Authors: Julian of Norwich

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English mystic

1342

Probably Norwich, Norfolk, England

After 1416

Norwich, Norfolk, England

Identity: Christian

Biography

In the last third of the fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower were writing poetry in English in London and Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were being produced in the west of England, the “first English woman of letters” was composing a book in prose in Norwich, East Anglia. Julian of Norwich is one of the best known of the fourteenth century English mystics. The small number of extant manuscripts of the Book of Showings (her account of her mystical visions) suggests that she was probably not well known outside East Anglia. Her work has enjoyed a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest since the six-hundredth anniversary of the “showings.” {$I[AN]9810001793} {$I[A]Julian of Norwich} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Julian of Norwich} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Julian of Norwich} {$I[geo]CHRISTIAN;Julian of Norwich} {$I[tim]1342;Julian of Norwich}

Statue of Julian of Norwich.

By Poliphilo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Julian (also as Juliana) of Norwich’s Book of Showings relates the details of visions she had and her attempts to interpret their meaning. Modern critics widely recognized her book as a spiritual masterpiece. Aside from the meager information found in church records, a few wills, and Margery Kempe’s autobiography, most of what is known of Julian is from her own accounts. As a part of contemplative prayer, she had prayed for sickness, for a vision of the passion of Christ, and for three wounds. She did become ill, suffering paralysis and blindness just before the onset of the sixteen showings. The visions, she reports, occurred on May 13, 1373, when she was thirty and one-half years old.

The Book of Showings (entitled Revelations of Divine Love in some modernizations) is written in the East Midland dialect of Middle English. A number of devotional writers in the Middle Ages sought mystical experience of God. Julian achieved the prized vision that many others could only point to. She did not intend to teach any kind of methodology for the gradual drawing near of humans to God, but rather only to record her own experience for others. The visions began at a time in her illness when Julian could not speak, had lost feeling in the lower part of her body, and felt prepared to abandon life. The content of the showings is imparted in several ways. Julian may observe a scene and describe it for the reader. On the other hand, Christ’s meaning may be “made known to her understanding,” as she says, so that she must interpret for the reader. A clear writer, gifted in insightful and delicate expression, Julian produced a striking and unusual work. Readers have been attracted by its inspiring content and speculative mysticism. R. M. Wilson describes Julian’s unique qualities and wide appeal: “She combines the fervor of the continental women mystics with the sanity and balance characteristic of English mysticism, and this again with the speculativeness of the continental men writers of her day. ”

Julian wrote two versions of the Book of Showings. The first and shorter version was probably composed shortly after the visions in 1373. The second version, which is six times longer than the first, probably was written about twenty years later. The long version includes her meditation on the meaning of the original visions.

She may have adopted the name Julian from the church in whose anchor hold she was enclosed from at least 1393. An “anchorite” was a person who decided to live in seclusion for religious reasons, and some anchorites, rather than living isolated from all contact, chose to be enclosed in a structure attached to a church. The anchor hold had a window into the church so that the anchorite could see and hear holy services and receive sacraments. A window to the outside allowed communication and supplies to enter. Bequests to “Julian Anakorite” in several wills dating from 1393 until 1416 verify that she had decided to live in this way and indicate that she was known as a holy person. Indeed, it was the “job” of anchorites to give spiritual advice to those seeking it.

Julian lived the last years of her life as an anchorite engaged in prayer, study, and writing, making items for the poor, and giving spiritual solace to visitors. St. Julian’s Church still exists in Norwich and is open to visitors. It was damaged by bombing in World War II, but it was rebuilt. Visitors may observe where the anchor hold was on the south side of the church, but the anchor hold itself has not been rebuilt.

Julian did not see herself as a teacher or spiritual guide. Women were forbidden to teach. On the Continent, accounts of visionary experiences by women were well known. In England, however, a conservative spirituality discouraged a tradition of women’s writing. Thus Julian casts Christ in the role of teacher in the Book of Showings while she herself adopts the disciple role, identifying completely with the reader. She becomes simultaneously instructor (imparting the nature and meaning of the visions), and pupil (mediating the message of the visions).

Author Works Nonfiction: Book of Showings, wr. c. 1373, revised and expanded c. 1393, first printed 1670 (also known as Revelations of Divine Love) Bibliography Baker, Denise Nowakowski. Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book. Princeton UP, 1994. A thorough discussion that includes a bibliography and index. Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian. Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ. U of Notre Dame P, 1999. Looks at Julian in relationship to Christianity, Church politics, the history of doctrines, and the Middle Ages. Includes bibliography and index. Bradley, Ritamary. “Julian of Norwich: Writer and Mystic.” In An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe: Fourteen Original Essays, edited by Paul Szarmach. State U of New York P, 1984. A good, well-rounded introduction to Julian and her work. Dishaw, Carolyn, and David Wallace, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. Cambridge UP, 2003. A compilation of essays by scholars that provides valuable context for the literary works of medieval women. McEntire, Sandra J., ed. Julian of Norwich: A Book of Essays. Garland, 1998. Volume 21 of the Garland Reference Library of the Humanities: Garland Medieval Casebooks. The work covers a variety to topics relating to Julian. Nolan, Edward Peter. Cry Out and Write: A Feminine Poetics of Revelation. Continuum, 1994. Includes a good discussion of Julian’s literary style and her place in feminine Christian literary history. Bibliography and index. Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Visionary Women: Three Medieval Mystics. Fortress Press, 2002. Addresses the lives of Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg as well as Julian of Norwich.

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