PERFORMING THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE STRUGGLE WITH THE DEVIL.

THE "THEATRICALITY" OF MEDIEVAL MYSTICAL CULTURE




Liliana Sikorska




The dramatic quality of medieval mystical culture can be observed through its two aspects, i.e. the performed love of God and the struggle with the devil. On the one hand, we encounter various forms of affective piety which influence, for example, Angela of Foligno's (c. 1249~1309) moment of true conversion and Margery Kempe's (1373~after 1438) dramatization of nativity and passion. On the other hand, all saintly women of the time report both an internal and external battles with various forms of temptation and evil. Catherine of Sienna (1347~1380) is literally beaten by the devil. Margery Kempe has inordinate sexual and erotic visions of (having sex with) all the young clerics in the church (it is she who throughout her saintly life has to struggle with her sexuality). Julian of Norwich (1342~1416) is tempted and tormented by the devil. The emergence of more individuated religious practices in late medieval culture, which shifted the emphasis from exterior penance to interior penitence, did not diminish the performative nature of the public penitential practices. Most mystics perform their own version of psychomachia. They dramatize the struggle with the devil not only in spiritual but primarily in physical terms enhancing, as is the case of Mechthild of Magdeburg (1217~1282), the internal struggle between vices and virtues. Several attempts have been made to place mystical culture in the performance context so as to grasp the significance of popular devotion in late medieval Europe. Gail McMurray Gibson sees Margery Kempe's "performances" as "devotional theater" revising the meaning of affective piety. This paper is concerned with the revision of the concept of psychomachia, the didactic theater in the context of medieval penitential tradition, which is the key for understanding not only affective piety but also medieval mystical self-fashioning within the "theatricality" of penitential ethos.

To discuss theatricality, one should begin with the reconsideration of established models (Gail McMurray Gibson [1989]or Julia Boffey [1997]) which understood mystical "theatricality" as based on personal re-playing of scenes from biblical plays and more precisely, the Nativity scenes or the Passion scenes by female mystics. The core of the dramatization of mystical culture, however, can also be seen as individual psychomachia. In a way, psychomachia provides the thematic structure of the texts and corroborates what has been defined by James J. Paxton as the performance of Middle English culture and comprises "... the lavish public spectacles that occasioned every religious feast or civic observance" (1998: 1). Through the acceptance of the existence of the devil both as a character in popular imagination as well as a theological concept written into the story of fall and redemption, the Passion and the Last Judgment, medieval mystics enact the battles with tempter and temptations. Hence, what I see as theatricality is the progressive dramatization of struggle with the devil, the world and the body; mans three major adversaries but religious women's mortal enemies.

Our idea of "theatricality" of late medieval culture to a great extent comes from Huizinga's notions of excess. For Huizinga, colors and joyful occasions intermingled with death and decay marked by the outbursts of the plague; likewise processional character of state occasions, in which kings and convicts received similar kind of public interest. Whether or not one endorses Huizinga's point of view, the plethora of details gives the spectators unadulterated pleasure of watching a spectacle. The ars moriendi so frequently spoken of in the moralities and interludes, on the scaffold, is turned into an extremely real performance. The processional character of the execution itself reminds one of the pageants used for the presentation of the mystery plays with the entire town functioning as the stage.

Religious drama played an increasingly pivotal role in the fifteenth century. One also cannot fail to notice the mutual interpenetration of narrative/cultural aspects of literature and drama. The dramatic elements in poetry and prose to celebrate the cultural climate of the late medieval world. The fifteenth century was marked by an increase in dramatic lyrics (such as the Marian Laments). Rosemary Woolf complains that affective piety heightened every emotion to the point of hysteria, and noted that every gesture was made dramatically compelling (Woolf 1998: 8). Yet, the dramatic influence was not entirely negative; Woolf speculates that the fifteenth century growth of lyrics on the Nativity "was stimulated by the mystery plays in which the Nativity became detached from its liturgical season, and in which the relevant human sentiments were thoroughly explored" (1998: 148). What Woolf takes as the expression of hysteria, Duffy (1992) sees as the spirit of late medieval (primarily lay) society having a "voracious appetite" for religious literature, thus connecting the religious with the secular.

