Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Home Visits: Mary, Elizabeth, Margery Kempe, and the Feast of the Visitation

Mary Erler, Fordham University

“A lord god what house was that, what Chambur & what bedde in
the which dwelleden to gedire & nesteden so worthi Moderes with so
noble sones, that is to sey Marie & Elizabeth, Jesus & Jon. And
also with hem dwelling tho wirschipful olde men, Zakarie & Joseph.
This was a blessed companye of men & women & of children.”
Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ed. Michael Sargent
(New York, 1992), p. 31

In these words Nicholas Love describes the visit of Mary (and Joseph) to Elizabeth (and Zachary) in order to recognize and rejoice in their two pregnancies. The rich symbolism of the New Testament event stretches out in several directions. The feast of the Visitation was instituted for the whole church in 1389; interestingly it was the Norfolk Benedictine Adam Easton, enthusiast and supporter of St. Bridget of Sweden, who had been commissioned by the pope in the early 1380s to write the antiphons, hymns and responses for the feast. Its date means that the feast’s great popularity came in the fifteenth century; it was widely recognized in England by the middle of the century.

Love’s words, in which he glorifies first the visited house, then its room, and finally its bed, firmly place sanctity in a domestic setting. Indeed they focus on the mothers and children at the heart of the house. Though the fathers are mentioned as well, their presence is ancillary and it is the women who are primary. The iconography of the Visitation meeting that precedes this domestic unity is similar. Like Love’s account, the images focus on the two women who with their unborn sons, are always the center of the composition, their bellies sometimes touching, often pointed out and felt with fingers, while Joseph is only sometimes present, usually at the margins of the picture.

The iconography concentrates, as well, on the relation of the two women. The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth allows for what is almost the only depiction of women together found in the canon of religious imagery. The artists have made the most of this opportunity: the postures, the arrangement, the total composition seems often intended to depict female closeness, even affection. Such ties between women were indeed very often familial and the depiction of Mary and Elizabeth’s tender cousinship recognizes this social reality. At the same time, we might see the imagery as concerned merely to defer the moment that the narrative subsequently provides when, after the birth of the two sons, men, women, and children come together harmoniously in “gostly myrth.” (Love says they lived together for three months.) Love does not use the word “family” here, but instead calls the group of two couples and their children a “blessed company,” making the home that encloses this company explicitly analogous to heaven.

It is significant too that Love’s narrative presents female conversation as taking place within the house and as employing themes at once physical and spiritual. (“And than asked our lady of Elizabeth the manere of hire conceyuyng & she azeyn of the maner of hire conceyuyng.”) Female service is elevated, in Mary’s assistance to Elizabeth “in al that she myzt, meekly, reuerently & deuoutly as a seruant,” a trope of service which of course Margery Kempe will adopt later. Love admires, too, female poverty and female work in the household. When Mary returns home, her poor house is contrasted with Elizabeth’s dwelling, which is called “plentyeous”), while Mary has neither bread nor wine. In “hire owne pouerte & bare house” she needs “to gete hire lyuelode with hir owne handes & bodily trauaile.” Humble poverty at home and women’s part in that suffering is here recognized.

The iconography of the Visitation leads us in slightly different directions. Women’s connectedness is its central theme, but often that connection is made outside the house and the landscape in which the two women meet is depicted as rural, sometimes explicitly contrasted with an urban tower or building seen in the background. The realities of travel often made their appearance as well. Love says the distance Mary and Joseph traveled on foot was 74 miles, perhaps three days’ journey, and the difficulty of the trip may be underlined in the occasional visual depiction of rocky, hilly surroundings.

It is the concluding moral Love offers, however, that makes the Visitation so influential in the fifteenth century. Here, he says, we have “ensaumple that it is leueful & oft spedful, deuout men & women to visit other for edificacion & gostly recreation.” As with so many other fifteenth-century currents, it is through Margery Kempe that we see most clearly this interest in what we could call the spirituality of the visit. Margery’s vocation might be said to encompass a series of visitations in which she (and John) “went…forth…& spokyn with Goddys seruantys, bothen ankyrs & reclusys & many other of owyr lordys louerys” and “than was sche welcomyd & med mad of in dyuers placys.” (25.19-22; 22.34).

Margery’s mission of spiritual visitation and conversation is rooted in the explicitly domestic mode the biblical Visitation provides: the home visit, the private talk, very much within the context of the family. Significantly, however, this married woman was able to enlarge the scope of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation about spiritual things within the house. Margery, like the Virgin Mary, travels, but in order to include God’s lovers, national and international, within a broadened definition of familial connection. Margery’s fertile criss-crossing of England and Europe to speak with other devout men and women takes as its model Mary’s Visitation, but in her execution of it, family is reconceived as something larger, and an apostolic vocation forbidden to women emerges. Through her life Margery enacts the New Testament narrative of the Visitation, newly recognized in the fifteenth-century liturgy, in a way that makes us rethink travel, family, and home.

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