One of the most creative thinkers of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich remains a mystery in many ways. Even her name has been obscured; she is known only by the name of the church to which her recluse’s cell was attached. A handful of wills record bequests to the anchoress at the church of St. Julian in the East Anglian city of Norwich, and Margery Kempe, a pious laywoman who composed a book about her own spiritual peregrinations, describes her visit to “an anchoress … who was called Dame Julian” (Kempe, 1985, p. 77). At what point Julian became an anchoress, her earlier status as a laywoman or nun, her education, and the chronology of her works have been subjects of speculation and divergent scholarly reconstruction based on very fragmentary external evidence and comments in her writings. Yet her work stands not only as the first known writing in English by a woman but also as a testimony to a deep intellectual presence, powerfully engaged in rethinking the most foundational aspects of Christian belief.

Julian was probably born in 1343, and in the year 1373, when she was 30 years old, she was struck with a near-fatal illness. Julian had earlier prayed to be afflicted with a grave illness so that she might receive the last rites of the church and so be purged by her sufferings to live more fully into the worship of God. But the experience of mortal illness took an unexpected turn. The local curate was summoned to attend her death, and he held a crucifix before her face, urging her to look upon it and take comfort. As her sight began to fail, she recalled another earlier desire, to know the Passion of Christ. At this recollection, she suddenly saw Christ on the crucifix in front of her, now with fresh blood trickling down his face from the crown of thorns. Thus began a series of 16 visions. Although her initial reaction to the first 15 visions was that she had been raving, she was immediately mortified at her lack of faith. After a final revelation, Julian ostensibly began her recuperation from illness and turned to her lifelong task of making sense of what she had seen on her sickbed.

There are strong reasons to think that Julian was a nun at the time of her illness. The Benedictine abbey of Carrow is a likely site that would have supported the education that shines through in her work (Watson and Jenkins, 2006, p. 4), although it has also been argued that she was a laywoman living in the secular world (Sutherland, 2004, p. 3). But at some point after her illness, Julian became an anchoress, which was a solitary, professed life of prayer and contemplation permanently enclosed in a cell. Although the anchoritic life is grounded in the ideal of withdrawal from the world, female recluses tended to live in cells attached to parish churches, thus rooting them in the busy life of the town, sometimes as teachers of children, sometimes as religious confidants, as Julian served for Margery Kempe.

But whatever her role as spiritual guide, it was her dedication to understanding her sickbed visions that must have occupied Julian’s greatest attention. This effort led to the creation of her first work, probably composed in the mid-to-late 1380s (Watson, 1993). This anonymous work, generally called the Short Text or Short Version (ST), recounts her visions and introduces her reflections and several theological paradoxes that clearly prickle Julian’s thought. Julian’s dissatisfaction with this work is evidenced by the fact that she undertook a thorough revision and substantial expansion of the text, what is known now as the Long Text or Long Version (LT). Here Julian refers to an experience she had after 15 years of meditating on her visions. Puzzled about the Lord’s meaning in these visions, she received an answer assuring her, “Love was his meaning” (LT 86; all quotations are my own translations from the critical edition of Watson and Jenkins, 2006; references are to chapter numbers in the ST and LT). A simple sentiment, it seems to have become a guiding principle in composing her new text. Another revelation, a story about a lord and servant said to have come 20 years after her original illness, served to refocus the ideas found in the Short Text. The date of Julian’s completion of the Long Text is unknown. The latest evidence of Julian’s life is a bequest of 1416, and it is assumed that she probably died sometime soon thereafter. Julian’s works are variously titled in modern translations as A Vision, A Revelation of Love, Showings, and Revelations of Divine of Love, titles derived from scribal additions to the texts.

The Bible in Julian’s World.

In fourteenth-century western Europe, the Vulgate was the standard version of scripture. It was a collection of Latin translations of the Old and New Testaments, most of which were produced by Jerome in the late fourth century. By the fourteenth century, reading biblical texts was largely the preserve of formally educated communities of professed religious—the clergy, monks, and nuns—who also had the material resources to support the ownership of the biblical books. Scriptural knowledge for laypeople was largely mediated through preaching, the rich visual culture of medieval churches and liturgical drama, and Books of Hours. Books of Hours included psalms, selections from a few other Old Testament books, and often illustrations of New Testament scenes, thus offering a selective devotional version of Christian scripture. Laypeople and professed religious, especially religious women, were encouraged to imagine biblical scenes, especially poignant scenes in the life of Christ and engage the appropriate emotions as if they were truly present with Christ, thus enabling a strongly affective experience of biblical knowledge.

