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  • A Revelation of Purgatorytrans. by Liz Herbert McAvoy
  • Daniel Anlezark
A REVELATION OF PURGATORY, translated from Middle English by Liz Herbert McAvoy. Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2017. 199 pp. $99.00 cloth.

Warnings from beyond the grave and encounters between the living and the dead are found across the history of all literatures and story-telling traditions. In the western Middle Ages most (but not all) such visionary experiences focused on meetings between those engaged in a holy form of life and those suffering torment in an interim state between earth and heaven. One of the more neglected examples of this genre, the fifteenth-century visionary work A Revelation of Purgatory, edited and translated here by Liz Herbert McAvoy, emerged from a complex nexus of anchoritic devotion, political influence, church reform, and significantly women's mystical writing. This edition of the Middle English text, with facing-page translation, will make what has hitherto been a marginalized text available to a wider audience interested in not only women's writing but also the social networks within which a woman like the anonymous author could be embedded and within which her work and her spiritual authority were received. This work survives in four manuscripts, suggesting a popularity in the author's day that at least equaled that of contemporary Julian of Norwich and outstripped that of Margery Kempe.

The author describes her revelation, which came to her in her sleep on the night of 10 August 1422—the Feast of Saint Lawrence. As Herbert McAvoy makes clear in her introduction, this date, beside much else in the work, offers an insight into the female author's wide reading in contemporary English devotional writing. The setting borrows from the opening of the highly popular The Booke of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, translated in 1413 from the French Le pèlerinage de l'âme, a fourteenth-century cult classic by Guillaume de Deguileville. While the dreamer in the English translation finds himself suffering in his sleep on Saint Lawrence's night, the date is absent from the French original. However, A Revelation of Purgatoryis far from a literary pastiche, and while the shared date with the vision in The Booke of the Pylgremage of the Sowlepoints to that text's influence over the author's own imagination, her literary expression is highly original, and in an aspect not dwelled upon in Herbert McAvoy's useful introduction, her narrative style is lively and engaging.

The visionary's encounter is with a dead nun called Margaret, known in life to the dreamer. Margaret is undergoing tortures in purgatory that recall and often directly relate to her sins during her life in the convent. In one [End Page 445]lively metaphor, which recalls the affection of Chaucer's Prioress for her pets, Margaret finds herself suffering for her excessive love of her pet dog and cat (that first appear aflame), which are with her in purgatory: "And the little dog and cat ripped apart her legs and her arms. And then the devil … said '… this dog and this cat shall continuously tear at you while you are here for your unreasonable love that you bestowed on them while on earth'" (p. 103). The modern reader might be alarmed by the severity of this treatment, but purgatorial punishments for disordered love feature in the vision, from those of priests who seduce women of all kinds to the torments suffered by single people who indulge in masturbation: "And they drew out their hearts and genitals completely … 'Take these pains for your self-abuse in the foul lust of lechery'" (p. 127). These last sinners, the devils explain, should have "enjoyed the freedom of marriage" (p. 127).

Margaret requests masses and prayers for her soul. The particular priests that she asks for are important in locating the visionary close to Winchester. The evidence is strong that she herself was an anchoress, familiar with prominent spiritual personalities of the time and associated with the Lancastrian aristocracy, the Beaufort family in particular. The visionary author appears to have held a degree of spiritual influence in these circles and over the priests...


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