The Great Death of Hierarchy
By Mathew Moura
The Black Death of 1349 and the subsequent plagues of 1361, 1369 and 1375, brought about immeasurable destruction to the population of England as well as mainland Europe. Often ignored, these plagues, especially of 1349, brought about the near destruction of social order in terms of Church and secular hierarchy. Due to the great amount of death and the authorities' inability to provide the populace with either safety or viable explanation, hierarchy and the validations for medieval hierarchy, in both the church and the state, nearly collapsed. This breaking from traditional medieval hierarchy is exemplified in literary works of the time; Julian of Norwich's Showings, Pearl, and The Book of Margery Kempe. Each of these works illustrate a break from secular and church hierarchy and have their origins in the environment created by the Black Death and the frequent outbreaks of plague which followed.
Julian of Norwich’s Showings, presents a break from church and social doctrine of the time that placed women below that of men and characteristics associated with women as morally corrupt or weak. Julian depicts Christ as a mother figure: "Jesu [is] our very mother ... And all the fair working and all the sweet kindly offices of dearworthy motherhood is impropered to the second person, for in him we have this goodly will, whole and safe without end, both in kind and in frace, of his own proper goodness" (Julian of Norwich 362). It is important to note that Julian states that Christ, as a mother, provides all with safety, which is without end. This can directly be correlated to what happened during the plague years where clergy and laity alike either died or fled those infected with plague, leaving them to die and suffer alone. In Norwich, the epidemic reached a height during the summer of 1349, where in a single year eight hundred parishes lost their priest, eighty-three of them twice, culminating in over two-thousand clergy deaths (Deaux 135).
In this setting, Julian would have been familiar, either by what she heard or similar experiences she had during her own lifetime in subsequent plagues, with clergymen dieing and what happened to parishioners afterwards. One account speaks of how some infected persons ran into the surrounding woods, where people from the villages would leave them food at the woods' edge and sometimes "[found] the poor wretches dead and the food untouched" (Deaux 125). Julian's depiction of Christ as mother, specifically in Christ's providing of safety to all of mankind, can be seen as an answer to the brutal isolation of man during this time. Her saying that Christ's love "never leaveth us" would have been solace to the many who were left utterly alone (Julian of Norwich 363). It is not simply, however, that Christ is with humanity throughout any perils, but it is through Christ's motherly kindness and virtue. She states that "Wherefore him behooveth to [nourish, feed] us, for the dearworthy love of motherhood hath made him debtor to us" (Ibid). Here, Julian compares Christ's love for humanity, and his obligation to humanity, with a mother's love and obligation to look after her own child. She goes on to say that "our tender mother Jesu, may homely lead us into his blessed breast by his sweet open side, and show us therein in party of the godhead and the joys of heaven" (Ibid). It is in Christ's suffering wound, one which he inflicted for the sake and salvation of humanity, that one finds his love. Like a mother feeding her child, Christ offers humanity salvation. In an extremely radical and dangerous comparison, Julian's Christ-mother is fully formed. She extols female virtues and gives them a heavenly glorification, all the while keeping her praise domestic.
The word "homely" is meant as "domestic", or, "simple". In doing this, Julian takes what was seen as mundane and less than a man's work, and makes it heavenly. She event states that "And in knitting and in oneing he is our very true spouse and we his loved wife and his fair maiden, with which wife he was never displeased" (Julian of Norwich 362). Julian not only makes Christ a mother, but she makes all of mankind a wife to God. In this sense, the relationship of God and man becomes a partnership, though it is important to understand this comparison in a 14th century mentality; a wife is obedient to her husband; Julian of Norwich would not have necessarily portrayed a wife and husband as equals as in our modern interpretation. Nonetheless, a woman's role as a wife, and her role in the house and the rearing of children is not something to look down upon, but instead is something to praise as one praises Christ's crucifixion; it should be seen as a gift and the path to salvation. As Liz Herbert McAvoy states in her article on Julian of Norwich, "the homeliness of Christ towards her serves to identify the female body as both the site of sin, and the site of its redemption" (McAvoy 73). Julian states that all mankind is "troubled, and we shall be troubled, following our master Jesu, till we be fully purged of our deadly flesh which be not very good" (Julian of Norwich 361). In midst of plague and unparralled destruction, Julian makes a claim that one should see their bodies as sinful, and thus look forward to salvation as a sort of freedom from the pain and suffering of the flesh.
