Jenifer Sutherland


SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship 2002-2003

Supervisor: Nicholas Watson, Professor of English, Harvard University

Working Title: Absent God, Present Self: rewriting God’s Word in late medieval England

This project on late medieval narrative and subject construction comes out of my thesis dissertation "The Inexpressible Self: Biblical Autobiography in the Poetry of Walter of Wimborne and The Book of Margery Kempe." Having closely analyzed Walter's satirical and devotional poetry in the dissertation, I will focus on those passages of his meditation on the Passion that link him with the vernacular writers of late medieval England, particularly those who, like Walter, demand a demonstration of God’s presence. Writing in Anglo-Latin, a schoolteacher in the classical mode, Walter responds to the transforming vision of the Fourth Lateran Council’s canons on education and confession. His encounter with the Franciscans introduces him to the traditions of Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, shifting his vocabulary from satire to contemplation. Never fully relinquishing his satirical perspective, however, Walter insists on inscribing the devotional narrative with a rhetoric of resistence to eternity in favour of present satisfaction. In this, he anticipates some of the later developments of English writers such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

Walter of Wimborne resists the narratives of the Annunciation and Crucifixion with which he so eagerly engages in his poetry. Like Anselm who laments not having been present at the Passion, Walter complains that he has been born at the wrong time. But instead of offering his tears and asking to be fed with grief in the "meanwhile" of life, he proceeds to rewrite the scene in the present to his own personal satisfaction, inhabiting the story of Christ’s birth and death in an increasingly active way. He interrogates the narrative sequence and rails against its outcome, claiming it as his own and refusing the task of transcending temporality. However, although he summons all his rhetorical and narrative techniques in an effort to force the material to speak directly to him, he is frustrated at every turn. In the face of this repeated revelation of absence, the devices of invention and digression, a plenitude of words, imitate the plenitude of presence.

Walter’s passionate engagement with God’s absence erupts in a story of multiplying whips wielded by the Virgin Mother, the Father, Satan, the Jew. These punishing whips set Walter at the centre of a narrative of persecution, the narrative of an active and demanding God. Denied the healing touch of both Mother and Father, he rages against the abandonment of the body—the Mother’s, the Son’s and his own. Walter is unlike any medieval writer before or after him in his particular blend of rhetorics. Yet he is also representative in his fully, if unintentionally, articulated doubt and distress, his disappointment and resentment of a Christian plot line whose happy ending lies outside time and the coherence of bodily experience. God’s presence is felt through the suffering of the body (Elaine Scarry) which is also a sign of God’s absence. By examining the narrative strategies Walter uses to pick at this knot, and their divergence from the rich tradition of Passion meditations of the late Middle Ages, I will develop a set of tools for the analysis of three medieval vernacular writers whose books, I will argue, are attempts to resist the closure of the Christian narrative in order to construct present living selves at the place of the crucifixion.

Julian of Norwich’s Showings begin with an expressed desire to be among the company of Christ’s lovers: "and therefore I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily peynes of our Saviour, and of the compassion of our lady and of all His trew lovers that seene that time His peynes, for I would be one of them and suffer with Him." Suffering is aligned with presence; lovers are fellow sufferers. But Julian keeps the nature and meaning of that suffering open to not just interpretation, but negotiation. Walter’s techniques of resistance to narrative closure reveal a pattern of self-assertion that can be seen in Julian’s writing as well. As she wrestles with the silence of God on the subject of sin, for example, she engages in a process of invention and digression that delays the inevitable requirement of temporal transcendence. Julian’s long version of her Showings is stripped of personal detail, a devotional work meant to move others to a universal vision of Jesus as Mother. But viewed through Walter’s poetry, it is less a work of theology than of resistance to theology, a passionate refusal to experience God’s Word second hand.

