the latter was Archbishop Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409, which made illegal any theological speculation in the vernacular.

Left: Julian of Norwich fit the church's mold of the saintly woman; Margery Kempe's imitation of Christ was far more unorthodox, as indicated by the fact that her image does not survive for us to look at. What is a proper imitations of Christ? Which imitations are properly Christian, and which are not?


Kempe expressed her links with Christ in highly public fashion, through her tears and sobbing roars. Her detractors have often accused her of theatricalizing, but her acts should be viewed in the context of the public ritual and dramas of the culture in which she lived: costume, role playing, emotive experience of the joys of the Virgin or sufferings of Christ were all about her. Public religious rituals especially developed around the feast of Corpus Christi, a holiday that commemorates the last supper and Eucharist with which Kempe’s religious expression is so closely identified.

She describes her weeping reaction to a Corpus Christi procession in a chapter not included in our anthology (chapter 45 of her book). Many such events of public religious ritual are mentioned in her book, such as the great scene of Margery and John at Bridlington as they return from Corpus Christi day at York, where no doubt they had witnessed the mystery plays there. In such plays Kempe would have seen how mundane reality is transformed into spiritual reality. Demonstrations are found in "The Second Play of the Shepherds" and also in
Mankind and many other medieval plays. These plays are our subject in the next two lessons.


In her own life, to the extent that she was allowed, Kempe performed the role of Christ. The form of her religious expression enraged many in her own time, and she molded their hostile reactions into elements of betrayal, mockery, and abandonment that were central to her imitation of Christ. Like Jesus, she dressed as a fool and was mocked—a scene often enacted in passion plays; she rode into Jerusalem on a donkey; finally she stretched her arms wide and writhed on Calvary. So intense was her identification with the life and sufferings of Christ, so easily is it triggered by place, memory, or analogy, that Kempe’s body seemed to her to becomes Christ’s body. As Kempe's book progresses, the line between representation and literal presence of Christ to her senses, or even between analogy and literal presence (as in the infants and young boys over whom she weeps in Rome) is ever more permeable.

Left: the image of devout women of the Middle Ages carries forward to some Islamic and other cults in our day. The injunction that women's heads must be covered derives from St. Paul, not Muhammad.



The Black Death from BBC

Gutenberg Bible:

Lollard Society:

The Tyndale Society at Tyndale.org

Margery Kempe at Luminarium

Margery Kempe: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/rww02/margerykempe/index.htm

Margey Kempe:

Mapping Margery Kempe in the Medieval World:



If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

Copyright 2008-2012 by Gary Homer Gutchess