Mystical treatises of lay women turning religious (such as Angela of Foligno, Dorothea of Montau [1347~1394], or Margery Kempe) satisfy such appetite, being an utmost expression of performative and ritualistic self-fashioning according to the guidelines of public penance. Erwin Goffman (1959), an eminent sociologist, perceives social life as drama, during which the expressiveness of an individual can be seen as performance. Goffman uses the term "performance" to refer to all the activities of an individual that occur during a period marked by her/his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and that have some influence on the said observers/audience (1959: 22). Performativity of the self within a given culture is then a universal trait which could be discerned both in medieval society as well as in the societies of today. When an individual presents himself/herself before others, his/her performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify the officially accredited values of society. This is certainly the case of the behavior of the mystics, especially those whose religious career crowns their earlier life as wives and mothers. "Performers" can be truly engaged in their acts as they accommodate the imagery and rituals ever present in social interaction of the time. Seeing social life as ritualistic (Goffman 1997: 109-127) necessarily involves the acknowledgement of conventionalized behavior in social interaction, this takes us back to the theatricality of medieval social life. The emotionalism and self-inflicted suffering in mystical lives are concepts used to emulate the life of Christ and endorse the metaphorical absorption into his body. The didactic content of the struggles with the devil serves to uphold the ideological background reminding the readers (audience) of what is right and what is wrong, while at the same time, the penitent embraces both the social and the symbolic aspects of penance.

Nicholas Love's Mirrour of the blessyd lyf of Jesu Christ mixes the two categories, symbolic and social, which is symptomatic of what is going on within the entire medieval culture. Franciscan theology was particularly insistent on the identification of the self with the suffering Christ. In mystical culture the performance of suffering and bliss are thus, both dramatizations closely connected with theater as well as the propagated affective piety. A mystic is himself or herself but simultaneously s/he is projecting the kind of idealized personality (saint) s/he wishes to be. Margery Kempe is certainly a good example of that. She presents herself as the universal ideal of a saint. And as Gail Mc Murray Gibson notices: "If martyrdom by sword was not available to qualify her for sainthood, martyrdom by slander was, and Margery's Book seems quite conscious of the validating implications of such suffering" (McMurray Gibson 1989: 47). The same is true for Angela of Foligno, whose Memorial is Margery Kempe's implied model. At the time of her conversion Angela still lived with her husband and as she writes: "it was bitter for me to put up with all the slanders and injustices leveled against me" (p.126).

The moment of Angela's radical conversion is related by her scribe who noted that when she came to the church of St. Francis in Assisi, she screamed greatly while sitting at the entrance to the portals (p.136). Angela confounded everybody and was consequently suspected of acting under the influence of evil spirits. In her Memorial, Angela strongly advocates that in order to transform oneself into God's love, one has to imitate the works of the passionate God-man in whom God's will is manifested. Although this was supposedly not done publicly (hence the lack of the audience), she quite consciously begins her path to saintliness from re-fashioning herself as if she were a character on stage, thus re-formulating her own stance in the world. When Angela, attempted to endure purification through suffering, battling worldly temptations she got rid of most of her earthly possessions to become metaphorically "naked in the world" and yielded herself to Christ. Rejecting the world one enters contemplative life; rejecting her former self Angela becomes God's bride. "Angelas story is certainly dramatic, it is one of love―unhappy, doubting, despairing, liberated and superaboundantly blessed" (Lachance 1990: 25).