This salvation comes in what seems as Protestant-like doctrine: "No manner of blame to me ne to none that shall be safe ... [God] blameth not me for sin" (Ibid). She precedes this statement with her revelation of God's grace while contemplating a hazelnut she finds: "I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so hath all thing being by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second that God loveth it, the third that God keepeth it" (Julian of Norwich 358). Not only does Julian state that sin is not imbued onto the character of man, but also that God, in his love or grace, will forever look after humanity. This can be interpreted as her saying that salvation is found in God's love and "of this needeth us to have knowledge" (Julian of Norwich 359). Faith alone, knowledge in God and his grace, is all that is needed for salvation, according to Julian. Faith, however, is not something that can be attained readily. As Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt eloquently points out, "For Julian, what she sees -Christ's body- is like an inexhaustible detailed landscape that requires more than a lifetime to comprehend ... [shown in her writing that] 'with more fullehed with the blessyd lyght of his precyous loue" (Bauerschmidt 199). Regardless of how long it may take a human being to understand God's grace, salvation is offered to all believers and all of mankind. In her daring statement that God does not blame sin on man, Julian breaks away from the traditional Christian Church doctrine of good deeds being needed in order to gain salvation.
This idea of salvation can be linked to the plague and the conditions of the church. As Bauerschmidt continues to say, "Julian begins with a critique of 'the custome of our praier" and how "we vse for vnknowing of loue to make menie meanes,' that is, the verious devotions and intercessory prayers" (Bauerschmidt 203). Though Bauerschmidt lowers Julian's rejection of the means of prayer, saying that Julian "does not criticize devotional religion," he does make the argument that "her concern is that we not let the means we employ makes us think that we have somehow to persuade God to help us" (Ibid). His argument is contradictory in that Julian's statement that prayers and intercessory are needed to have God bring salvation and love, is directly against the Church teachings of the time which state that prayer and good deeds are needed for salvation. In fact, prayer and good deeds are the tenets of the Catholic faith; Julian's rejection of the importance of these "means" are in fact her rejection of fundamental Catholic doctrine. Her writing states that God's grace and love alone is what frees man from blame for sin, and simply having faith, or, "knowledge", which can be interpreted to mean faith, brings one salvation.
It is probable that Julian would have witnessed the breakdown of Church order in the plague years and would have clearly seen the corruption of the Church. Her promotion of people's reasons for prayer, "to god for his holie flesh and for his precious bloud, his holie passion ... for all the blessed kyndnes, and the endlesse life that we haue of all this ... for his sweete mothers louve," can be seen as her critique of what she saw as the Church losing its way (Julian of Norwich LT 304-5). During the plague years, as McAvoy states, "[the church] began to assimilate and exploit ... economic ideologies by means of the widespread sale of indulgences and the saying of masses for the dead, rendering salvation subject to the rules of the marketplace like any other commodity" (McAvoy 69). Julian’s refocusing of faith and the path to salvation, would have remedied the problems associated with the sale of indulgences during the plague years; if people understood that God would save them regardless of their sins, they would not place importance in buying indulgences. Also, the plague corrupted the effectiveness of the clergy. In one comment made during the period, the discipline of replacement clergy was put into question: "[the plague] wrought great destruction to the holy houses of religion, carrying off the masters of regular discipline and the seniors of experience. From this time the monastic orders ... began to grow tepid and negligent, both in that piety and that learning in which they had up to this time flourished;" the replacement clergy did not receive the "necessary training" and were there "to fill the empty house [rather] than to restore lost discipline" (Deaux 186). One can see more clearly now the reason for Julian's stress for knowledge of God and how an inexperienced, ineffective clergy would have made her believe the Church was in need of reform. Specifically for Julian of Norwich, the earthly and material world needed to be shunned in order to gain salvation.
