Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–c. 1416)
Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–c. 1416)
English Christian mystic and theologian best known for her Revelations of Divine Love. Name variations: St. Juliane in Norwice. Pronunciation: JEW-lee-an of NOR-which. Born around December 1342, probably near Norwich, England; died around 1416 (although some have speculated as late as 1423), in an anchorhold attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich; parents and education unknown; never married; no children.
As a girl, wished for three gifts from God, including an illness, which she endured at age 30; received a series of 16 revelations of God's love when thought to be at the point of death; shortly after, wrote an account of her experience; in an expanded version of her recollections, written 20 years later, included her understanding of their meaning; became an anchoress at the church of St. Julian in Conisford at Norwich and adopted the name of the church as her own, which is all we know of her given name; apparently remained in her cell until her death.
Revelations of Divine Love, also referred to as Showings (the work exists in two versions, the early account known as the "Short Text" and the longer and later version known as the "Long Text").
In May 1373, the woman who became known as Julian of Norwich lay gravely ill, gradually losing feeling throughout her body until she could no longer speak. On the third day, expected to die, she received the last rites of the church; on the fifth day, May 13, at four o'clock in the morning, her mother and her parish priest stood at her bedside, in anticipation of her death. When she showed signs of reviving a little, the priest set a cross before her face and told her to look at it. Suddenly, Julian felt the departure of all pain. As a child, she had asked for three graces from God—a longing for God, an experience of feeling Christ's suffering, and an illness to test her commitment to God. Now recognizing her illness as the first of the gifts, she prayed that her body might be "completely filled with the recollection and feeling of His blessed Passion," so that she might show her love for God by suffering with Christ.
Then, she experienced a vision of Christ's suffering so authentic that she exclaimed, "Blessed be the Lord." The moment was the beginning of a succession of 15 visions lasting over the next five hours, followed a day later by her 16th and final vision, amounting to an experience so profoundly astonishing that she was to puzzle over its meaning for the next 20 years. It also secured Julian's place in history, through the two accounts that she wrote, which are lauded not only as a fascinating look at the life of a medieval woman, but as an amazingly original and insightful understanding of the doctrines of Christianity.
Everything that we know about Julian of Norwich is based on her book Revelations of Divine Love. It mentions nothing about her family and makes only two references to her youth. We assume that she was born in late 1342 or early 1343 because she writes that she was 30½ at the time of her revelatory experience. Besides telling us that she prayed as a girl for three graces or gifts from God, she mentions that during one of her visions Christ thanked her for her service and labor as a youth. The meaning of this is not entirely clear since she makes no further reference to her service, and, at the time of her writing, an adult under 30 might still be described as a "youth." Although we know nothing about her educational background, some have speculated that she was educated in a nearby nunnery or might have received education as a nun, based on the amazing depth of knowledge about Christianity evident in her book; all of these theories, however, have been disputed.
The strongest clue to Julian's history comes from a preface to the short version of her book, which refers to the author as: "Julian, who is a recluse at Norwich and still alive, A.D. 1413." Thus we know not only that Julian is from Norwich, a town in England, but that she lived the life of a recluse, or anchoress. Four wills from this same period mention an anchoress named Julian of Norwich as a beneficiary, suggesting that Julian lived with a maidservant in a room adjoining the parish church of St. Julian in Conisford at Norwich, probably named for Julian the Hospitaller, patron saint of ferryworkers.
An anchoress, sometimes referred to as a recluse, was a woman who lived an enclosed life dedicated to prayer. A man in this role was called an anchorite, and the plural for both is anchorites. The word comes from the Greek, meaning "I withdraw" or "retire," and the lifestyle has its roots in the "desert fathers," early Christians who retreated from the distractions of community life to concentrate on meditation and devotion to God. An anchoress could be a maiden or widow who chose this form of religious devotion as an alternative to becoming a nun, or a nun who wanted a more advanced form of monasticism. Like hermits, anchorites lived alone, but un-like hermits they did not roam around the countryside. Instead, an anchoress was locked into a room, sometimes called a "cell," which she could not leave for the rest of her life.
