When reading the spiritual visions of Julian Norwich and Margery Kempe’s experiences in The Book of Margery Kempe, I found them intriguing in comparison to Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath. Although Julian and Margery’s writings are autobiographical and Chaucer is writing fiction, the three share one major commonality, which is the emphasis on experience. Julian of Norwich pens her extensive meditations on sixteen revelations, and the illiterate Margery Kempe dictates her story and visions to scribes. Obviously, then, their writings are based on their personal experience, which they clearly feel has been significant enough so as to give them the authority to communicate what they’ve learned or seen. Similarly, Chaucer opens “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” with her claim to authority, the following assertion: “My experience gives me sufficient right to speak of the trouble there is in marriage, even if there were no other authority in the world” (Lumiansky 166). Furthermore, the Wife immediately makes her claims spiritual, defending her stance on marriage with personal exegesis of scripture, for “Men can interpret and gloss the text up and down, but I know surely without doubt that God expressly told us to increase and multiply . . . But He made no mention of number, of bigamy, or of octogamy. Why then should men call it wicked?” (Lumiansky 166). The Wife continues her defense with ample support from scripture, again ringing with similarity to the writings of Julian and Margery. Thanks to Chaucer’s brilliant humor, the Wife’s Prologue is exponentially funnier and intentionally ridiculous than the two autobiographical accounts, but their emphasis on experience as a means to authority is the same. However, while the Wife of Bath’s authority is based primarily in her understanding of scripture, both Julian and Margery base their authority on emotion, specifically their emotive responses to their encounters with Christ. So while their perceptions of experience and authority are the same, their support of that authority is different.
The Wife of Bath also differs in her treatment of sexuality. With her many husbands and especially her fifth husband, Jankyn, she is a very sexual character, and offers a defense of her lack of chastity with the claim that “our Lord Jesus refreshed many a man with barley bread . . . I don’t hold any grudge against chastity. Let those who want to be pure white bread, and let us wives be called barley bread . . . I will continue in that way of living for which God intended us” (Lumiansky 169). The Wife refuses to apologize for her sexuality, but instead embraces it as God ordained. For Margery Kempe, however, chastity is the ideal, and relationship with God redeems lost chastity for an individual. This is apparent when Margery nurses her husband back to health and delights in this burden because “she bethought herself of how she in her young age had full many delectable thoughts, fleshly lusts, and inordinate loves for his body” (Greenblatt 436). Though very difficult, her care for her husband is recompense for her previous sexual desires, and an encounter with God confirms that she should care for her husband for these reasons. God instructs Margery, “‘Yes daughter, . . . you shall have as much reward for keeping him and helping him in his need at home as if you were in church to make your prayers . . . He has made your body free to me so that you should serve me and live chaste and clean.” Margery’s relationship with God seems strangely sexual, marked by the view that she must be chaste before God so that her body is free to Him only. And accordingly, unlike the Wife of Bath, Margery cannot embrace her human sexuality, seeking instead restored purity. Similarly, Julian of Norwich writes that “God almighty . . . is our very true spouse and we his loved wife and his fair maiden” (Greenblatt 419). She also casts him as our mother, father, brother and lover, communicating that he fulfills all roles, and God as lover requires chastity since embracing human sexuality would mean unfaithfulness to God. Summarily, Julian and Margery seem to share a negative view of human sexuality, or at least the view that sexuality is a part of the divine realm; relationship with God, therefore, should fulfill any kind of human sexual desires. The Wife of Bath, however, openly embraces her sexuality and even backs her stance with her own [humorous] interpretations of scripture.
In conclusion, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the writings of Julian of Norwich, and The Book of Margery Kempe are similarly structured but very different. All three see their experiences as given them the authority to speak on issues steeped in spirituality, but the three seem to represent opposite ends of the spectrum of spirituality. The Wife of Bath stretches scripture to defend her absurd number of husbands, and Julian and Margery completely abstain from human pleasures in pursuit of Kingdom pleasures. Accordingly, the Wife of Bath’s human existence is very sexualized, and for Julian and Margery their suppressed sexuality spills into their experiences with God.