Daily Reflection 26th May

Lockdown and studying for my PhD

We begin a little series on the experience of some of our community who are working through lockdown. Today is a little longer than our normal daily reflection, but really worth the time for a truly fascinating read. Diane Kaiser (St. Mary’s Conwy) is studying.  She shares here her experience of lockdown, before allowing us a glimpse of her research.

Diane Kaiser writes:

Many people would say that, as a PhD student, I am very fortunate to be experiencing lockdown – the comment I hear most is “isn’t this just the perfect time for you to get on with writing?” Sadly, that is not quite true! Whilst I am well aware that it is lack of time that many PhD students complain of, too much time is definitely a problem for me! Lack of concentration is my biggest issue. Having our two daughters home from university during lockdown means that I have a myriad of excuses for not studying – all of a sudden the burgeoning laundry basket seems far more appealing! Furthermore, the knowledge that I should be working hard and writing reams of reasonably coherent sentences makes it so much worse. Each morning I get up with good intentions only to find that by lunchtime my productivity has slumped to a new low.

Whist my writing output has not been great I have been spending a lot of time thinking – and not just about the next meal! My PhD is focused upon female devotion in the late Middle Ages and seeks to draw connections between existing religious artworks and female donors or patrons. The research is located in East Anglia for the simple reason that with its huge number of medieval churches there are many religious artworks from this period that still exist. The difficult part is marrying up the religious artefact with a female donor – the records are few and far between and for the most part I have been relying upon wills for my sources and I’m sure you’ll appreciate that very few women left wills back then!

I have written below about one woman who has influenced me a lot whilst thinking about female devotion. Her name was Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe
“And when they came up on to the Mount of Calvary, she fell down because she could not stand or kneel, but writhed and wrestled with her body, spreading her arms out wide, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart would have burst apart, for in the city of her soul she saw truly and freshly how our Lord was crucified…

And sometimes, when she saw the crucifix, or if she saw a man had a wound, or a beast, whichever it were, or if a man beat a child before her or hit a horse or other beast with a whip, if she saw or heard it, she thought she saw our Lord being beaten or wounded, just as she saw it in the man or in the beast, either in the fields or in the town, and alone by herself as well as among people.”

The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt (London, 2004), p. 104

The Despenser Reredos is located within St. Luke’s Chapel in Norwich Cathedral. It dates c. late 14th century, and its five panels depict the flagellation, Christ carrying the cross, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension:

The Despenser ReredosThe Despenser Reredos St. Luke’s Chapel in Norwich Cathedral

Margery Kempe came from King’s Lynn, Norfolk and lived from c. 1373 to c. 1440. Her life was remarkable in so many ways I remain surprised that no Hollywood producer has yet thought of making a film about her life. Her book – The Book of Margery Kempe – is the earliest surviving autobiography in the English language and recounts her extraordinary life. She was born the daughter of a mayor of Lynn (perhaps we would describe her position in life as that of minor nobility or gentry) and married (at the age of twenty) John Kempe to whom she bore fourteen children. Following the birth of her first child she fell ill and feared that she would die a sinner. She was tormented by temptations for over half a year but then had a vision of Jesus who sat beside her.

Following this incident, she became better both physically and mentally. However, whilst she claimed to live responsibly and wisely, at the same time she admitted that “she did not truly know our Lord’s power to draw us to him”. There then reads a chapter explaining how “she would not leave her pride or her showy manner of dressing” despite the fact that she knew people adversely commented upon the gold pipes (a female head-dress of gold wire and mesh sometimes shaped into horns) she wore on her head! Margery took up brewing and claimed to be “one of the greatest brewers in the town” at least for three or four years until the business went bust. Further adversities befell her before she sought God’s forgiveness. Eventually, after much negotiation (and agreeing to pay off her husband’s debts), she obtained her husband’s agreement to live a chaste life (and who can blame her after having fourteen children!) and won her freedom to pursue a life of pilgrimage.

What is truly remarkable is that a middle aged woman at a time of recurring outbreaks of the plague, in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War with France (the battle of Agincourt took place in 1415), and at a time when it was extremely dangerous for a woman to travel on her own, managed to make her way (on foot, by ship, on the back of a cart, by donkey) to Rome and Jerusalem (1413-1415), Santiago de Compostela (1417-1418), and Prussia (1433-1434). She also made more local pilgrimages to York and Canterbury and visited the famous anchorite, Julian of Norwich for advice (you may recall the daily reflection from a few weeks ago about Julian of Norwich).

Margery travelled physically to locations associated with the Bible (something denied to all of us during lockdown) but she travelled in her mind as well (and we all have the freedom to do that). For example, her visit to Calvary whilst in Jerusalem and described  in the quote above, was not just a physical journey. Margery imagined herself as an onlooker to the crucifixion. Often dismissed as an eccentric, hysterical middle-aged woman (that description might sound familiar to some of us), Margery’s visionary reflections upon the Bible stories enabled her to draw closer to Jesus. Her vivid imagination gave her a deep insight into what it meant to be a follower of Christ. I imagine her looking at the Reredos above, as it is probable that Margery Kempe would have seen this painting on many occasions when she visited Norwich Cathedral. I find her life to have been one of inspiration… you might too. Indeed, I can highly recommend the Penguin Classic The Book of Margery Kempe translated by B. A. Windeatt if you would like to find out more.


Dw i eisiau dy ddilyn di, Arglwydd;
dysga dy ffyrdd i mi.  
Arwain fi ar y ffordd iawn a dysga fi, 
achos ti ydy’r Duw sy’n fy achub i. 
Dw i’n dibynnu arnat ti bob amser.

Salm 25: 4-5



Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Saviour,
and my hope is in you all day long.

Psalm 25: 4-5 

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