Margery Kempe begins her Book with the circumstances of her conversion. Childbirth, bringing her to the point of death, delivers her instead into an alternate universe where the force of life is a diabolical demonstration of God’s absence. Christ’s subsequent bedside visitation draws her into a new framework, replacing the confessor’s demand for a confession of sin with a confession of love. As Christ ascends into heaven, Margery fixes her gaze on his vanishing feet. Her Book reports her consequent efforts to construct a present time for herself in the multiple spaces of Christ’s absence. Preaching and arguing, weeping and searching for the body of Christ in the form of men and male children, Margery stirs up responses that are her version of Walter’s rhetorical invention and digression. Throughout, it is persecution that serves the demands of a present God. The subject that emerges in this work is one that confronts the silence of the eternal Word and, through the mediation of tears, draws it into the language of temporal experience.

Finally, I will turn to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s great tragic poem is about betrayal and the inability of language to control either history or female desire. Behind this theme is the guilt-ridden anguish of the poet of romance, an idolator who substitutes human for divine love. Chaucer’s narrator struggles to resist Criseyde’s betrayal while Pandarus assumes of the role of providence as he conspires to supply Troilus with the object of his desire instead of permitting him to suffer her absence. Troilus and Crisyede is a work of devotional resistence: caught up in the structures of erotic rather than divine love, in romance rather than devotion, Criseyde becomes a figure of God’s absence around which first Pandarus, then the narrator, and finally the poet, can construct human agency within the flow of history. Like Walter of Wimborne, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe rewriting the crucifixion and Christ’s Passion, Chaucer rewrites Troilus’s tragedy as a narrative of resistence to the requirement of both classical and Christian historical narrative for transcendence.

In order to explore the way these four writers respond to suffering as a sign of God’s absent presence, I will look at Augustine’s account, in Book One of Confessions, of punishment in the classroom. Pedagogically unsound, according to Augustine, nevertheless the beatings of the child by the grammar master are essential to his learning the distinction between language as a tool for seeking God and as a substitute for God. The child’s suffering in the acquisition of letters restrains the flow (fluxum) of his free curiosity (libera curiositas) and associates him with the martyrs who suffer for God’s laws ("sed illius fluxum haec restringit legibus tuis, deus, legibus tuis a magistrorum ferulis usque ad tempationes martyrum, valentibus legibus tuis miscere salubres amaritudines revocantes nos ad te a iucunditate pestifera, qua recessimus a te": Conf. I.14). The relationship between punishment and the flux of free curiosity will be an important focus of my analysis of these late medieval writers.


Marie Carmina I Original Latin I Postdoc

Marie Carmina

These stanzas are translated from selected stanzas of "Marie Carmina." The Latin is in A.G. Rigg, ed. The Poems of Walter of Wimborne. Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 1978, pp. 188-277. Latin for the stanzas is given at the end of the translation. (The numbers are linked to the Latin.)

1. The poet proposes to turn his rude skills to the composition of a poem in praise of Mary, whom he addresses. After a lengthy Inexpressibility topos, he drops his pen for fear of his task. But when Mary replaces the pen in his hand, trembling, he begins to take her dictation.

Pausing for a moment, I raise my trembling eyes
To where the sacred belly of the Virgin lies;
I see the swelling, but no navel can devise
and I wonder what source feeds the sealed vessel’s rise (9).

Rising, I circle round the waist’s purse bulging,
desiring to know how the vessel is holding
the sacred weight without compromising
either covering or seal, or fastening (10).

Wondering, again wondering at this miracle,
I discover a confessional, or cubicle
and finally, see something softly spherical
and hiding deep within, the deer celestial (11).

I walk, turning around the belly’s little mound,
scarcely aware of the perfume rising around;
so breaking forth my tears and moans abound
and seeking the Virgin’s foot again I sink down (12).

Mary, you speak, for rivers of honey rushing
down from your lips are sweetly trickling
and with such a surging springs of milk are gushing
that in a sweet milky flood the world is drowning (13).

By this honey the lord is drawn down from heaven;
with this honey suckle to the father’s son is given;
once sent, to the honey right away he’s taken,
a kiss of honey from the honey to awaken (14).