In England, Latinate biblical culture was questioned by John Wycliffe (ca. 1330–1384) and his followers, who became known as Lollards. Wycliffe and the Lollards reflected much wider reformist dynamics, and the production of Bibles in English, both Lollard and non-Lollard, were part of a great experiment in vernacular theology, which also included Julian’s works. Despite the broad flourishing of theological writing in English, the Lollards drew the condemnation of ecclesiastical officials for their resistance to priestly mediated knowledge and ritual efficacy, which crystallized in debates about lay reading of the Bible and the appropriateness of English as a language for communicating the sacred word. Women in particular had long been excluded from roles of authoritative teaching, although since the twelfth century there had been women on the Continent (but not in England) who claimed divine inspiration as the foundation for their teaching. The 1409 Constitutions issued by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel prohibited anyone from teaching anything about any article of faith other than what the church already proclaimed and prohibited the translation of scripture into English, including even single verses. With heretics liable to death at the stake, a distinct climate of anxiety surrounded the composition of vernacular religious writing (Watson, 1995).

The Bible in Julian’s Works.

Julian’s attempts to create a textual version of the insights she developed from her visionary experience were rooted in this climate of vernacular experimentation and anxiety about heresy. She describes her early desire to feel the pain of Christ’s Passion, an example of the affective approach to biblical knowledge, but she moves quite a distance from this stance over the course of her work. It is possible that one striking feature of her work—the paucity of explicit biblical quotation despite her deeply biblical thought—may reflect Julian’s concern to avoid being construed as translating biblical passages. Julian’s access to the Bible is unclear. There is no evidence that she read the Wycliffite Bible. Her substantial familiarity with the Bible could have been developed through reading or hearing Vulgate texts, through liturgical participation and attention to preaching, and through reading other biblically imbued Middle English religious works. Biblical echoes in her texts suggest that she generally quoted from memory rather than from direct textual consultation, and these references are always in her own Middle English expression rather than Latin (Sutherland, 2004, pp. 5–6, 20). Her biblical knowledge was also probably in part mediated through material artifacts: she asserts her committed belief in the Passion of Christ as shown in the painted crucifixes “made by the grace of God according to the teaching of holy church to the likeness of Christ’s passion” (ST 1), and she perceived her revelations as she gazed upon a crucifix. That seeing human-made material objects could communicate truth may have enabled Julian’s confidence in her own visionary experience and meditation as a comparable source of instruction for all her fellow Christians. She initially tried to deflect the potential danger of proclaiming the instructive value of her work: “But God forbid that you should say or take it so that I am a teacher. For I mean not so, no, I never meant so. For I am a woman, unlearned, feeble, and frail” (ST 6). Julian wields the conventions of female ineptitude to affirm her words as in fact the teaching of God, “the sovereign teacher.” Yet by the time she completed the Long Text, when suspicions about heresy had only deepened, she deleted this defense of her work, an omission usually attributed to her heightened confidence in the significance of her work (cf. LT 9).

A striking feature of Julian’s work is the freedom that characterizes her relationship not simply to the Bible but also to the seemingly literal meaning of the visions she claims to see, a freedom visible even in the Short Text. For example, the first vision of blood flowing down Christ’s face is said to indicate that he, “both God and man, suffered that for me” (ST 3). In both versions, the “bodily” vision of the bleeding head is followed by a “ghostly sight” (i.e., spiritual vision). Here the Lord is called “our clothing, that for love wraps us and winds about us, embraces us and fully encloses us, hangs about us for tender love, that he may never leave us” (ST 4). God clothing his creatures is a powerful biblical image, from making garments of skin for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21) to clothing the grass of the field with the glorious lilies of the valley (Matt 6:30). In transforming God from clothier to clothing, Julian muted the hierarchical aspect of the biblical images and emphasized instead one of her recurring concerns: the intimacy or “homeliness” of God whose loving “courtesy” outweighs the consequence of human sin (see, e.g., ST 7, 23; LT 73).

God as clothing is immediately followed by a distinctly nonbiblical image: “He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand.” This small round ball is explained as “all that is made.” Julian’s surprise at its size and potentially ephemeral nature is answered assurance that “it lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so all things have being through the love of God” (ST 4; LT 5). Although the image of a nut is not biblical, the idea of all things having their being in God evokes Colossians 1:17, although characteristically, Julian has emphasized God’s love as the source of all creation’s continued existence.

