Julian of Norwich (born 1343) and Margery Kempe of Lynn (born 1373) are the two earliest women writers in English whose names we know. They lived thirty years and thirty miles apart, met only once over a period of some days, and wrote long, completely different books, both inspired by what they understood as visionary encounters with the divine. Julian was a Christian intellectual, a brilliant writer, intensely visual but also abstract, who spent a lifetime writing and rewriting an intricate and optimistic analysis of how to live as an aspiring and suffering human being in the world that many people around the world still live by. Margery (she did not much like her husband’s name) was a religious experimentalist, devout globe-trotter and performance artist, equally brilliant, whose energies seemed to have gone into living more than writing, but who in old age dictated then revised what many understand as the first English autobiography. After being mostly ignored for several hundred years, they are now being read with care, although by different readerships and in different ways. It is time they were brought together again.

In this discussion-based course, we read the versions of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love and The Book of Margery Kempe closely alongside one another, as well as in the light of passages from other women writers who drew, or may have drawn, inspiration from visions, revelations, and dreams, from the early Christian martyr Perpetua of Carthage in the third century CE to the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth. We consider how it was that revelations were able to make an innovative, demanding and prestigious mode of thought and writing possible for women who were excluded by their gender from the formal education available to male contemporaries. We think about what revelations are, how they function as an embodied, kinetic, and dialogic mode of consciousness, and the stylistic and intellectual experimentation this mode of consciousness enables. We speculate on potential connections between the visionary and other non-natural ways of seeing the world, such as through the thing we call “fiction,” this last with the help of a novel by Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood, where Julian makes a brief appearance. Finally, we consider the excruciating difficulty of being and writing as a visionary and the cultural and psychic pressures the role of visionary involved and involves. Although the main setting of the course is the world of Julian and Margery, we do not forget that we are reading them in the now.