The Permeable Self: Five Medieval Relationships 
by Barbara Newman.
Pennsylvania, 378 pp., £58, September 2021, 978 0 8122 5334 4
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Early​ in The Book of Margery Kempe, the middle-class mystic and would-be saint visits a community of monks, whose abbot invites her to dine with them. Margery is on top form during the meal, regaling the group with the ‘good words’ that God put in her mind. She is so charismatic, in fact, that one monk who has long despised her begins to show great interest in what she has to say. He seeks her out later in church to ask her if he will be saved and if she can disclose his sins to him. ‘I will not believe in you,’ he says, ‘unless you can tell me my sin.’

Margery consults with Jesus, who gives her the information. The monk in question is guilty of lechery, despair and keeping worldly goods, but he can save his soul if he confesses and abandons the secular office he holds. When Margery meets the monk again and lists his errors, he is embarrassed, then asks for a corroborating detail: ‘Have I sinned with wives or with single women?’ Margery doesn’t hesitate: ‘Sir, with wives.’ Convinced and converted, he treats her to dinner and gives her gold to pray for him. The next time they meet, she sees that he has changed his life for the good.

This scene of helpful mind-reading is one of the proofs Margery offers of her own holiness. Elsewhere, she carries on conversations with Christ in her soul, marries God the Father in a formal ceremony, and has a series of remarkable physical sensations. She smells sweet odours (‘with her nose’, the text specifies), hears melodies that drown out the speech of people near her, and sees tiny white motes that fly all around her, which turn out to be protective angels.

As astonishing as Margery’s experiences may be to the modern reader, she was following a familiar script. She knew about the experiences of other mystics, including the celebrity saint Bridget of Sweden, and her divine visions echoed theirs. She may even have been angling for canonisation herself. The late medieval world she lived in offered a way for women without education or pedigree to gain authority over others, to preach, teach and criticise the powerful, by receiving visions and messages directly from God.

It’s tempting to see Margery’s book – written by dictation in the 1430s and often described as the first autobiography in English – as a powerful assertion of her self in the world. The self Margery describes is different from our modern understanding of that word, however, and not only because she appears, with perhaps feigned humility, as a mere ‘creature’. As Barbara Newman shows in her brilliant new book, medieval Christians understood themselves to be interconnected to an extent that would surprise many people today, at least in Western cultures. Their minds and hearts were legible to other people as well as to God and the devil, and they saw themselves as vulnerable to interference from human and supernatural forces, to both good and bad ends.

This ‘porous selfhood’ was modelled on the Christian doctrine of coinherence, the notion that the three persons of the Trinity dwell in one another simultaneously. The idea extended to humankind, too, since people were understood as participating in the mystical body of Christ and, by extension, in one another. Paul summed it up in Corinthians 15:22 when he wrote that ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.’ Newman leans heavily on coinherence, arguing that it extended to relations between people even in secular contexts such as romantic love. One of the attractions of coinherence is the ethical imperative it carries, recognised by thinkers including Ludwig Feuerbach and Desmond Tutu: if human beings are interconnected, then an injury done to one is an injury done to all. But Newman’s medieval case studies also suggest a more troubling possibility: that a person’s sense of self can dissolve under the pressure of external interference both demonic and divine.

The stories Newman tells reveal the profound strangeness of the Middle Ages. In these pages, demons torment a holy woman by having sex in her presence, monks imagine themselves to be pregnant, lovers eat one another’s hearts, and a multitude of sins are revealed by holy people with the power of prophecy. But some of the emotional, spiritual and physical connections experienced by medieval people are recognisable today: students who feel closer to their teachers than to their families, or pregnant women whose fate is irrevocably bound to that of their foetus.

The relationship Newman describes between teachers and students is also the hardest to understand as a case of coinherence. In the early and high Middle Ages, before the dominance of the universities at Bologna and Paris, cathedral and monastic schools passed on a form of instruction that encouraged intimate, often passionate relationships between master and pupil. This charismatic teaching aimed to shape the student both intellectually and as a person. The teacher served as a model to be imitated, and their mores – manners and morals – were the pattern the student was expected to follow. The idea had classical precedents, and demanded not only application of the mind but discipline of the body. ‘The condition of the mind can be discerned from the state of the body,’ St Ambrose wrote in the fourth century, advising priests to cultivate modesty and grace of movement as a way of reflecting inner virtue. ‘In some people’s walk you see the very image of frivolity,’ he wrote, ‘they look like wandering jesters.’ The 12th-century theologian Hugh of St Victor echoed this idea in a popular work on the education of novices, arguing that the discipline that regulates the movement of the limbs also ‘quells all the disorderly impulses of the mind’. The aim of such teaching was to form an individual in whom mind, spirit and body were in harmony, whose inner virtue showed itself in their speech and physical appearance.

