She Talks to Angels:
The Martyrdom of the Visionary Female in the Lives of Margery Kempe and Jeanne d'Arc

Mary Jones
© 1999

When I was a child, I lived in the "Art Museum" section of Philadelphia; in fact, my street began at the museum and headed three blocks north to my house. At the bottom of my street was a bronze, gold-plated statue of St. Jeanne d'Arc, riding her charger into battle. I think it's this image of Jeanne which is most fitting, most positive in her life, but it is the sight of her burning at the stake which so many people know. Why did she burn? Why was Margery Kempe harassed her whole life, and why did Julian of Norwich have to find solace as an anchoress, cut off from the world? What is it about these women that made men react in such a way?

Julian of Norwich (we don't know her real name--this was a name she took upon becoming an anchoress) was a visionary who communed with Christ while in a state of meditation. She was a contemporary of Margery Kempe, and in fact spoke with her on the vocation of mysticism. Unlike Margery or Jeanne, she was left untouched by the authorities of the Church. Why? As an anchoress, Julian played the acceptable role of subjugated woman--she essentially locked herself away from the world instead of preaching, and held her visions quietly, in private. She wasn't about to go out into the street and tell everyone that she could experience the crucifixion with Christ--it just wasn’t done. Instead, she would stay in her tomb, dead to the world (as all intelligent women of the time were forced to be, either figuratively or, as we shall see, literally).

Unlike Julian, Margery wasn't content with the life of an anchoress. A housewife for most of her life who suffered from manic depression, she suddenlys has a revelation, deciding to become a wandering pilgrim not only in England but also throughout Europe and the Holy Land. Her visions of Christ were unconventional to say the least; particularly the idea that she was literally married to Christ, and had sex with him. Now, I should like to say that although her visions are perhaps more explicit in detail, they are not unlike the visions of many mystics, particularly those of Hindu yogis who experience samsarah with the goddess Kali. Even some Christian mystics have had similar visions in the idea of Christ as bridegroom--nuns often say they are married to God, and the anchoress enters into her chamber wearing a bridal dress. However, no mystic in Inquisition-era Catholicism had ever made the statement that she was Christ's physical lover--all such terms had been used before in metaphor to demonstrate the Church's relationship to Christ, but never was it taken literally. The blatant sexuality of her visions, combined with her insistence on sexual abstinence within her earthly marriage, confounded the religious leaders of the day. Not only did she reject her roll of breeder and babysitter, but declared for herself a position greater than that of the church authorities.

It was not only her sexual challenges that she was condemned by the powers that be. Her loud, emotional displays during prayer and the Mass were disconcerting for many of her fellow worshipers. Even the fact that she claimed to have visions was cause for concern among the authorities. Moreover, she took it upon herself to become an itinerant preacher, traveling England and Europe to spread the news of her visions of a dynamic, human Christ who is physically involved with the human race. What is so scary about this? In a world where structure and hierarchy are a way of life, where priests are mediators between you and God, there is no room for a brand of mysticism which says that we have no need of priests--that each of us can enter into communion with God without going to a priest, or to Mass. This is what disturbed the priests, and this is what made them label her a madwoman and persecute her. This is why the hierarchy considers her insane and her teachings and visions left untouched by theology, unlike her contemporary Julian. Julian became a mole, and whispered her visions from the tomb; Margery shouted them from the hilltops.

Jeanne d'Arc's problems were also of a sexual-role playing nature. It wasn’t that she heard God or saw St. Michael, or decided that God was on the side of the French. It wasn't even that she was leading an Army--women have done that before, such as Boadica of the Icene tribe in Britain, who fought Julius Caesar. It was that she led the army in men's clothes. She was, for all intents and purposes, a cross-dresser with no interest in heterosexuality. Note that I am not implying that she is a lesbian--there is no evidence for or against that. As a faithful Christian of the fifteenth century, it is only logical that she didn't have sex outside of marriage; as she wasn't married, she would then abstain. I am saying that she rejected sexuality as irrelevant in the face of what she perceived as her mission, the saving of France. Playing the role of subservient female in the face of danger wasn't in her interest or her plan. She couldn't possibly lead an army into battle while wearing a skirt; it just wasn't practical.

What Jeanne did was reject the role that society had planned out for her in favor of a different, more masculine calling. This is an obvious affront to the social order of the day; it's even an issue now, as to whether women should fight in combat. If you were to ask those opposed, few even bring up that women may not be physically strong enough for trench warfare, or the problem of the menstrual cycle; the majority of men who are against women in combat say they are so because they believe that a woman's place is stateside, caring for the children and keeping the homefires burning. They haven't the right to go out and fight a war--that isn't their God-ordained place. Jeanne d'Arc flies right in the face of this belief by donning men's clothes and leading an army.

It wasn't because she believed she was a messenger from God that she was burned at the stake--it was because she refused to play a role. Like Margery, she upset the status quo by claiming for her self a role of authority, something which was unheard for women of in the late Middle Ages. It was for this--the assertion of female authority in the face of male oppression--that Margery was labeled mad and Jeanne burned at the stake; it wasn't because they had visions--that was simply a convenient medium. Many strong women were burned at the stake as witches, just like Jeanne; she is remembered mostly because of her military campaign--she is a martyr for France. Margery is labeled mad because of her own strength and is ostracized from society. In the world of the late Middle Ages, if you didn't play the game, you were out. The sexism of the Church is what caused the ultimate demise of Jeanne, enforced the madness of Margery, and sent Julian to the anchor.

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