2 . The poet contemplates the miracle of the Annunciation and Concepetion in a series of metaphors. The Virgin is the Burning Bush, an oven in which the bread of Christ is baked, and a cask of wine that all Christians thirst for. The anti-Jewish sentiment of the following passage is an essential part of Walter’s devotion to the Virgin.

Her belly’s cask Maria has consecrated;
mortals, angels and shades be inebriated;
let the poor man along with the rich be invited,
to drain wine from that cask until he is sated (132).

The angelic throng from the belly’s cask tipples,
drunk from it too are all the catholic peoples;
alone in despising it are Jewish pit-bulls—
excellent wine! they are oenephobic cripples (133).

To see the tavern close is excruciating;
so damn close and yet so far my hand is shaking;
I’m nowhere near paying what it costs for slaking
thirst with the likes of the wine the Virgin’s making (134).

Desperate now, I’m within sight of Mary’s store;
I open gaping wide my throat, so dry it’s sore;
gasping internally I pound the tavern door—
one little drinkypoo or a teensy trickle more! (135)

3 . Walter continues this alcoholic rant for some thirty stanzas before shifting to a comparison of Noah’s flood and the new flood of grace. Eventually, having exhausted this meditation he laments having been born too late to witness the birth of Christ and settles on a narrative solution.

That God turns back the time to those early days, let’s say.
What should I do now? Right straight, without delay
To visit the shores of Judea I’m on my way--
here the anchor of my little boat is fixed to stay (216).

4 . The Magi come and go but the Walter prefers to stay with the infant and mother.

Let others go home to their countries, I will stay,
our little boy in his cradle gently to sway;
those who wish let them leave; I will not go away
but will cling to the cradle by night and by day (221).

The tiny babe sits in his mother’s lap secure
and now with moistened lips a kiss he offers her,
a dewy kiss sweetened with intimate mixture
of saliva sprinkling its sweet melting moisture (223).

The infant’s tiny body Mary is turning,
now the cheeks, the mouth, now the tiny neck kissing,
the hand, tiny arm, chest and back of the princeling,
the thigh, tiny leg, foot and knee of the kingling (229).

5 . When Herod begins to slaughter baby boys, Walter offers to help the Holy Family escape to Egypt.

I will if you command go down on all fours as
your donkey; roll up the child’s clothing and we’ll pass
on our way, flying by night without a witness
so that the wicked enemy has no notice (235).

I am the donkey, so onto me now transfers
the Virgin’s small weight and the little one that’s hers;
if the brute should falter, then, Virgin, he deserves
that you goad with your heels, give him your bloodied spurs (238).

Should the beast falter and under the sweet weight trip
it’s up to you to lash him, to prick and to grip
with the spurs; should he kick, unwilling to gallop
then punish the wretched little ass with your whip (239).

I am your ass, for whatever reason, freely
you may kill me, I’m your beast and property;
if when he’s meant to run the ass walks unwillingly
why not plunge the spur into its side instantly? (240)

With your sweet right hand, if the beast goes slow
snatch up the whip; you’re the mistress, with thick strokes show
the wretched creature, till with bloody sides he knows
your sacred heels, and then again repeat the blows (241).

6 . As Christ grows from baby to adolescent, Walter treats him with some ambivalence. On Passover, when the Son lags behind in Jerusalem thereby causing his mother anguish, Walter acts as an advocate for his Mother in the Court of Mercy.

On behalf of My Lady, Lord, I make my plea:
Let the judge of mercy and piety decree
Whether, free of the slightest criminality,
A woman should endure such pain and cruelty (287).

The witness trembling at the stand with anxious eyes
is mother of a thousand tears, a thousand sighs;
and if I add a hundred thousand groaning cries,
see the crowd of people, a family uprise
! (292)

7. Walter wins his case and the Son returns to his Mother after an absence of three days, submitting to her in obedience. This moves the poet into a long digression on Vanity, including the vanity of science.