Similar ideals can be found today in ballet, yoga and martial arts, where deep bonds can develop between teachers and students, for better or worse. Students who learned this way in the Middle Ages describe their teachers in ardent terms. The 11th-century churchman Adelmann of Liège dedicated a poem to his teacher Fulbert of Chartres, remembering how ‘my ear drank from the golden fount of his honeyed tongue.’ Godfrey of St Victor, too, wrote a poem about his teacher, Richard, describing himself lying on the ground and clinging to his master’s feet: ‘Such teachings resound from his mouth!/They ravish me – or rather restore me to myself.’ It’s a remarkable reaction to instruction – especially since, as Newman points out, Godfrey was probably around thirty years old when he began working with Richard, no longer an impressionable child.

Teachers could be just as devoted to their pupils. After he was made abbot of Bec in Normandy in 1078, Anselm of Canterbury showed a talent for winning over monks who resented him. One of them was Osbern, who entered the monastery as a bright but truculent youth. Anselm indulged the boy at first, but once he had won his affection he began to discipline him severely, as ‘he loved his son more than you could believe possible.’ Before he could fulfil his promise as a monk, however, Osbern fell ill, and Anselm nursed him on his deathbed, extracting a promise of communication from beyond the grave. No other student managed to replace Osbern in Anselm’s heart. We know of his devotion from his biographer, Eadmer, and from a letter he wrote to a friend: ‘Wherever Osbern is, my soul is his soul.’

Such close ties certainly suggest that medieval teaching relationships didn’t have much of a place for what we would now call professional boundaries. But can this be put down to a belief in coinherence, or is it the case whenever teachers try to shape the whole person rather than convey specialised knowledge? What’s striking about Newman’s examples is how much effort it takes to remake a pupil in the model of their teacher, and how hard-won obedience can be. But it’s worth pointing out, too, that at least from the eighth century on, ardent language was so common in monastic letters as to seem formulaic. It may be that emotional intimacy was accepted – despite concerns about sexual misconduct – because once they had dedicated their lives to Christ, medieval monks and nuns saw themselves as belonging to the same family. Or you could say that the medieval understanding of pedagogy demanded a level of empathy between teacher and student that blurred the limits between them. In On Instructing Beginners in Faith, St Augustine advised a burned-out Carthaginian deacon, Deogratias, to cultivate a feeling of compassion ‘so strong that, when our listeners are touched by us as we speak and we are touched by them as they learn, each of us comes to dwell in the other’.

In the relationship between a pregnant woman and her foetus, coinherence becomes literal. That mother and child influence each other throughout pregnancy was clear to medieval physicians. Then, as now, pregnant women were advised by well-meaning authorities to watch their diets, modulate their exercise and avoid excessive emotions. (They were allowed diluted wine, though, as a safer alternative to plain water.) Physicians were split on the question of sex during pregnancy, and much of their advice was directed towards women of means: Aldobrandino of Siena, the author of Le Régime du corps (1256), proposed they drink a cocktail of expensive spices and refrain from working too hard.

As similar as the advice sometimes sounds to that offered by experts today, the operating assumptions were different. Mothers could, it was thought, influence the body of their infant through both diet and imagination. A hare’s head for dinner might lead to a harelip on the child, and staring at a grotesque image could result in a malformed baby. Beyond this, however, was the hard reality of infant and maternal mortality at terrifyingly high rates. In the late Middle Ages, expectant mothers were treated ‘like knights embarking on a crusade’, given confession and absolution before labour so they would not die in a state of sin. When a delivery proved fatal, midwives had to be prepared to fulfil other duties. They might baptise the infant before it died, an emergency measure for which no priest was necessary. In some cases they needed to perform a posthumous caesarian on the mother first. An unbaptised baby could not be given a Christian burial, and neither could its mother until it was removed from her body.

Childbirth was a liminal state for mother and child, as was the period of confinement after birth. Margery Kempe’s divine visions began after a difficult pregnancy and delivery. Worried that she was about to die, she sent for her confessor, who made her speak in such a rush that she couldn’t tell him one secret sin she still had on her conscience. The fear of damnation made Margery lose her sanity for half a year. She was surrounded by devils, tore and bit at her own body, and was close to taking her own life, to the point where she had to be bound for her own safety. This was her disturbed state of mind when Jesus Christ appeared to her, handsome and wearing purple silk, and assured her he would not abandon her. The event was a turning point for Margery: her mental illness was cured, and her career as a visionary began.

Postpartum trauma apparently made Margery more porous. From then on she was rarely alone in her own thoughts. She had long conversations with God, and imagined herself helping the Virgin Mary care for the newborn Christ, or observing the Crucifixion first hand. For Margery, as for other medieval mystics, motherhood was a biological experience that became a way for people to relate to God with peculiar intimacy. Newman describes a number of memorable cases. The 13th-century nun Lukardis of Oberweimar was wondering whether the Virgin Mary really gave birth without pain when she saw her own belly swelling and receding. A beautiful little boy was soon running around her, though she couldn’t feel his weight. Another nun, Ida of Leuven, found that meditating on the Christ child made her limbs grow monstrously, causing her to fill the whole bed she was lying in. The 14th-century visionary Dorothea of Montau endured more elaborate mystical pregnancies. She felt Christ kicking in her belly, her womb grew unnaturally large, and it weighed down painfully as though she were in labour. ‘I have come to you … wishing to do great violence to your body,’ God explained to her, ‘I want to give birth to myself in your soul.’