One of the most theatrical accounts among mystical literature is the thirteenth century Mechthild of Magdeburg's Flowing Light of Godhead, with two very dramatic and most striking depictions of the devil. When the devil comes pretending to be an angel of light, who brings her a radiant book as a kiss of peace, she recognizes the trick. One finds two important aspects of medieval diabology in this account; the first one is that Lucifer is shown in bright light, as he was the angel of light highest in the ranks of angels before his fall (this is what we see in Chester's "The Fall of Lucifer"); the second aspect brings out the medieval idea that the devil frequently plays tricks on human beings assuming other material forms. In Wisdom he plays "wordly gallant", in Mankind he is more of a trickster. In Mechthild's relation the devil returns as a sickly wretch begging her to heal him. What follows is a stichomythic exchange focusing on the word "sick". In the true spirit of psychomachia she then meets two devils which are a counterweight to the two guardian angels (Book IV, 139-144). Her account ends the battle against fleshly desires. Mechthild's temptation draws on biblical sources, still, as Tobin demonstrates "[t]his material then merged with pagan ideas already present in the popular imagination. When the devil appears as an angel of light and disappears in the cloud of black smoke after offering a final obscene gesture, she is relying on popular tradition" (Tobin 2000:12).

The second devil, her major tempter, who interrupts her prayers (Book V 209-210) is reminiscent of a frequent motif usually related to the sin of sloth stimulated by the devil who comes and has a disruptive influence on a Christian. Mechthild's dialogues with the devil echo the early mystery drama with the clear Harrowing of Hell motif, this for Tobin is the sign that she might have been influenced by the performances themselves (Tobin 2000: 14-15). The antichrist motif, the child born of human parents with the devil entering mothers womb is connected with Ludus de Antichristo and was probably written by a monk at the monastery at Tegernsee (Bavaria) between 1178-1186 with which Mechthild might have been familiar. The text together with Adso's commentary expands our understanding of the devil's influence upon the world. In a way, this reverberates the Augustinian schema in which the unity of the soul is disrupted by the soul/body split. Mechthild sees the devil "the other", the extreme outward experience of fleshliness and worldliness.

Julian of Norwich represents theologically the most sophisticated discussion on the devil. When she sees "the fende sett [hym] in my throte, puttyng forth a visage fulle nere my face lyke a yonge man, and it was longe and wonder leen. I saw nevyr none such; the coloure was reed, lyke the tylle stone whan it is new brent, with blacke spottes there in lyke frakylles, fouler than th-e tyle stone" (LT, p. 635). She goes to great length to describe the devil. Unlike the "yonge gallante" from Wisdom, yet some scholars see a likeness to the devils from the mystery plays (Abbott 1999: 31), here the young man is shapeless and giving off a terrible odor. Julian knows she is being tormented and although the vision comes to her in her sleep she wakes up to smell the stench and feel that everything around is on fire. The devil functions here as an outward expression of her lapse of faith in the previous chapter, when she talks about a "grett synne" (LT, p. 634). The devil afflicts her powerfully but does not do so through erotic (or eroticized) visions but through the visions of despair, terrible smells and heat. Similarly to Mechthild's, the devil is conceptualized through the idea of otherness, difference and transgression. What is beautiful, fragrant, exhilarating and uplifting about the visions of God, is foul, ugly and depressing in the visions of the devil. Julian has to use all her strength to concentrate on the crucifix and battle the disease consigning her to desolation. She has to struggle with the visions and regain confidence in God and consequently present herself as the one who fought and is victorious over her own weakness and disbelief and is still, continually a reliable channel of God's message. It is interesting to notice that Margery Kempe always talks about smelling the fragrances of heaven but never fights the fiend, while Julian in her awesome visions sees the blood of God but smells the odors of hell.

Julian comes back to the notion of temptation of the fiend (LT, 689-695,Glasscoe, ch. 76-77) and its connection with human fallibility and sin. Similarly to her own experience, Julian now gives advice to the readers/fellow Christians who have to battle with the fiend mocking their prayers. And yet prayer is their only armor. Julian's psychomachia bifurcates between God and devil in the sense of distinguishing all virtue versus all wretchedness. As the sin stains the soul, the fiend disturbs harmony, and stands for the opposition of love and peace of mind which we receive from God. In the Long Text, Julian is slightly less interested in representing (performing) herself, the humble author/ voice processing God's words, but she is interested in the dramatic representation of the love of God, and that is what most of her visions are concentrated upon.

