05.03.07, McAvoy, Authority and the Female Body

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Shannon Gayk

The Medieval Review baj9928.0503.007


McAvoy, Liz Herbert. Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Series: Studies in Medieval Mysticism vol. 5. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. ix, 276. ISBN: 1-84384-008-1.

Reviewed by:
Shannon Gayk
University of Notre Dame

Liz Herbert McAvoy's contribution to the Studies in Medieval Mysticism series provides a new feminist reading of the religious writing of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. The book, derived from the author's 1999 doctoral dissertation, is concerned in particular with the ways in which Julian and Margery deploy the female body to inscribe the feminine on the traditionally masculine in order to authorize their mystical experiences and written texts.

This is a book that begins and ends in Eden. As partakers in the legacy of Eve, McAvoy notes, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe participate in both the fall and redemption of woman. To this end, the book is structured by three archetypal figures of female experience: woman as mother, woman as prostitute, and woman as sapience. McAvoy argues that Margery and Julian read and represent the divine through the lenses of each of these distinctively feminine figures. For example, as has often been noted by scholars, Julian reads Jesus as mother, and Margery reads Christ as a lover. By mapping these archetypal female figures onto God, McAvoy suggests, women simultaneously sought to map divine authority unto female experience. Feminizing the divine provided a means of divinizing the feminine and thus validating the authority of the female voice and bodily experience.

In her theoretical introduction, McAvoy draws on the work of Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigaray to position herself within a new generation of feminist scholars who are attempting to rescue late medieval female writers from the domain of androcentric theology. And indeed, this is a book that is indebted to and attempts to carve out its own space within the growing number of feminist re-readings of late medieval female religious writers. Following on the work of Karma Lochrie, Lynn Staley, and Sarah Salih, this study seeks to intervene in contemporary debates about female agency in late medieval writing. To this conversation, McAvoy brings an analysis of the way in which Julian and Margery's appropriation of traditional depictions of women enabled them to transgress (and redeem) those very stereotypes.

One additional element of McAvoy's methodology of which readers should be aware is her resistance to a comparative analysis of these two writers. Noting that she wants to avoid past pitfalls of comparing Margery and Julian (which, she claims, usually leave Margery "wanting as the hysterical, hyperbolic, noisy, and undignified renegade" (25)), McAvoy maintains that she only couples the two writers because they both emerge from the same geographical and social environment. Given the thematic, tripartite structure of the book, however, McAvoy cannot escape a certain amount of comparison. Much later in the book, for example, she reads Julian's treatment of the female body as "less performative" and "more systematically intellectualized" than Margery's (166).

In the first section, McAvoy focuses on the "hermeneutic" of motherhood. Throughout much of the book, McAvoy employs this term to indicate the way in which these two women gender their texts and religious experiences. McAvoy charts the development of Margery's "motherhood hermeneutic" and Julian's "motherhood matrix" throughout each text to argue that the maternal is both imposed upon the divine and the divine upon the maternal as a means of consolidating spiritual and natural authority and avoiding censure.

The opening chapter, "Motherhood and Margery Kempe," examines how Margery manipulates discourses of motherhood both to exempt her from suspicion of heresy and to establish a voice of spiritual authority. McAvoy examines the relationship between Margery's physical mothering of her fourteen children and her attempt to identify herself as a spiritual mother. On the one hand Margery downplays her natural maternal experience, only documenting her relationship to her children when it advances her spiritual narrative, and on the other, she establishes herself as a maternal Marian figure by highlighting her intercessory role.

The chapter on motherhood in Julian, "The Motherhood Matrix in the Writing of Julian of Norwich," refreshingly is not simply another rehearsal of now standard commendations of Julian's "Christ as mother" trope. Rather, McAvoy suggests that Julian applies a feminizing "hermeneutic" to all experience and thus uses this trope as a frame for reading motherhood into other representations of God in the Showings. Most noteworthy is McAvoy's new reading of the parable of the Lord and the servant. McAvoy emphasizes the parable's maternal aspects, suggesting that the Lord is a mother-figure and the servant is a child. McAvoy's observation that Julian demonstrates a "propensity to inscribe the feminine upon the traditionally masculine" (145) is perhaps the most persuasive contribution to recent feminist studies of Julian made by this book.

In the book's second section, McAvoy explores how the "inscription of the feminine onto the traditionally masculine" shapes discourses about the sexualized female body. She notes in particular that both Julian and Margery represent the trading and sharing of bodies as central to the salvific process and the dissemination of divine love.

