|Knox Robinson Publishing, March 2013|
The Altarpiece (The Cross and The Crown Series, #1) by Sarah Kennedy
It is 1535, and in the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII's break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. Catherine, like her adoptive mother, has a gift for healing, and she is widely sought and admired for her knowledge.
Catherine’s hopes for a place at court have been dashed by the king’s divorce, and she has reluctantly taken the veil. In the remote North, the nuns enjoy the freedoms unavailable to other women. England is their home, but the times have changed, and now the few remaining nuns dread the arrival of the priory’s new owner, Robert Overton. When the priory’s costly altarpiece goes missing, Catherine and her friend Ann Smith find themselves under increased suspicion.
King Henry VIII’s soldiers have not had their fill of destruction, and when they return to Mount Grace to destroy the priory, Catherine must choose between the sacred calling of her past and the man who may represent her country’s future.
Why Margery Kempe?
When I tell people that I am fascinated by the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, and that I have given a copy of her autobiography to my fictional nun, Catherine Havens, in my novel The Altarpiece, they often ask, “Why?” Why not her more subdued contemporary, Julian of Norwich, who assured us that “all manner of thing shall be well”?
Well, in Henry VIII’s England, all was not well, and Margery Kempe was, for me, the mystic for the Tudor era. The historical monastery at Mount Grace, which I used as the setting for my novel, actually did have a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe! My nun, Catherine, insists on the value of this early story of a self-determined mother, and it’s a good thing that people like Catherine existed, because we now recognize the Book of Margery Kempe as the one of the first autobiographies by an English woman. Margery’s life was actually recorded by monks, because Margery herself was apparently illiterate. It begins when Margery has had her first child and falls into what we would now call post-partum depression. A priest is called to hear her confession, and when he fails to pardon her, she falls into such a state that she must be tied to her own bed. Jesus appears to her, saying “Why hast thou forsaken me and I forsook never thee?” After this vision, Margery regains her wits.
Over the years, Margery starts several businesses (they all fail) and has fourteen children. She separates from her husband and goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She’s robbed and abandoned by her maid while they’re in Rome. She meets up with an Irish hunchback named Richard, who kindly accompanies her home. Oh, and she’s dragged to York to be tried for heresy.
Pretty exciting, isn’t it? So why don’t more readers love brash, independent Margery? It’s the weeping bit. Margery developed “holy tears,” and while it may sound lovely, the condition was a constant annoyance to her neighbors. She also refers to Jesus as her “husband” and invites him into her bed for lovemaking. People tend to get very squirmy when they read these passages, and some are downright offended.
It’s important to remember, though, that in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance the notion of being a “bride of Christ” was a European metaphor for humanity’s relationship to the divine. All of humankind was seen either as a collective child to the parents of the Godhead or as the collective wife to Christ. This “feminized” humanity—even as it laid the path for the decreased power of wives after the Reformation, when the position of men in families was enhanced to fill the role vacated by priests.
In Margery Kempe’s time, Christ was commonly thought of as the husband of the church, and she takes this metaphor to its literal meaning. Margery may not be able to run a business, but she can be loved by God as passionately as any human being. And she maintains that her life is as worth recording as anyone’s, even down to the last days of her marriage, when she moves back in with her husband, now grown incontinent and feeble-minded, until his death. Margery Kempe was unashamed of compassion and of her ability to experience the divine physically.
This combination of compassion for others and confidence in her female self is what my nun Catherine values in Margery Kempe. Was Margery crazy? Maybe. But if she was, her “insanity” was caused by a holiness so intense that the banal world could not contain it.
Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems. She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah. Sarah will publish a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII. You may be able to meet her at some of the events she'll be attending this summer.
~~~~~~~~~~GIVEAWAY!~~~~~~~~~~Open to HF-Connection followers in USA, the author's publicist is offering a giveaway of The Altarpiece to one lucky winner! Enter via the Rafflecopter form below. Please take note that there are TWO mandatory entries in order to be considered for the raffle.
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