As much as Julian presents herself as a simple, humble and devout Christian chosen to proffer the message from God, Margery Kempe seeks other forms of self-legitimization. The gift of tears dramatizes many accounts of mystical lives and stands for female self-fashioning. It is one of the chief aspects of Margery Kempe's "sainthood" which has been "inherited" or modeled on Marie d'Oignies, whose story is quoted by Margery's scribe to justify Margery's outbursts. Marie's tears is one of the most important gifts that her scribe Jacques de Vitry recognizes (Vita p. 31-35). "Continuously both day and night her eyes brought forth outpourings of the waters on not only her cheeks but also on the floor in the church and lest her tears leave the ground so muddy, she caught her tears in the veil with which she covered her head. She used up so many veils in this manner that she often had to exchange a wet veil for a dry one" (de Vitry 1989: 33). Can one imagine such a dramatic (not to say theatrical) behavior in a noticeably solemn atmosphere of the church? And yet such outbursts come to be recognized as signs of God's special favor, gifts with which only the chosen few are endowed. In her Dialogue translated as Orcherd of Syon Catherine of Sienna devotes two sections of a chapter to tears (p.193-198) pondering upon "good" and "wicked" tears. As is typical of many women who decide to follow the path of saintliness (e.g., Catherine of Sienna), Marie de Oignies looses the favor of her family, which just like in the case of Margery Kempe is a positive rather that tragic event and a sign of ultimate abjection. "To be abject in the house of the Lord, [is] better than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners" (de Vitry 1989: 31). Abundant tears signify another form of performing the self.

Contrary to other saints, Margery Kempe is not abused by the demons, she is abused by people. She is slandered by various people in the course of her "saintly" life which leads to the accusations of heresy and results in her "examination" by the bishop; as her behavior is excessive she antagonizes fellow-pilgrims. She has to endure terrible visions. Unlike Margaret of Cortona (Bell 1985: 92-102) for whom the devils open pantries and bring delicious aromatic foods to break her fasts, Margery is tempted through visions and promises of erotic encounters. She is not dramatizing her struggle with evil but in an extremely honest and almost exhibitionistic way she asserts her spiritual innocence by presenting the "horrible sight" offered to her by the devil. "And this vexacyon endured xji days to-gethyr, and, lyche as be-for-tyme sche had iiij owrys of þe for noon in holy spechys & dalyawns with owr Lord, so had sche now/ as many owrys of fowle thowtys & fowle mendys of letchery & alle vclennes as thow sche xulde a be comown to al maner of pepyl. &so þe Deuyl bar on hande, dallying n'to hir with cursyd thowtys liche as owr Lord dalyid to hir be-forn tyme with holy thowtys" (pp. 144-145). Her psychomachia is shown through juxtaposition of holy thoughts and "cursyd thowths" and "abhominacyons." Many "bothyn hethyn and Cristen comyn be-for hir syght þat sche myth not enchewyn hem ne puttyn hem owt of hir syght, schewyng her bar membrys vn-to hir & perwyth þe Deuyl bad hir in hir mende chesyn whom sche wole han first of hem alle & sche must be comown to hem alle." (p.145). Margery understands that her torment is inspired by the devil and by offering it to the reader she once again asserts her strength in struggling with it. Similarly to Prudentius' virtues, she comes out of the battle victorious.

