It is not surprising,” Walter Oakeshott wrote in The Sequence of Me-dieval Art, “that East Anglia should in the fourteenth century have been the center of artistic production in England.” 1 Another historian emphasised “the predominance of East Anglia over all other regional theatrical traditions in late medieval England.” 2 A unique form of “tail-rhyme stanza” has been located in romances derived from that region. The two greatest female writers of the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both came from East Anglia. So there exists a pattern of activity, which at a later date manifested itself in the “Norwich School” of painting.
Its two principal counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, are named after the North Folk and South Folk of the Anglo-Saxons but the topographical boundaries of those tribes are uncertain; we may also include parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex in what was the most fertile and, excluding London, the most densely populated region of the country. East Anglia was to a certain extent isolated from the rest of England by its fens. Its commerce with Europe flourished, however, since it was open to all the trade routes of northern Europe and the Netherlands; the wool trade prospered, in particular, as the emergence of the great “wool churches” of Long Melford and Lavenham may testify. Another topographical aspect lent a particular tone to the area. There were few great “manors” but instead a large number of villages and towns filled with merchants and a farming population. In turn this seems to have created, or helped to create, what has been described as an “economically precocious and religiously radical area.” 3 The area was radical in more than one sense, however; anti-monarchical in tendency, it gravitated towards parliament or the barons rather than to the king. It possessed a flourishing merchant economy, “involved in a capitalist and cash-marketing system,”4 and out of it sprang a distinctively local art and literature.
The illuminations of what has come to be known as the “East Anglian School” are of an unmatched liveliness of outline. Whether the subject-matter is taken from bestiaries or literary romances, Bibles or lives of the saints, they are all domesticated within a native idiom which combines naturalism with grotesquerie. There are East Anglian daisies in abundance and, in the Luttrell psalter, domestic scenes which might almost illustrate a novel by Samuel Richardson. The influences of northern Europe have been assimilated, but they have also been coarsened and simplified. They have turned native, in other words.
The burgeoning of religious theatre in East Anglia was primarily due to the commercial success of the region. There were many monasteries and many great churches but, equally significantly, there were more than one hundred East Anglian areas where dramatic performances were conducted. Just as the illuminations of the “East Anglian School” were characterised by a diversity of influences and sources, so one historian of medieval theatre has described East Anglian drama as possessing “a richness and diversity of theatrical practices unmatched in any other region of the country.”5 On the basis of vocabulary and dialect several individual plays can be traced to their source in East Anglia, among them The Castle of Perseverance and The Killing of the Children. Characteristically these dramas were highly local affairs, run by individual parishes and performed for local profit. (One of them, at Snettisham, was known as a “Rockefeste” in anticipation of later festivals.) Just as grotesques and writhing figures play so large a part in East Anglian books, so East Anglian drama can be recognised by its emphasis on spectacle and by its general theatrical effectiveness; the characteristics are those of ribaldry, grotesquerie and “shameless manipulation of audience sympathy.”6 It is a local art within an international context.
Julian of Norwich can also be placed in this unique setting. She was known as “the Recluse atte Norwyche,” and was born towards the close of 1342. It seems likely that she inhabited a cell outside the church of St. Julian, near the center of Norwich, which belonged to the Benedictine nuns of Carrow. The rest of her life is known only through her own words. In her thirty-fourth year, at her mother’s house, she lay close to death; on the seventh night of her agony, after the priest had placed the crucifix before her face, she was granted sixteen “shewings” or revelations within two nights. It is believed that, after this pilgrimage of the spirit, she entered the Benedictine community as a recluse or devoted laywoman. Then, out of her epiphanies, came her reflections in Revelations of Divine Love. She wrote in an East Anglian dialect, with northern additions, and her writing possesses a local savour. She vividly describes the drops of blood upon Christ’s face, which “were like to the scale of heryng in the spreadeing on the forehead”; his dying body was “lyke a dry borde” and he was hanging “in the eyr as men hang a cloth to drye.” When the devil appears to her “anon a lyte smoke came in the dore with a grete hete and a foule stinke.” These powerful images might have come directly out of East Anglian drama; when Julian declares, “Methought I would have beene that time with Mary Magdalene,” at the Crucifixion, she may be recalling her experience of watching the dramatic and sensational Passion plays of her neighbourhood. When she describes how “halfe the face” was covered with “drie blode,” she might have been watching a theatrical scene. She is granted a vision of a very English St. John of Beverley as if he were “an hende neybor,” a dear neighbour, and of course the actors in the liturgical drama were in a literal sense neighbours and acquaintances.