In writing her book, Julian of Norwich became a sort of preacher, one who communicated, or hoped to, with the rest of the world. Margery Kempe, an illiterate peasant/failed merchant who dictated to several scribes a work of theology, visited Julian. Kempe states that Julian "showed [me] the grace that God put in [my] soul" and that Kempe should not worry about her bouts of tears since "there may be no evil spirit give these tokens, for Jerome saith that tears torment more the Devil than do the pains of Hell" (Kempe 371-2). What is shown here is Julian's continuing defense of supposed womanly behaviors. She tells Margery not to worry about her crying, but more importantly she validates Margery's entire existence. By "showing" Margery the grace of God, Julian no less than gave Margery the validation she needed to go out and preach herself. Margery Kempe used Saints’ lives and writings in order to structure her own book, specifically that of St. Birgitta of Sweden (Akel 8). But it is Margery’s taking to the pulpit to preach that can be seen as her most infamous undertaking. Accused of Lollardy, Margery states that she does not use a pulpit, per se, but uses only “comownycacyon and good wordys” (Akel 9). Validated by Julian, Kempe found her justification for herself to preach, and unintentionally for women to preach as well.
Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe follow the beginnings of a tradition of women taking up the role of preacher. Ralph of Shrewsbury, the Bishop of Bath, writes in a letter, "If [the sick] are not able to obtain any priest, they should make confession of their sins (according to the teaching of the apostle) even to a layman, and, if a man is not at hand, then to a woman" (Deaux 119). The fact that women were allowed during the crisis of the plague years to become intercessors and take up the responsibilities of male-clergy, provides an environment that encourages women to come to the understanding that they too are able to, as Margery Kempe does, take to the pulpit. In other words, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe's works are the realization of the environment the plague caused. The eroding structure of the Church, which allowed laymen (including women) to confess and not need a priest, and the corruption of the Church with its clergy fleeing or selling indulgences in order to take advantage of the situation, allowed for both women to come to realizations that would later in history become Reformation doctrine. Both women were products of their time, a time that was marked by the plague, and seemingly without the plague, would have never produced the radical theology that Julian of Norwich endorsed and Margery Kempe followed.
The Pearl poem also presents a break from traditional hierarchy, as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe’s texts do. Pearl extols commonality, which manifests itself in two forms; first, that the laity are able to bring about their own salvation without intercessory, thus making the clergy no different from any other man, and second, that everyone is treated the same in Heaven, thus even a common girl can be chosen to be God’s “bride to be/And crowned … queen [of heaven]” (Tolkien 138, stanza 35).
The Pearl poem deals with a father’s loss of his daughter who died at a very young age. When the father confronts his daughter in a dream sequence where she is in heaven, she tells him that she has been crowned queen there (Ibid). The father cannot believe his daughter, who was only about two years old, could hold such a rank since “Two years you lived not on earth with me/ And God you could not please, nor pray/ With Pater and Creed upon your knee-/ And made queen that very day” (Tolkien 141, stanza 41). The father is constricted by Church doctrine that states prayer and good deeds are needed in order to gain salvation. Knowing that his daughter was but two years old, the father states that she could not so much as pray the Our Father or Apostle’s Creed, the two prayers that are representative of Christianity, and the two prayers that a Christian should know in order to verbalize the tenets of their faith. Therefore, the daughter not only did not have time to pray or do good deeds, she did not even know what faith, religion, or prayer was; still, she is made queen of heaven. Thus, even though the daughter knew nothing of religion, she was innocent and therefore “Free is the pardon …/ No bars from bliss will for such be made/ For the grace of God is great enow” (Tolkien 145, stanza 51). To say that God’s grace is all one needs for salvation, the Pearl poet offers a radical approach to Christianity at the time; an approach that would later surface with Luther’s Reformation.
