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Newly Accessible Medieval Worlds

Pilgrims
By Matthew Kneale
Atlantic Books, 352 pages, $15.95

Revelations
By Mary Sharratt
Mariner Books, 320 pages, $16.99

Not so very long ago, you couldn’t get scholars, or novelists for that matter, to touch the late Middle Ages. In the language of Barbara Tuchman’s ubiquitous 1978 monograph on the 14th century, the Middle Ages were “calamitous”: plague-ridden, depressing, religious, the end of an era. Why go there when the glowing scientific advances of the Renaissance beckon from just around the corner?

To be sure, the religious and political landscape of late medieval Europe had more than its fair share of darkness, but it was also a time of immense structural changes that underlay the religious and political transformations of the 16th century. Urbanization in London and East Anglia intimately connected England with the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy; war forged dynastic connections between England and France, Spain and Portugal, and even with Czech Bohemia.

A courtier like Chaucer, as Marion Turner’s new biography attests, really got around, as did many of the pilgrims he wrote about, such as his indomitable Wife of Bath, who traveled as far as Jerusalem. This era also witnessed a concomitant explosion of writing in the vernacular — in middle English, in middle Dutch, in various German dialects, in French — by ordinary people. The vast majority of this is religious and devotional in character, but incorporates along the way a wealth of detail, much of it previously inaccessible to historians, about the nature and rhythms of ordinary life. For the novelist, the lilt of middle English is just different enough to our ears to be exotic, just similar enough emotionally to land.

The late Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, beginning with Wolf Hall in 2009, arguably reignited our interest in historical fiction as a genre; not least, the blockbuster success of Hamnet, by veteran novelist Maggie O’Farrell, ensures more books in the genre will find a market, perhaps, than in times past. On the heels of a pandemic during which comparisons with the Black Death were ubiquitous, and in the midst of the climate crisis, we are perhaps more in a mood to identify with the anxieties of the late medieval world than ever before. The vivid, slightly shambolic nature of late medieval religion likewise offers an appealing, inclusive alternative to our grimly polarized society. In particular, pilgrimage in all its forms retains its seemingly universal appeal for the spiritual but not religious, as well as offering to the novelist bountiful opportunities for sly social observation.

Matthew Kneale’s Pilgrims goes full, broad Chaucer, following a ragtag group who have, for various and not entirely religious motivations, found themselves on pilgrimage to Rome. Each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view, from the beggar boy haunted by visions of his cat in purgatory all the way up the social scale to the formidable young noblewoman who has sued her way to financial independence via several terrible lovers but cannot manage to get a divorce from her first husband.

Significantly, however, the prologue begins the story with the violent backlash against the Jews that accompanied Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against King Edward in the 1260s, described in terms of claustrophobic intimacy. Insider or outsider, in this story you cannot escape your neighbors. While it is publicized as a comic novel, I found Pilgrims more poignant than funny, very definitely a story in which we are all in the same boat together.

Though it is almost a century too soon, one of Kneale’s characters, Matilda Froome, bears a marked resemblance to perhaps the best known of all late medieval pilgrims, the Norwich housewife, Margery Kempe. Point for point, Kneale includes all the potent components of Margery’s life, recounted in what is sometimes called the first autobiography in English, the medieval equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses: brewing, repeated childbirth, visions and conversion, constant weeping, pilgrimage to Rome (alienating all her fellow pilgrims along the way), probable mental illness, and her quirk of referring to herself as “your creature.”

In Revelations, Mary Sharratt makes a much more serious and comprehensive effort to fill out the details of Margery’s remarkable life. From the beginning, Sharratt draws out one of the most familiar encounters in all late medieval English literature: the moment, in The Book of Margery Kempe, in which Margery pays a call on the anchorite Julian of Norwich, the author of Revelations of Divine Love.

As a student of mine once remarked, if their writing styles are anything to go by, the meeting must have resembled a terrier trying to play with a Great Dane; for better or worse, Margery never had a scrap of Dame Julian’s poise. In Sharratt’s interpretation, however, Margery’s life, following that encounter, represents a kind of special embassy, even ordination “consecrated by Julian, secretly carrying her book out into the great world.”

For Kneale’s pilgrims, the pilgrimage is the excuse for life to happen along the way; Sharratt is much more interested in the particular religious moment in which Margery found herself — specifically, in the drama between Margery’s efforts to preach and proclaim her visions and her complicated relationship with religious authority. Sharratt invents, dramatically but not improbably, Margery’s arrest and trial at York Minster for Lollard heresy.

The followers of John Wycliffe, colloquially “Lollards,” are often referred to as pre- or proto-reformers by later historians. They represent, however, many of the most broadly shared concerns of devout medieval laypeople, including their critique of the clergy, that Jan Hus and Martin Luther would later refashion in new forms.

Sharratt’s instinct is to connect Margery, not only to the Lollards but also to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and to the beguines, devout laywomen from the Low Countries. In Sharratt’s hands, Margery becomes the emissary and apostle of these groups, while, unlike Kneale, she downplays the absurd, tragicomic aspects of The Book of Margery Kempe. Both novels demonstrate, however, the ebullient life to be encountered in the worlds of the late Middle Ages.

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