Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich
(1342–ca. 1416)
   The first woman writer in the English language whose name we know, Julian of Norwich was a late 14th-century mystic about whom we know very little beyond the autobiographical details she shares in the text of her Showings, sometimes called by later editors the Revelations of Divine Love. She was born in 1342, probably in Norwich. At the age of 30 and a half, she says in her Book of Showings, on May 13, 1373, she was suffering from an illness that she thought would take her life. During that night she had a series of 16 visions. Shortly after her recovery, she wrote down what she remembered of these “showings.” But over a period of 20 years, she says, she contemplated the revelations (she never had any other visions after that night), and she wrote a second, longer text that interprets the visions in a more thorough and sophisticated manner. Thus the Showings survive in two different versions: the shorter, earlier version, dated about 1373; and the later, longer version, from about 1393.
   It is possible that Julian was in holy orders at the time of her illness, but there is no way to know.Her Showings do reveal that she was educated and familiar with religious writings in both English and Latin, but some of that familiarity could have been gained after the crisis of her illness. In any case she made the decision to become an anchoress—a religious recluse confined to an enclosed cell who takes a vow never to leave, but to devote her life to prayer. This decision may have been a response to her visions. Her cell was attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, which suggests that “Julian” may have been a name she adopted at the time of her enclosure. Four extant Norwich wills leave her money for her maintenance, the last of these dated 1416. Since she is mentioned in no documents after 1416, she must have died shortly after that date.
   Julian is also mentioned in the Book ofMargery Kempe, wherein Margery KEMPE seeks out the anchoress for advice in spiritual matters, in which Julian seems to have had a reputation as an expert. Julian’s Showings are written in a rather colloquial style full of vivid, concrete imagery.Her most memorable images are simple and natural, such as the image of God holding in his hand a ball the size of a hazelnut, and telling Julian this is “all that is made” (chapter 5), thereby implying the fragile and minute nature of the entire created universe as compared with the majesty of God. She can create powerful effects through simple repetition and parallelism, as when the Lord tells her that sin is necessary, but “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (chapter 27).
   Theologically Julian is best known for her doctrine of the motherhood of Christ (chapters 58–59).While the doctrine of God as mother has its roots in the Bible itself and in other medieval theologians, Julian’s expression of the second person of the trinity as female is distinctive. In her theology Christ is the person from whom we derive our human nature, so that Christ is our mother twice: He bears us and also redeems us, thereby giving us a second birth. Julian further associates “God our Mother” (the second person of the trinity) with wisdom. In this she follows the traditional association of Christ as the logos of John’s Gospel (the “Word” of God—a term from Greek philosophy associated with reason) with the Jewish personification of Wisdom, who is female in the Old Testament.
   Julian gives us a number of other profound theological insights, but the theme of the whole of her Showings and of God’s revelations to her on that night in 1373 she sums up in one word: love.“Love was his meaning,” she says at the conclusion of the Showings (chapter 86). Nothing, she insists, can separate us from God’s love.
   ■ Baker, Denise Nowakowski. Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
   ■ Dinshaw, Carolyn, and David Wallace, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
   ■ Julian of Norwich. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Edited by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. 2 vols. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978.
   ■ McEntire, Sandra J., ed. Julian of Norwich: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland, 1998.
   ■ Nuth, Joan M. Wisdom’s Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich. New York: Crossroads, 1992.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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