Regardless of the impact within the context of the poem, one must focus on the context of the environment in which the poem was written in order to get a better understanding of how such radical theology came to be written. The poem was written in the late 14th century, which would have been during the many plagues that affected England, specifically, the plague of 1361, the “Pestilence of the Children” (Holmes 92). This resurgence of plague particularly affected the young, since it is probable that by then many who lived through the Black Death had developed some kind of resistance (Ibid). Under such circumstances, it is reasonable to surmise that the Pearl poet would have been at the very least familiar, if not personally effected, with this second plague.
In an article written by Jean-Paul Freidl and Ian J. Kirby, the argument is made that the maiden died of the plague. Freidl and Kirby focus on the use of the phrase “withouten spot”, “which arguable refers to both a perfect pearl and to a beautiful child, a child who for perhaps all but two or three years of her earthly days without the plague spots and is now spotless again in the heavenly Jerusalem” (Freidl and Kirby 395). They use the Middle English Dictionary (MED) to trace the meanings or connotations of the words “spot”, which is taken to sometimes mean a “morbid eruption on the skin”, and “blot”, which is considered to be derived from the word “blostre”, a boil (Ibid). Both “spot” and “blot” are used many times throughout the poem to describe the maiden. Also, the speaker’s words in the lines where he says, “In that spot must needs be spices spread/ Where away such wealth to waste hath run,” can be directly seen as plague references. The spreading of spices over the “spot” can be interpreted as alluding to the practice of placing flowers or good-smelling spices over putrefying bodies during the plague (Tolkien 124, stanza 3). Freidl and Kirby, once again using the MED, note that the “waste”, translated by Tolkien, is the word “rot”, which refers to both the purification after death and a wasting disease (Freidl and Kirby 396). Her cleanliness, which appears throughout the text many times as well, is interestingly put into perspective by Freidl and Kirby, who note, “the word ‘unclean’ is regularly associated with disease in the law texts of the Old Testament” (Freidl and Kirby 396). Since the poet has the maiden make many references to the bible, and the general overall theology of the poem, shows that the poet would have been well acquainted with biblical texts, and thus would have understood the many allusions and connotations of his words. Another example of the poet’s familiarity with biblical texts comes in the maiden’s comparison of her salvation with a passage in Psalms which she paraphrases: “‘Who, Lord, shall climb Thy lofty hill/ Or rest within They holy place?’/ He doth the answer swift fulfill:/ ‘Who wrought with hands no harm nor ill/ Who is of heart both clean and bright’/ … The innocent ever saved by right” (Tolkien 148, stanza 57).