I don’t want to make a speech about the stars at all,
or set forth any topic that’s celestial,
I wish to play instead with the smallest of the small
and seek what to the tiny gnat is natural (392).

The gnat with its sting first makes its incision,
drawing waves of blood into its inner region;
you’ve got two days to find out what constriction,
what little pipe or fissure gives the gnat suction (393).

Into its guts the gnat sucking delicately
draws thick blood; you from whom highest reality
cannot be hidden, nor deepest profundity,
unfold the ways lead by this fragile entity (394).

You know the source that causes the earthquake’s motion,
and the ebb and flow of the waves of the ocean,
what’s engendered by the mineral concoction;
look how easily stumped you are by my question (395).

You who blabber on, your empty words so risible
about heaven’s spheres and stars inummerable;
tell me, I ask you, how with barely visible
conduits the gnat can make blood drinkable (396).

8. The Vanity digression comes to a close as the forces of night prepare to attack the Light. Walter wonders where Christ’s supporters are now that he is in need, and laments that the wrath God visited upon His enemies in the Old Testament is not visited on the enemies of Christ.

Why not pay the Jewish wickedness a visit?
Why not smash them to pieces, bare your teeth a bit
that such barbarity might plunge into the pit
and the Styx swallow up the ruined aggregate? (488)

9. Where are the floods, the winds, lightening and hail? Where are the earthquakes and the plagues of Egypt?

The army of Christ turns tail on its assurance
and when the four elements, who owe allegiance,
it’s said, to Christ first, deny him their assistance,
the leader goes to battle with no alliance (531).

The soldier is terrified and gives way to the thug;
at least, let the flea come to give Christ some plug,
the locust and stinging wasp and whatever bug
helped to loosen the grip of the Egyptian hug (532).

10 . Walter cannot stand by and see Christ abandoned. He vents his rage on the carpenter who made the cross.

Tormented by my zeal’s impetuosity
I rush on the man with too much velocity
and with his own hatchet for his atrocity
dispatch him swiftly to the Stygian nethercity (536).

To the worker, too, of the hatchet’s artifice
by which the cross I see was made an edifice,
inflamed, hacking his neck in two, I dismiss
both vipers, handing them down to the black abyss (537).

Cursed likewise the earth which gave the iron
that poured out streams of such pestiferous poison
from which the lethal material was drawn
by him who made the hatchet making carrion (540).

Why did the earth throw up this deadly fever?
Why did it open up a view of foul things? Why offer
no grave to the diggers but instead proffer
poison that best lies within earth’s deepest coffer?(541)

11 . Once again, as he imagines the forces of darkness as a drunken mob, humiliating and tormenting Christ, Walter rages against the Jewish race.

The race of Jews Jesus was specially content
to choose that they receive from him sweet nutriment
as from his nurse a son; look how vile their intent
now to destroy the one who gave them nourishment! (580)

12. The inevitable moment arrives as Christ is nailed to the cross.

Perfidious Jews, take Mary with the other,
and, with welcome execution, kill the mother;
into them both, I beg, pound the nails yet further
and both Son and Mother crucify together (595).

On one single cross let the mother and son
rejoice, embracing each other in unison,
let the fluids of the dear friends’ blood mingled run,
let the dead stiffen into a single junction (597).

13. Even Satan would have pity on the Mother in anguish and grant her a place on the cross with her Son. Walter calls on the Father to save his Son and then on Jesus to punish his enemies. But Walter must submit to the narrative.

Wholeness languishes and life gives up the fight,
profound clarity turns into murky night,
extinguished is the inextinguishable light;
Not Isaac but the highest crown concedes its height.
Walter turns his thoughts to his own death (637).

O gate of heaven, open what’s been locked away,
and when your servant’s dressed in funeral array,
grant him be your footstool so that your feet you may,
one on his mouth, the other on his forehead lay (639).

14 . He dedicates the poem to "pueris," the boys, or simply boys, and asks for their prayers.

This work I offer to the boys to read;
may their prayers commend me in my final peace
to the boy child late from the tender womb released,
born from the father’s womb before the dawning’s east (643).