Margery great predecessor Catherine of Sienna also had to battle her own body. "From time to time she was besieged by hordes of grotesque, howling demons. Some days she dreaded returning to her room after Mass because of the crowds she knew would be waiting for her there, screaming at her, drowning out all thought and prayer." (Baldwin 1987: 29). On one occasion the demonic visitors assaulted her mind and imagination with sexual feelings and desires. Catherine repelled them by turning her mind to prayer, but their howls and assaults made prayer difficult. They took bodily form, appearing before her as men and women engaged in both natural and unnatural in sexual acts. Catherine shut her eyes, but the vision continued. "She scourged herself more than ever and prayed through the night so that she had no sleep at all. Still the hideous attack continued" (Baldwin 1987: 29). The demons tempted Catherine to be like other women and tormented her with "normality". In her Orcherd of Syon, Catherine does not present the devil as her tempter but represents him as a tempter and an enemy of the soul: "Þe feend bycause he seemeþ þat sche is ofte lukewarm, entriþ in her by manye dyuerse temptaciouns. And it he fynde þere ony maner hete of loue, or myslikynge and displesaunce of synnes, anoon he is wiþstonde, so þat he dar not entre" (p.199-200). Throughout the text, the struggle with the devil is constructed as the danger lurking behind every good deed, every noble and generous behavior. He personifies the dread of sin. The foul and horrible sight of the fiend "vuclene beest" (p.301) is reminiscent of Julian's imagery of the fiend. Christ teaches Catherine that the devil is there "not for my creatures schulden be ouercome, but for þei schulden ouercome þe feend, and þat þei schulden resceyue of me þe glorie of victorie þoru þe vertu þat is preuyd in hem" (p.100).

Saintly women battle their bodies as well as religious doubts, and are physically as much as psychologically abused by demons. Most of the never-ending tug of war has to be seen within the context of the physical and spiritual battles with the body and the framework of sacrifice and penance which are indirectly related to the performance of the love of God. Be that sexual desire or simply the desire to eat, both are located in their bodies. To repent the assaults, female saints, most commonly, again turn against their bodies. Morality plays, exempla, sermons, and other types of religious literature repeat the guidelines: fight the flesh, the world and the devil, the psychomachia is then refigured and multiplied in their texts. Medieval mystics oscillate between reality and illusion, performing their battles in order to (re)-construct their own desired self. For them all the world is the stage and dramatization functions as a literary, textual trope enacting the tension between the real person and his or her re-fashioned textual self constituting the space for self-legitimization.

(Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland)





REFERENCES

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ABSTRACT

PERFORMING THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE STRUGGLE WITH THE DEVIL.

THE "THEATRICALITY" OF MEDIEVAL MYSTICAL CULTURE

Liliana Sikorska

Julian of Norwich: "the fende sett [hym] in my throte, puttyng forth a visage fulle nere my face lyke a yonge man, and it was longe and wonder leen. I saw nevyr none such; the coloure was reed, lyke the tylle stone whan it is new brent, with blacke spottes there in lyke frakylles, fouler than th-e tyle stone" (LT, p. 635).

Margery Kempe: "And this vexacyon endured xji days to- gethyr, and, lyche as be-for-tyme sche had iiij owrys of þe for noon in holy spechys & dalyawns with owr Lord, so had sche now/ as many owrys of fowle thowtys & fowle mendys of letchery & alle vclennes as thow sche xulde a be comown to al maner of pepyl. &so þe Deuyl bar on hande, dallying n'to hir with cursyd thowtys liche as owr Lord dalyid to hir be-forn tyme with holy thowtys" (pp. 144-145).

Many "bothyn hethyn and Cristen comyn be-for hir syght þat sche myth not enchewyn hem ne puttyn hem owt of hir syght, schewyng her bar membrys vn-to hir & perwyth þe Deuyl bad hir in hir mende chesyn whom sche wole han first of hem alle & sche must be comown to hem alle." (p.145)

Catherine of Sienna: "Þe feend bycause he seemeþ þat sche is ofte lukewarm, entriþ in her by manye dyuerse temptaciouns. And it he fynde þere ony maner hete of loue, or myslikynge and displesaunce of synnes, anoon he is wiþstonde, so þat he dar not entre" (p.199-200).

"...not for my creatures schulden be ouercome, but for þei schulden ouercome þe feend, and þat þei schulden resceyue of me þe glorie of victorie þoru þe vertu þat is preuyd in hem" (p.100).


Key Words: Love, God, Struggle, devil, Medieval Mystical Culture, Theatricality.