Surely, commentators asked, visionaries like Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc were “delusional”, or “ignorant”? Why should their experiences be taken seriously? Weren’t they simply brainwashed individuals of their time, traumatised by personal events or simply finding religious ways to avoid being “brood mares”, as one respondent said (and then hastily qualified)? Did I actually believe these outlandish, mystical accounts?
There were comparisons to antisemites, UFO abductees, and even Charles Manson… Such ‘parallels’ were, I confess, a little alarming.
So why is ‘truth’ in these instances so important? Is it just these women’s truths that are questioned? Why must questions of authentic experience cloud the words on the pages of manuscripts? Why can’t the words – the stories – be enough?
To seek ‘truth’ in any retold account, is surely beside the point.
There are certainly parallels with the legends and writings of the visionary women of the Middle Ages and media representations of 21st century ‘role models’ (??) such as Kim Kardashian or Jennifer Aniston, for example. These latter women grace the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the world. The headlines: spotted with the latest ‘it’ handbag, or sporting new collagen-implanted lips, or securing a husband after years of ‘spinsterhood’…
Are these stories ‘true’? Does it even matter?
People still read them, internalise them, repeat them. Imitate them.
They mean something to their readers.
As a literary scholar ‘by trade’, I have always been concerned with the meaning of stories and texts – what they might teach us – how they might alter over time – why stories are important.
From the caves of Stone Age man to the present day, stories have been told. In prehistoric times, stories (relayed pictorially on the literal walls of ancient people’s homes) were about hunting animals, survival: about the sources of those people’s very existence. Those paintings were replicated, reimagined, made more powerful through their cultural consolidation; the retelling of a community’s reality.
The stories were the reality.
Early medieval texts like Beowulf tell us stories of great heroes: the strength of the warrior, the dangerous journeys undertaken, the overpowering of monsters – of the ‘other’. These stories reflect other truths: honour, the porousness of the human-monster divide, the importance of lineage for our identity, the human need to overcome, to conquer.
And then, as Christianity took hold of the west more securely, those stories turned to other types of journey – the Christian story, the reason for human salvation, man’s perpetual indebtedness – and towards a desired union with God. Gawain, another hero, had a shield with an image of the Virgin Mary on its interior. Hers was a story that bolstered him on his quest. Without its truth, his journey would have had less meaning. Less purpose.
The Christian story is, of course, the ultimate in happy endings: the happily-ever-after of immortality.
Forget Disney princesses being woken to themselves by a prince’s kiss, you can’t trump the Getting to Heaven for Free option, thanks to Jesus, the most famous narrative hero of them all.
So, when I’m asked to explain why medieval women, like Catherine of Siena, who sat with other young women and gouged out chunks of her own flesh to repurpose her body for the reception of Christ, or Margery Kempe, who flailed and sobbed and collapsed and wailed during church services, did what they did, who am I to declare their behaviour as “delusional”?
Their cultural narratives were different. They identified in different ways.
These were their truths, their stories.
So when we check out our reflections in the mirror to see if we’re slim enough, or groomed enough, or fit enough, or whether we’re reading the right books, citing ‘current thinking’, taking the correct political stance – we’re all playing into the same modern narratives, the same series of truths.
They may not be ideal, or desirable truths, but they are truths just the same.
Did Joan of Arc actually receive a call from God to fight as a warrior? Why does it matter? She fought. She lead. She achieved a pretty impressive legacy for herself.
That’s true. Isn’t it?