The second vision returns to the face of the crucified Christ, now caked with dry blood and bearing the signs of beatings. With no explication of this vision, Julian reports her next revelation: “I saw God in a point,” which she understands to mean that God is everywhere and does everything. But this insight triggers a question that runs throughout the Short Text and is only fully addressed in the Long Text: If God does everything, what is sin? The immediate answer is a familiar one from the Augustinian tradition: sin is no-thing (ST 8). Despite this clash with her existential awareness of evil in the world and the church’s clear teaching about sin and damnation, Julian affirms that “the good Lord” comforted her with the assurance, “But all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (ST 13). This assurance of universal well-being despite the inevitability of human sin evokes inchoate ideas about a part of the human soul that never assents to sin (ST 17) and a vision of the Lord sitting permanently in her soul (ST 22). With paradoxes lingering, the Short Text ends.

In the Long Text, Julian explicitly voices her awareness of the contradiction between her revelation of universal well-being and the church’s teachings about sin and damnation. This tension extends to biblical tradition, for she sees that “our Lord was never angry and never shall be” (LT 46) and that he “cannot forgive for he cannot be angry” (LT 49), in effect denying deeply biblical notions of divine wrath and forgiveness. Julian says that the Lord answered her anxious perplexity by giving her an exemplum that is allegorized in two ways. In the story, a lord gives a command to his obedient servant, who immediately runs “in great haste for love to do his lord’s will.” In his eagerness, the servant falls into a ditch and so injures himself that he cannot get out. Although his fall was caused by his love and desire to do his master’s will, the ensuing pain is real and debilitating. The story is first allegorized as a revision of the Fall of Adam in Genesis. The theological metaphor of “fall” is literalized into a headlong plunge, but most importantly, it is generated not by pride or arrogance but by the servant’s loving obedience.

Then Julian explains the exemplum as portraying the second person of the Trinity who was perfectly joined to Adam:

"When Adam fell, God’s son fell. For the perfect unity made in heaven, God’s son could not be separated from Adam. Adam fell from life to death, into the ditch of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s son fell with Adam into the ditch of the maiden’s womb, who was the fairest daughter of Adam—in order to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth—and mightily he fetched him out of hell. (LT 51)"

Evoking 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 on the Adam/Christ parallel, Julian emphasizes the absolute unity of human nature and divine nature. This allows her to elaborate her earlier insight about the human soul, now asserting that there is a substantial part of the human being that is always essentially united to God; thus, God’s substance is what human beings most fundamentally are (LT 54). Julian also develops new language for expressing the nature of the triune God: God is Father who creates, Mother who redeems, and Holy Spirit who perfects. The effect of atonement is a loving, maternal re-formation or rebirthing of the human being, which integrates the essential, divine part of the self with the created part of the self (LT 57–59). Julian’s willingness to express her final profoundly optimistic vision of universal salvation as the ultimate incorporation of all life into the loving God demonstrates how she draws on the richness of biblical tradition while refusing to be bound by it.

[See also HILDEGARD OF BINGEN.]

Bibliography

Primary Sources

  • Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Elizabeth Spearing. London: Penguin, 1998. Widely available, accessible modern English translation of the Short Text and Long Text.
  • Julian of Norwich. Showings. Translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. New York: Paulist, 1978. Influential, still available translation by early editors of the Middle English texts.
  • Watson, Nicholas, and Jacqueline Jenkins, eds. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. Critical edition of the Middle English Long Text and Short Text, along with extensive analytical notes and comparisons to relevant Middle English theological texts.

Secondary Sources

  • Baker, Denise Nowakowski. Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Comprehensive study of the development of Julian’s thought traced from Short to Long Text.
  • Karnes, Michelle. “Julian of Norwich’s Art of Interpretation.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 333–363. Suggests how the Long Text can be seen as a glossed gospel, with the divine text of the showings surrounded by commentary.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Translated by B. A. Windeatt. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985.
  • McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed. A Companion to Julian of Norwich. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2008. A wide-ranging collection of essays analyzing the historical and literary contexts of Julian’s work, as well as its later reception.
  • Riddy, Felicity. “ ‘Publication’ Before Print: The Case of Julian of Norwich.” In The Uses of Script and Print, 1300–1700, edited by Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham, pp. 29–49. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Investigation of how the ideas of an enclosed anchoress came to circulate in a preprint era.
  • Sutherland, Annie. “ ‘Our feyth is grounded in Goddes worde’: Julian of Norwich and the Bible.” In The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Exeter Symposium VII, edited by E. A. Jones, pp. 1–20. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Overview of Julian’s biblical usage in creative tension with her innovative theology.
  • Watson, Nicholas. “The Composition of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love.Speculum 68, no. 3 (1993): 637–683. Influential argument about the composition of the Short and the Long Text, resisting the idea of the Short Text as quickly written after Julian’s illness.
  • Watson, Nicholas. “Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409.” Speculum 70, no. 4 (1995): 822–864. Important construction of the intellectual and political dynamics that serve as the backdrop for Julian’s work.

Anne L. Clark