McAvoy begins her chapter on "Discourses of Prostitution" with an account of the commercialization of piety in this period and an overview of theories of commodification in order to establish a framework for examining Margery's attitude towards the trading potential of the body. Margery, McAvoy notes, inverts and spiritualizes discourses of prostitution by suggesting she must buy her own body from her husband in order to offer it to her spouse, Christ. Additionally, because of her unconventional sexuality and her tendency to travel alone Margery was frequently interpreted as "not a good wyfe." McAvoy argues however that this sexual vilification enables Margery's ultimate identification with "harlot saints" (and especially Mary Magdalene) which, in turn, authorizes her frequent conflation of the bodily and spiritual.

While Margery's collapsing of the physical and spiritual has often been addressed by scholars, the same scholars often overlook the role of the sexualized female body in Julian's writing. The following chapter, "Hermeneutics of the Holy Whore in Julian of Norwich," examines Julian's process of textual revision to argue that Julian develops a corporeal theology built on an acceptance of her own sexual and fleshly body. The body, for Julian, is the symbol of God's love for his creation, rather than the sign of the Fall. It is not to be transcended, but rather redeemed. Central to this redemption of the female body, is an acknowledgement of Mary's role in the incarnation of God. In this chapter, McAvoy also examines the redemptive "promiscuity" of both Julian and Christ. In McAvoy's reading, Julian becomes a "common woman" who trades her body to procure God's love for her "evencristen." McAvoy reads this as a form of "holy prostitution" (like that of St. Cecelia); Julian gives her sexualized body to union with Christ for the profit of all other Christians. Similarly, Christ is feminized and is "promiscuous", allowing his love for all Christians to be purchased by the bodily suffering of Julian. Ultimately, McAvoy claims, Julian's representation of her own body and of the body of Christ undermines masculine body/spirit dualisms and offers a redemptive vision of physicality.

In her discussion of the final female archetype, sapience, McAvoy argues that both Margery and Julian consistently advance the female voice as an authoritative medium of prophetic utterance and the dissemination of divine wisdom. To this end, McAvoy charts the female sapiental traditions upon which they draw to validate both their oral and written voices.

The book's fifth chapter, "Margery Kempe: Wisdom, Authority, and the Female Utterance," suggests that Margery exploits the disruptive and "uncontained orality" of female modes of utterance. McAvoy reads Margery's text as privileging the oral utterance as over the more traditional authority of the written word. This privileging, she suggests, is an appropriation of stereotypes about the uncontrollable female voice. Aligning the irrepressibility of female utterance with the prophetic voice enables Margery to reclaim the female voice, in its unmediated orality, as aligned with the voice of God and thus endowed with authority. McAvoy first notes the persistent skepticism about the authority of the female voice in much of medieval literature but argues that Margery appropriates and transforms this negative tradition by emphasizing, "the fundamental orality of a God-inspired text made possible primarily because of the female voice" (176). To this end, McAvoy argues against significant scribal influence and suggests instead that the "directness of female utterance" shaped both the subject matter and its written form.

In the book's final chapter, "Julian of Norwich: Voice of the Wise Woman," McAvoy suggests that just as Margery draws on a tradition of authorized female utterance, exemplified in the voice of the Sibyl, Julian turns to the feminized discourses of wisdom literature to assert the authority of the female voice. McAvoy argues that Julian's absorption of the tradition of Sapience is evident in both versions of her showings, but argues that the long text demonstrates the maturation of Julian's insights into the prophetic and sapiential function of the female voice. Eventually, McAvoy claims, Julian's voice of wisdom becomes interchangeable with the voice of God.

It is this proposed synonymy between the female body and voice and representation of God that is a particular strength of McAvoy's study. Female appropriation of traditionally masculine discourses, her analysis suggests, can be a radical act. The book's synthesis of feminist theory and recent readings of late medieval religious writing will also be quite useful for the student of late medieval female spirituality. The moments in which McAvoy advances her own readings of gynaecentric moments in the texts, however, are less successful, marred by generalizations and the frequent interference of highly-wrought theoretical vocabulary and constructs. Many readers will likely find some of McAvoy's applications of feminist hermeneutics to these medieval texts unpersuasive and the jargon of feminist theory difficult to navigate. McAvoy's reading of Julian's hazelnut as a figure of the womb, for example, is not given the textual support necessary for such a provocative association. There are also some striking absences. For example, a discussion of Julian's spiritual mothering of Margery would seem an entirely appropriate extension of McAvoy's arguments about the "motherhood matrix." Yet, this connection is never made, presumably because of the author's resistance to a comparative analysis of the two women. Despite these concerns, McAvoy's study is a provocative and often insightful re-reading of the complex relationships between the female voice, body, and text in late medieval religious writing. It makes a useful contribution to recent feminist efforts to recover the marginalized voices of women in the Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Shannon Gayk

University of Notre Dame