The spiritual dimension of life on earth could not be better exemplified. When she confirms that she studied the pains of Christ as they were depicted in painting or in stained glass, a particular quality of art or theatre can be seen to inform a particular kind of devotion; indeed, in any just analysis, art and devotion cannot be separated. This, also, is part of the Catholic inheritance of England.
Just as the art of East Anglia is derived from many different sources, English and European, so in turn the lineaments of Julian of Norwich’s piety have been traced to European spiritual mentors such as St. Bernard and St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas Aquinas and William of St. Thierry. Yet it has been said that “Julian perfectly expresses the English spiritual tradition” because “she combines all the strands of our patristic lineage into something new.”7 It is the characteristic English procedure of assimilation and change, expressing itself in what has been described as Julian’s native cheerfulness and common sense; her “optimism” and her “prudence” are “inherent in all English spirituality.” Her methods are practical and her metaphors pragmatic; the penitent must labour as does the gardener, “delvyn and dykyn, swinkin and sweten, and turne the earth upsodowne.” Thus she rejects “the tight juridical categories of scholastic moral theology, and the exaggerated penitential rigours of the Franciscans,”8 arriving at a wholly English and East Anglian compromise.
Another native of that region has added significantly to England’s religious history. Margery Kempe came from Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk, and was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, whom she once visited for spiritual consolation. Her father had five times been mayor of this prosperous “wool” town, and her husband was elected its chamberlain in 1394. She was an East Anglian woman of wealth and competence, who tried her hand at both brewing and milling; yet The Book of Margery Kempe is primarily concerned with her spiritual and visionary experiences in which she encountered, and conversed with, Christ himself. The experience of the Passion would overwhelm her “sumtyme in the cherch, sumtyme in the strete, sumtyme in the chaumbre, sumtyme in the felde,” so that East Anglia becomes the site of eternity. But if Julian of Norwich was influenced by continental theology, Margery Kempe was in more literal fashion affected by continental travellers. Lynn was the port to which pilgrims came from Scandinavia and Europe, on their way to the sacred sites of England. Hers is again a local, and universal, story; Margery Kempe, very much the literal-minded daughter of East Anglian devotion, was able also to witness the details and forms of continental piety and, within certain limits, to adopt them. She knew the people of “Deuchlond” and a friend, Alan of Lynn, had already indexed the works of St. Bridget of Sweden. Yet once more, in native fashion, she mingles the ideal with the real, the sacred with the profane, with an almost Chaucerian eye for significant detail. Her career as a brewer did not flourish “for, whan the ale was as fayr standyng undyr berm as any man mygth se, sodenly the berm wold fallyn down”; the froth, in other and more modern terms, would go flat. When she asked a man to have sexual intercourse with her he replied that “he had levar ben hewyn as smal as flesch to the pott!” This matter-of-fact dialect could be effortlessly turned to spiritual matters. Jesus came to her in vision and informed her that she would be “etyn and knawen of the pepul of the world as any raton knawyth the stokfysch.” Sometimes the voices of those people of the world can be heard. “I wold thu wer in Smythfeld,” one London woman told her, “and I wold beryn a fagot to bren the wyth.” The same vivid detail, seen in the margins of the psalteries or on the scaffolds of liturgical plays, animates Margery Kempe’s East Anglian account of her visionary experiences.
Out of that native soil sprang other writers and artists, among them John Skelton of Diss, whose rough and exuberant “Skeltonics” became once more influential in the twentieth century:
To wryte or to indyte, Eyther for delyte Or elles for despite
John Lydgate of Suffolk was the most prolific and popular poet of the fifteenth century; there are writers such as John Bale, Gabriel Harvey and Nicholas Udall who together emphasise the fact that no other region of the country “could boast of so many prominent, identifiable, bookish figures.”9
So in the fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the seal had been set on the prolificity and variety of East Anglia in illumination, drama and literature. Some may interpret that superiority in terms of wealth; where mercantile profit leads, the arts will follow. Yet others have discerned a local passion. One historian of art has concluded that the “flat expanses” and “rolling outlines” and “wide skies” of East Anglia “have had a curiously powerful hold on the English creative intellect and have been a striking stimulus to it.”10 It might even be remarked here that “flatness” of surface and the bounding outline have also been the defining characteristics of English art; it is as if the landscape itself adopted the form of the English imagination.