Additionally, the fact that the poet makes the speaker a jeweler, and the fact that the poet uses the parable of the vineyard as a means to explain the theology of the poem, shows the social environment the speaker was either referring to, or was part of himself. As noted in Helen Barr’s article, jewelers made “transactions with the aristocracy [though] they were not themselves members of that social group” (Barr 60). Barr explains that the speaker as a jeweler, can be directly paralleled with the social conflicts of the plague years in the late 14th century, as well as literary traditions. Barr explains that throughout literary and social tradition, jewelers, or merchants, were seen as prideful since they competed with the wealth of the aristocracy, though never shared the same social standing (Barr 61). The speaker alludes to the maiden as matching, in physical perfection and beauty, that of the aristocracy: “Her countenance grave for duke or earl/ And her hue as rewel ivory wan” (Tolkien 131, stanza 18). The maiden, as queen of heaven, also has “A crown arrayed too wore that girl/ Of Margery-stones and others none/ With pinnacles of pure white pearl” (Tolkien 130, stanza 18). The crown, Barr emphasizes, is of noble, courtly design and fashion. What is shown here, is the glorification of commonality. All persons, regardless of social rank, are treated as kings or queens in heaven. Therefore, salvation is for everyone. With the breakdown of effective clergy, and the sale of indulgences where one can expect that the wealthy were able to buy the most of, there existed in the plague years a social conflict where the Church seemed to favor those with money. The Pearl poem rejects that favoritism entirely with a theology that promotes the common man, even the youngest of girls, are equals in heaven, and all that is needed is God’s grace; not indulgences, not good deeds, not prayer. As equals, all those who enter heaven are given the knowledge of salvation and bliss. The speaker describes a garden of a great house, which is similar to a medieval manner, but finds that a river blocks his entry to the house; Barr sites that the words “wohtes” and “wo” “appear to connote the risk of discovery rather than physical danger” (Barr 63). Thus, the speaker behaves as though the garden house is blocked from him, not because of physical traps or barriers, but because of mental barriers, or, “social precariousness” (Ibid). This can be associated with the unequal social standings in the middle ages; the maiden even reminds the speaker of his “gentle” status, when she reprimands him for his “social presumption” (Ibid).
The very parable of the vineyard, which the maiden uses, echoes the wage problems associated with the plague years. With so many workers dead from plague, labor became scarce and therefore wages increased; the Statutes of Labourers of 1351, prescribed a wage limit in favor of the wealthy (Holmes 94). In 1377-81, land owners forced Parliament to enact a series of taxes that once again favored the wealthy but led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 (Holmes 95). In this setting, one can see the similarities between the vineyard parable, which promotes equality among all workers, and the social and economic conditions of the mid and later 14th century when the Pearl poet wrote.
Therefore, the Pearl poem is more than a theological reinterpretation, it is a poem that represents a break with hierarchical structures of the medieval period due to the strain the Black Death and subsequent plagues placed on English society in the 14th century. Pearl promotes and extols commonality, much like Julian of Norwich, and to a lesser degree Margery Kempe, extolled feminine virtues as equal to those associated with men. All of these texts break from the social and Church-related hierarchies and must be understood in their historical, social context. Additionally, seeing these theological breaks, gives modern readers a look into the beginnings of reformist ideologies that would eventually culminate in Luther’s Reformation, the numerous peasant revolts of that century, and the cleaving of the Catholic Church. Though it would be inaccurate in portraying these works as truly the root of the Reformation and future rebellious movements, it is still interesting to see the seeds of later ideas in the Medieval period that would later change the course of history.
Akel, Catherine S. “ ‘… A Schort Tretys and A Comfortybl …’: Perception and Purpose of Margery Kempe’s Narrative.” English Studies: a Journal of English Language and Literature 82 (2001): 1-13.
Barr, Helen. “Pearl- or ‘The Jeweler’s Tale.” Medium Aevum LXIX (2000): 59-79.
Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian. “Seeing Jesus: Julian of Norwich and the Text of Christ’s Body.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27 (1997): 189-214.
Deaux, George. The Black Death. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969.
Freidl, Jean-Paul, Ian J. Kirby. “The Life, Death, and Life of the Pearl-maiden.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 4 (2002): 395-398.
Holmes, George A. “England: A Decisive Turning Point.” The Black Death, a Turning Point in History? Ed. William M. Bowsky. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1971. 91-99.
Julian of Norwich. “A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, V. 1A. Ed. Alfred David. New York and London: WW Norton and Company, 2000. 355-366.
Julian of Norwich. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, The Long Text V 2. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1979.
Kempe, Margery. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, V. 1A. Ed. Alfred David. New York and London: WW Norton and Company, 2000. 366-379.
“Pearl.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballatine Books, 1975. 123-168.
McAvoy, Liz Herbert. “Julian of Norwich and a Trinity of the Feminine.” Mystics Quarterly 28 (2002): 68-75.
© Mathew Moura