The surprising feminist argument woven through The Permeable Self is that women could gain a voice by losing some of their selfhood. Ambitious women in the late Middle Ages were aware of St Paul’s injunctions against their preaching or teaching. The trick was to teach or preach while claiming not to. Margery Kempe quotes scripture and occasionally delivers a sermon over dinner, but insists that any knowledge she has is from the Holy Ghost, and she is merely its vessel. It was a necessary defence, given persecutions of Lollard heretics in England, who were known for allowing women to take a more active role in Church life. Julian of Norwich, Margery’s contemporary, used a similar feint in her visionary work, Revelations of Divine Love. ‘God forbid that you should say … that I am a teacher … for I am a woman, unlearned, feeble and frail,’ she wrote, ‘but because I am a woman, should I therefore believe that I should not tell you the goodness of God?’ Insisting that they were conduits for God’s message may have been a survival strategy for medieval women writers, but Newman shows it wasn’t only a rhetorical move. The mystics who channelled God often won authority, but they did so by being psychologically vulnerable, by dancing on the edge of madness. In some cases, their sanity was not evident even to themselves or to those who knew them well.

The more stable miracles involved mind-reading, which was understood as a kind of prophecy. Holy women (and men) received this gift in order to encourage the sinful to confess and do penance, just as Margery did for the lecherous monk. The 13th-century Cistercian nun Ida of Nivelles was mentoring a novice when a vision of mating toads revealed to her that the novice was having an affair with a priest. The grace of prophecy allowed women to criticise powerful men, too: the anchoress Yvette of Huy was being confessed by a usurious dean when she began listing his sins to him instead, urging him to reform. At the extreme end is a figure like St Bridget, who used her visions to pursue a reformist agenda with the 14th-century papacy and the king of Sweden, and whose fame led to canonisation soon after her death. Sometimes, though, divine grace allowed women to stay out of worldly affairs. The Flemish saint Lutgard of Aywières joined a French-speaking monastery when she was 24, and managed to spend forty years there without learning more than a few basic phrases of the language. Her biographer, Thomas of Cantimpré, considered this ignorance a gift of the Virgin Mary, so that Lutgard could ‘escape administrative office and remain free for contemplation’. (Lutgard would make a good candidate for patron saint of university researchers.)

The psychological porousness required of holy women could also lead to their destruction. If God could invade their souls, so could the devil. Medieval intellectuals and mystics were keen to distinguish between the two, and between supernatural intrusions and mental or physical illness. (Late in Margery Kempe’s book, a sceptical friar who observes her weeping loudly remarks that he would feel compassion for her if she admitted she was sick.) An extreme case is posed by Ermine of Reims, a poor woman of the 14th century who was persuaded by her confessor, Jean Le Graveur, to adopt an ascetic vocation instead of moving back to her home village after her husband’s death. After a few years of fasting and self-torture, Ermine’s life became a living hell. Demons visited her chamber as serpents or in other devilish forms. They slapped her, kicked her in the chest, threw objects around the room and filled it with stinks. A demon dressed as her late husband slipped into her bed; others fornicated in front of her to induce her to lechery. The devils even held fake masses, unorthodox theology being the worst temptation of all. Ermine confessed these events to Jean, who wrote them all down.

Newman’s extended reading of Ermine’s life is perceptive and disturbing. Ermine, she argues, was the victim of Jean’s ambition. He wanted to make her into a saint, and to share in her fame by serving as her confessor and biographer. Ermine was illiterate and had shown no particular inclination to asceticism, her life being humble enough to begin with. But she had a low sense of herself and was convinced of her sinfulness, perhaps only because she had had intercourse with her husband. (When the demons appeared to her as saints and angels she sent them away, insisting that God wouldn’t send his messengers to someone as pitiful as her.) The only resistance she could offer to Jean came from the demons too. They repeatedly urged her to leave her confessor, insisting that he was a hypocrite and traitor, and too judgmental about women’s fashion. Newman suggests that the demons allowed Ermine ‘to assert some agency while denying it’. If a woman could speak for God, why shouldn’t devils speak for her? This was the extent of Ermine’s rebellion. She died a year later from the bubonic plague, and Jean sent his account to the chancellor of the University of Paris.

‘It was 1420; experience was crumbling,’ Robert Glück writes in his experimental novel Margery Kempe (1994), in which he fuses his affair with an aloof younger man with Margery’s love for Jesus. You might say that Glück channels Margery channelling Christ. Glück asked friends in his circle to write down ‘intimate details’ about their bodies, which he used to flesh out the characters in Margery’s world. It’s hard to distinguish the people in the book from one another: their longings and their sexes fuse. In his afterword, Glück explains the parallel between Margery’s moment, when the modern self is coming into being, and his own, where the modern self ends: both periods are marked by plagues. The fragility of our bodies insists that the self remains porous, after all, despite the myth of the modern, autonomous individual. As Newman notes at the end of her study, it’s hard to determine the more vital ethical imperative: to protect ourselves by raising boundaries, or to accept how intertwined we really are.

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