Having spent some time considering the place of the body and "embodiedness" in men's and women's mysticism, this last class uses three English mystics (or mystical texts) to further explore the role of sensory experience in mystical practice. Both Margery Kempe and Richard Rolle were lay people (though Richard had some formal Latin education and came to live as a hermit, he was not ordained or a member of a religious order) while the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing is generally held to have been a religious of some sort. Richard Rolle is the earliest of the three mystics, followed by Cloud of Unknowing author and finally Margery Kempe. Reading excerpts from all three mystics will make a comparison a bit challenging, but see if you can identify how each seems to view and use (or not use) the body and bodily sensation. These three authors give us the opportunity to further pursue the categories of learned and unlearned, Latin and vernacular, male and female approaches to mystical thought and practice.

You will definitely want to take a look at the Mapping Margery Kempe web site at College of the Holy Cross. Here is their description of the site:

Mapping Margery Kempe is a digital library of resources for studying the cultural and social matrix of The Book of Margery Kempe. A goal of this site is to provide access to the material culture of Kempe's 15th century world, and especially the dynamic world of the parish. Materials at this site include a unique and extensive database of images of East Anglian parish churches. Other resources include the Middle English text and related devotional writings and saints' lives; documents about daily life, politics and commerce in 15th century Lynn; maps of pilgrimage routes; a gallery of devotional images; and bibliography and guides for teaching.

Anniina Jokinen maintains a huge collection of links to Margery related sites through her Middle English literature pages

Carolyn Coulson has an interesting article entitled Mysticism, Meditation, and Identification in The Book of Margery Kempe, Essays in Medieval Studies 12

For those of you interested in more on Margery Kempe, Sarah Beckwith has an excellent discussion in "A Very Material Mysticism: The Medieval Mysticism of Margery Kempe," in Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, Jane Chance, ed. (University Press of Florida, 1996) 195-215.

Evelyn Underhill's seriously outdated but still interesting introduction to the Cloud of Unknowing is available on line-- click here

Underhill's equally outdated but equally interesting treatment of Richard Rolle is available here.


And I reproduce for you here the wonderful scene from Richard Rolle's vita in which he cuts up and puts on his sister's dress and flees his home, causing his sister to shout to all humanity, "my brother is mad! my brother is mad!"

...The saint of God, the hermit Richard, was born in the village of Thornton, near Pickering, in the diocese of York, and in due time, by the efforts of his parents, he was sent to be educated. When he was of adult age Master Thomas Neville, at one time Archdeacon of Durham, honourable maintained him in the University of Oxford, where he made great progress in study. He desired rather to be more fully and perfectly instructed in the theological doctrine of Holy Scripture than in physics or the study of secular knowledge. At length, in his nineteenth year, considering that the time of mortal life is uncertain and its end greatly to be dreaded (especially by those who either give themselves to fleshly lusts or only labour that they may acquire riches, and who, for these things, devote themselves to guile and deceit, yet they deceive themselves most of all), by God's inspiration he took thought betimes for himself, being mindful of his latter end, lest he should be caught in the snares of sinners. Hence, after he had returned from Oxford to his father's house, he said one day to his sister, who loved him with tender affection: "My beloved sister, thou hast two tunics which I greatly covet, one white and the other grey. Therefore I ask thee if thou wilt kindly give them to me, and bring them me tomorrow to the wood near by, together with my father's rain hood." She agreed willingly, and the next day, according to her promise, carried them to the said wood, being quite ignorant of what was in her brother's mind. And when he had received them he straightway cut off the sleeves from the grey tunic and the buttons from the white, and as best he could he fitted the sleeves to the white tunic, so that they might in some manner be suited to his purpose. Then he took off his own clothes with which he was clad and put on his sister's white tunic next his skin, but the grey, with the sleeves cut out, he put on over it, and put his arms through the holes which had been cut; and he covered his head with the rain hood aforesaid, so that thus in some measure, as far as was then in his power, he might present a certain likeness to a hermit. But when his sister saw this she was astounded and cried: "My brother is mad! My brother is mad!" Whereupon he drove her from him with threats, and fled himself at once without delay, lest he should be seized by his friends and acquaintances.
[for the full vita, click here]