Here ignorance makes an end to the paper scrap;
here confusion of the senses makes a gap;
around you, heavenly lady, all glory wrap;
around you, lady, uncharted praises map (644).


Marie Carmina I Original Latin I Postdoc



1. Cum pausam facio, trementem oculum/ad sacrum uirginis levo ventriculum;/tumorem uideo sed nullum neuulum (literally "flaw");/mirror quo tumeat intactum uasculum.//Surgens circueo uentralem sacculum/nosse desiderans quale pondusculum/uas sacrum teneat, quod nec operculum/nec seram perdidit neque signaculum.//Miror et iterum miror miraculum;/lustrum inuenio siue cubiculum,/tandem inspiciens unum molliculum/et intus celicum latentem hinnulum.//Giro perambulo uenteris monticulum/uix fere senciens dulcem odorculum;/prorumpens igitur in luctum querulum/descendo uirginis reuisens pedulum (MC 9-12). <<return to verses>>

2. Maria, loquere nam tua labia/torrentes mellios sunt distillancia/tantoque gurgite lac resudancia/quod mundus mergitur in lactis copia.//Hoc melle dominus de celo trahitur;/hoc melle filius patris allicitur;/statim ad melculum missus dirigitur/et mellis osculum a melle petitur (MC 13-14). <<return to verses>>

3. Maria dolium uentris iniciat,/mortales, celicos et manes debriat;/pauper cum diuite secure ueniat,/de uentris dolio quantum uult hauriat.//De uentris dolio potantur celici,/potantur etiam omnes catholici;/hoc uinam nobile Judei canici/soli despiciunt, sunt enim rustici.//Ue michi misero! Tavernam uideo/et uentris dolium, sed tamen doleo;/non enim precium condignum habeo/quo frui merear uino uirgineo.//Marie dolium dolens aspicio,/hiulcans aridas fauces aperio;/cauponam intimo pulso suspirio/ut fruar uinuli uel stillicidio (MC 132-35). <<return to verses>>

4 Illi repatrient, ego remaneo/ et nostrum paruulum in cunis cilleo;/ qui uolunt, abeant; ego non abeo,/sed cunis perdius pernox adhereo (MC 220).
. . .ego remaneo uisurus ubera/que profert paruulo uirgo puerpera.//Sedet infantulus in matris gremio/ et offert osculum humecto labio,/ quod quidem osculum indulcat mixtio/ saliue tenuis et deguttacio.// Maria paruuli girat corpusculum,/ nunc genas osculans, nunc os, nunc collulum,/ manus, brachiola, pectus, dorsiolum,/ latus et crustula, pedem, geniculum (MC 221, 223, 229). Rigg glosses "crustula" as the diminutive of "crus." It can also be a little pastry. To give the effect of the Latin diminutives, and to save the rhyme scheme, I have introduced "princeling" and "kingling" into the translation of Stanza 229, since "backling" and "kneeling" would only confuse. <<return to verses>>

5. The Latin reads, "Volo, si iubeas, asellum sternere" which means, to make the donkey bend down for loading. But since in the next stanzas Walter becomes the donkey, it makes sense to make "sternere" reflexive.
Uolo, si iubeas, asellum sternere/et paucos pueri pannos conuoluere,/et caute uolumus de nocte fugere,/ne possit impius hostis aduertere.//Ego sum asinus; michi sarcinula/debetur uirginis cum prole paruula;/si pecus cespitat, tu uirgo uirgula/cede calcaribus, cruenta stimula.//Si pecus cespitat dulci sub onere/tuum est cedere, tuum est pungere;/si forte calcitret nolens procedere,/castiga miserum asellum uerbere.//Tuus sum asinus, ergo me libere/ut pecus proprium potes occidere;/si non uult asinus ut placet currere,/cur non uis lateri ferrum immergere?//Si pecus lentum est, dulci tu dextera/flagellum arripe crebroque uerbera/miscellam bestiam, cruenta latera/sacratis calcibus, et ictus itera (MC 235, 238-41). <<return to verses>>

