Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Julian of Norwich (c.1343–1416) (2)
Julian of Norwich (c.1342/3–1416) (2)[edit | edit source]
Julian of Norwich was a late medieval English anchoress whose visionary texts, A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman (Vision) and A Revelation of Love (Revelation), are among the first known English works produced by a woman (Barratt 20). Julian’s texts shape a “distinctive theology” (Turner x) of divine love which challenges medieval orthodoxies about God, humanity, sin and salvation.
Biography[edit | edit source]
Scant evidence has made Julian’s non-textual life notoriously difficult to reconstruct (McAvoy 2-4; Watson and Jenkins 4). Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (4) suggest she was likely born in 1342-3 in “affluent circumstances” in Norwich, and was likely a Benedictine nun by 1373. However, the latter has been disputed (Jones 77; Watt 65).
At age “thrittye” Julian experienced a period of “syekenes” (Julian of Norwich 65) which precipitated fourteen visions. These visions prompted Vision, and were followed, in 1388 and 1393, by a further two explanatory visions, paving the way for Revelation (Watson and Jenkins 2).
A series of bequests made between 1393 and 1416 indicate Julian lived, during this time, as an anchoress at St Julian’s Church (Watson and Jenkins 5).
Works[edit | edit source]
Vision offers a preliminary recount of Julian’s first fourteen visions. Revelation is an expansive re-draft, crystallising Julian’s insights.
No extant copy of either survives. The earliest version of either text is a mid-fifteenth century manuscript of Vision, copied from a medieval exemplar (Baker and Salih 2-3). Meanwhile, the earliest complete versions of Revelation date to the mid-seventeenth century (Baker and Salih 4). These manuscripts, so far removed from the originals, complicate ideas of authorship and are, according to Jennifer Summit (29-30), best treated as early modern texts.
Major Themes[edit | edit source]
A Relational Trinity[edit | edit source]
Julian’s writings shape an innovative, familial representation of the Trinity, with God imagined as “fader”, Jesus as “moder” and “broder” and the Holy Spirit as “oure good lorde” (307). This maternal aspect has attracted particular scholarly attention for its resistance of dominant, masculinist models of God (Ahlgren 37-53; Baker 107-134; Donohue-White 19-36).
Julian extends God’s relational nature to include humanity. She conceptualises the soul as paralleling Christ: containing divine “substance” and earthly “sensualite” (307). This “substance” participates directly in God: “I sawe no difference betwen God and oure substance, but as it were all God” (Julian of Norwich 297).
Divine Love[edit | edit source]
As Gillian Ahlgren (41) notes, God is rendered in terms of eros and agape, as “our everlasting lover” and “maker” (Julian of Norwich 135). Divine love is positioned as the key “mening” (379) of Julian’s visions and, in challenging Augustinian paradigms of a punitive God (Turner 83), informs Julian’s understanding of salvation.
Sin and Salvation [edit | edit source]
Julian frames sin, not as an abuse of free will, but as benign ignorance, and a loving part of God’s plan (Baker 64). Interpreting a vision of humanity’s Fall, Julian (275) interprets “the cause” as overhasty “good will”, not disobedience. Sin’s purpose, as Baker (68) observes, is “pedagogical,” revealing humanity’s “febil” nature and, through redemption, God’s “mervelous love” (Julian of Norwich 315).
Breaking from medieval orthodoxy, Julian suggests potential universal salvation. Concerns over the “many creatures [that] shall be dampned” are answered by a vision of God who promises that “alle maner of thing shuld be wele” (Julian of Norwich 223). Here, Julian hints at an unconditional salvation which counters predestination and potentially, as Watt (70) suggests, damnation altogether.
Reception/Legacy[edit | edit source]
Late Medieval[edit | edit source]
Julian’s texts likely did not circulate widely during her lifetime (Watson and Jenkins 12; Baker 3). Nevertheless, Julian, herself, was highly-esteemed. Bequests to Julian were made by high-ranking donors (Watson and Jenkins 5) and, as Watt (72) points out, Margery Kempe’s account positions her as a “respected” spiritual authority.
Post-Reformation[edit | edit source]
The extant manuscripts provide evidence of engagement from the Benedictine communities that produced them (Watson and Jenkins 13). While circulation remained limited to monastic spheres, their meticulous production and preservation indicates considerable respect (Watson and Jenkins 13-15).
The Bishop of Worcester’s heated attacks of Serenus Cressy’s 1670 printed edition of Revelation, as “hysterical gossip”, nevertheless reveals a degree of controversy surrounding Julian in a context of Protestant-Catholic tensions (Watson and Jenkins 18).
Modern[edit | edit source]
From 1901, Julian’s works have been met with increasing popular enthusiasm by spiritualists, Christians, and writers, including Evelyn Underhill, T.S. Eliot, and Annie Dillard, among others (Salih and Baker 1). Julian has tended to be imagined by these groups as a “woman of our day” (McAvoy 1), situated within prisms of contemporary feminist, political and spiritual concerns.
Late twentieth-century scholarship has increasingly sought to historicize and re-frame Julian as theologian and writer, rather than mystic (Watson and Jenkins 23).
References and Further Reading[edit | edit source]
Ahlgren, Gillian T. W. “Julian of Norwich’s Theology of Eros.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality vol. 5, no. 1, Spring 2005, 37-53. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/scs.2005.0001.
Baker, Denise N., and Sarah Salih. “Introduction.” Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, edited by Denise N. Baker and Sarah Salih, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, pp. 1-11.
Baker, Denise Nowakowski. Julian of Norwich’s ‘Showings’: From Vision to Book. Princeton University Press, 1994.
Barratt, Alexandra. “Julian of Norwich and Her Children Today: Editions, Translations, and Versions of Her Revelations.” Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception, edited by Denise N. Baker and Sarah Salih, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, pp. 13-27.
Donohue-White, Patricia. “Reading Divine Maternity in Julian of Norwich.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality vol. 5, no. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 19-36. Project MUSE, doi: 10.1353/scs.2005.0016.
Julian of Norwich. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and a Revelation of Love. Edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
Jones, E.A. “Anchoritic Aspects of Julian of Norwich.” A Companion to Julian of Norwich, edited by Liz Herbert McAvoy. Boydell & Brewer, 2008, pp. 75-88.
McAvoy, Liz Herbert. “Introduction: ‘God forbede … that I am a techere’: Who, or what, was Julian?” A Companion to Julian of Norwich, edited by Liz Herbert McAvoy. Boydell & Brewer, 2008, pp. 1-18.
Turner, Denys. Julian of Norwich, Theologian. Yale University Press, 2011.
Watson, Nicholas, and Jacqueline Jenkins. “Introduction.” The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and a Revelation of Love, edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005, pp. 1-60.
Watt, Diane. “Saint Julian of the Apocalypse.” A Companion to Julian of Norwich, edited by Liz Herbert McAvoy. Boydell & Brewer, 2008, pp. 64-74.