Chaucer’s savvy Cambridge clerks in “The Reeve’s Tale” are the most famous literary reminder that the broad vowels and flat hinterlands of the Norfolk fens were not markers of country bumpkin culture. North Norfolk in the late Middle Ages was a thriving center of English intellectual and cultural life and a bustling center of international commerce. Ships from lucrative trade with the Hanseatic League docked at the Ouse River only a few yards from Margery Kempe’s Church of St. Margaret at Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn) and the alley adjacent to Julian of Norwich’s anchorhold at St. Julian Conesford led right down to the busy River Wensum site where Robert Toppes, the mayor and richest man in Norwich, will later build the impressive fifteenth-century trading warehouse and merchandise showplace known today as Dragon Hall. Mere yards from Julian’s anchorhold was the Augustinian Priory where the young John Capgrave was schooled in preparation for his studies at Oxford; Capgrave will eventually become the Prior of the Austin house of Lynn before being elected Prior Provincial of all England and a major administrator in the international Augustinian organization. Capgrave drew on Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana to write his own chronicle of medieval England that will end abruptly at the year 1417 and at what Capgrave must have seen as a bisection of history—the Council of Constance.
The Carmelite Nicholas of Lynn wrote at Oxford the astronomical Kalendarium for John of Gaunt (which was admired and used by Geoffrey Chaucer)—and many other scholars at the learned monastic schools at Lynn and Norwich had close links with Oxford and Cambridge and with international centers of learning too. The Italian Peter de Candia, later the antipope Alexander V of the Great Schism, studied at the Franciscan studium at Norwich in the 1360’s before going on to Oxford; in the late fourteenth century, Norwich was directly linked with Roman papal politics through Adam Easton, who became an influential English Cardinal and one of the chief proponents of the controversial sanctification of St. Bridget of Sweden.
Norfolk was especially a place in the late Middle Ages of a vibrant religious life of considerable complexity, variety, and influence. There were more monastic houses in Norfolk than in any other English county; there were more churches in the city of Norwich than in any other English city except London. Pilgrims journeyed to the shrine of the boy martyr William of Norwich and to the Norwich grave of the pious parish priest Richard Caistor, whose moving hymn on the Passion survives in more manuscript copies than any other medieval devotional lyric. But the teeming international ports of Norwich and Lynn, as did all the roads of Norfolk, especially led to Walsingham and to the shrine of the miraculously-built house of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.
The urban-cultural centers of Norwich and Lynn, like Bury St. Edmunds just over the Suffolk border, were Benedictine monastic boroughs; their abbots were also bishops and temporal lords (and huge land owners). This social structure pitted the prosperous urban elites of Norwich and Lynn directly against their spiritual lords at a time when the English Church was already struggling to assert authority and control over lay claims for autonomy in devotional and spiritual life-- and for access to vernacular scripture. East Anglia in the late Middle Ages was a place of contest between old ecclesiastical power and new money --and between old religion and new, challenging spiritualities. The political and social drama of these contests is the theme of the early East Anglian dramatic text, The Castle of Perseverance, in which Covetousness “in this time” is defined as the besetting sin of Humanum Genus. The eruption of open violence over town/abbey conflicts at Bury St. Edmunds, and at Norwich during the Bishop Despenser years, is avoided at Bishop’s Lynn by shrewd, tactical political maneuvering on the part of the governing Trinity Guild-- much of it spearheaded by Margery Kempe’s father, the oft-elected mayor John Brunham. Indeed, the events of the first two decades of the fifteenth century recounted in Margery Kempe’s Book are eloquent witness of lay challenge to ecclesiastical authority as well as to considerable tactical textual maneuvering by the author or authors who manage to bring nearly every major player in national English ecclesiastical politics into its restless pages. If there is resolution to these deep rifts in East Anglian culture, it is only the symbolic resolution offered by the simple wooden house at Walsingham, by the signifying tropes of gender in Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady and in luminous Marian poems like those of the early fifteenth century Sloane 2593 manuscript, and by Julian’s serene vision of how the furious contests of history over lordship and power (and the contested authority of women visionaries) finally become mere hazelnut.