6. Appello, domine, pro mea domina:/decernat pietas si debet femina/quam nulla faciunt ream peccamina/tot mala perpeti, tot cruciamina.//Testis que titubat est mater anxia/milleque lacrime, mille suspiria;/addo gemituum centena milia;/en quantus populus, quanta familia! (MC 287, 292). <<return to verses>>

7. Nolo de sidere sermonem facere/nec de celestibus quicquam obicere,/sed uolo paruulus in paruis ludere,/et parui culicis naturam querere.//Culex aculeo forat articulam,/in se trahiciens cruoris undulam;/queso, perhendie dic per quam canulam/uel per quam rimulam uel per quam fistulam?//Cruorem turbidum culex in uiscera/sugendo trahicit; tu quem nec supera/latere poterunt, immo nec infera,/subtilis explica ductus itinera.//Scis unde prodeat terrarum mocio,/ fluctus equorei reciprocacio, /que mineralia gignat decoctio,/et ecce facilis artat te questio!//Tu qui deblateras uerbis inanibus/de celi circulis et de sideribus,/dic, queso, quomodo uix uisibilibus/cruorem attrahit culex canalibus (MC 392-96). <<return to verses>>

8. Cur non Judaicum scelus increpitas?/Quare non dissilis, quare non oscitas/ut petat baratrum tanta crudelitas/et Stix excipiat cateruas perditas?(MC 488).
In fugam uertitur Christi milicia/et mundi quatuor dicta principia/que debent denegant Christo suffragia,/et dux soliuagus uadit ad prelia.//Formidant milites et cedunt furie,/saltem subueniant Christo cinomie,/brucus et ciniphes et musce uarie,/que terre fuerant onus Egipcie (MC 531-32). <<return to verses>>

9. Cum zeli crucior impaciencia,/in carpentarium ruo ui nimia,/cesumque miserum securi propria/mitto celeriter ad regna Stigia.//Fabro similiter qui securiculam/fecit, qua fieri cerno cruciculam,/accensus animo cedo ceruiculam,/utramque baratro tradens aspidulam (MC 536-37). <<return to verses>>

10. Ue terre pariter, que ferrum dederat/que tam pestiferum uirus effuderat/de qua materiam letalem sumpserat/is qui letiferam securim fecerat!//Cur terra noxium uirus euomuit?/Cur fodientibus hiando paruit?/Cur non fossoribus sepulcrum prebuit?/Cur non profundius hoc uirus posuit? (MC 540-41). <<return to verses>>

11. Genus Judaicum peculialiter/Jhesus elegerat et fouit dulciter/ut nutrix filium, et ecce qualiter/suum nutricium occidit uiliter! (MC 580). <<return to verses>>

12. Judei perfidi, Mariam prendite,/cum dulci pignore matrem occidite,/eisdem, obsecro, clauis confodite/matrem et filium et crucifigite.//Mater et filius eandem habeant/crucem ut mutuo complexu gaudeant;/amici sanguinis liquores misceant,/in uno stipite defuncti rigeant (MC 595, 597). <<return to verses>>

13. Languiscit sanitas et uita moritur,/profunda claritas in noctem vertitur,/inextinguibile lumen extinguitur;/non tamen Ysaac sed uertex ceditur.//O celi ianua, tu celum aperi/tuumque famulum cum datur funeri/fac tuis pedibus scabellum fieri,/os uni subice, frons detur alteri (MC 636, 639). <<return to verses>>

14. Hoc opus pueris legendum offero;/illi me precibus commendent puero/qui sero prodiit de uentre tenero/ante luciferum de patris utero.//Hic finem cartule facit inscicia,/hic metam uendicat sensus aporia;/sit tibi, domina celorum, gloria,/sit tibi, domina, laus mete nescia. Amen (MC 643-44). <<return to verses>>


Marie Carmina I Original Latin I Postdoc