In order to become an anchoress, a woman had to receive the approval of a bishop, who rigorously investigated the sincerity of her desire to live a solitary life of prayer as well as her ability to pay for the necessary food and clothing during her confinement. This concern was crucial since the bishop was ultimately responsible for the support of all anchorites. If the candidate was approved, a service of enclosure was performed in which she publicly proclaimed her desire to be enclosed, was sprinkled with holy water, and marched to her room along with the bishop and members of the congregation. The bishop declared her dead to the world and alive unto God and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him; the penalty for violating her vows was excommunication.
While this choice of such a solitary life may be hard for modern readers to imagine, it was not considered extreme in its day. The anchoress might spend her days teaching girls, counseling women and men, and doing needlework which could be sold for food and clothing. It is generally believed that the enclosure at Norwich was a room comfortable in size, built against the side of the church of St. Julian, with a window pierced through the interior wall so that the anchoress could follow the daily service. Through a window to the outside, Julian could talk to people who came to her for counsel, and a third window opened to another room which housed the personal servant responsible for her cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks. From bequests in wills of the time, we know two of Julian's servants were named Sara and Alice.
A book entitled The Ancrene Rule suggests that anchorites were not asked to starve or required to wear a particular type of dress. In all things they were expected to practice moderation, so that they could focus on their real task, development of love for God through prayer. An anchoress was to be like the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany . Mary sat and listened to Jesus while Martha, like the servant to the anchoress, prepared supper. "And Mary's part is quietness and rest from all the world's din, that nothing may hinder her from hearing the voice of God." To increase the likelihood of hearing a divine voice, the rule suggested that an anchoress follow a schedule of prayer seven times a day and limit the time spent counseling and talking with her servant.
Grace Jantzen observes that the greatest temptation for an anchoress was impatience or boredom with her life of prayer which could lead to other temptations, the largest of which was gossip through her window with passersby. Thus, the Ancrene Rule advises women to be as silent as possible, following Mary the Virgin , mother of Jesus, rather than Eve , who chatted with the serpent. "Now my dear sisters, keep your eyes far from all evil speech that is of this threefold kind, idle, foul and poisonous. … Christ knows this is a sorry saying! that an anchorhouse, which should be the loneliest place of all, can be compared to these three places that are most full of gossip." Such warnings had the effect of reminding an anchoress of her human weaknesses and correcting any misconception that enclosure alone would keep her safe from temptation.
As an anchoress, Julian would have received respect from local people. The 14th century has been called "The Golden Age of the English Recluse." There is evidence that at least 28 women and 47 men lived in anchorholds in Norfolk during the 14th and 15th centuries. Towns such as Norwich valued anchorites for their spiritual guidance and prayers. Since this was also the time of the plague which decimated the population of England, and the Hundred Years' War that greatly increased economic hardship, people had much for which to pray. Norwich was a wealthy city, second only to London in size, and home to a thriving wool trade, as well as many churches and schools, but also deeply affected in Julian's time by social upheaval. In 1369, it was looted during a violent peasant revolt, which was put down by the equally brutal reprisals carried out by the local bishop. In 1397, a pit for burning religious radicals belonging to a group called Lollards was built within sight of Julian's cell. During these trying times, it is likely that people sought out Julian for prayers and support.
The solitary life of the anchoress would have given Julian the privilege of privacy, independence, and economic stability needed for writing. Many scholars explain the existence of the two versions of the Revelations of Divine Love by arguing that Julian became an anchoress after writing the Short Text and wrote the Long Text after contemplating its meaning for 20 years. This theory cannot be proven since the first reference we have to Julian as an anchoress is in 1393, 20 years after the publication of the long text, but the fact that the other three best known 14th century mystic writers—Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing—all lived solitary lives is taken as evidence in its support.
Because I am a woman should I therefore believe that I ought not to tell you about the goodness of God since I saw at the same time that it is his will that it be known?
—Julian of Norwich
If Julian wrote while enclosed, her writing gives us an interesting perspective on the self-understanding of an anchoress. Living such a specialized life, Julian might be expected to write for the benefit of those like herself, yet she states that her concern is for the common Christian. "Everything I say about myself," she writes, "I intend to apply toward all my fellow Christians, for I am instructed that this is what our Lord intended in this spiritual revelation. … I am not trying to tell the wise something they know already, but I am seeking to tell the uninstructed, for their peace and comfort." She is careful in her insistence that her writing will not lead common people astray: "In everything I believe as Holy Church preaches and teaches. For the faith of Holy Church, which I had before I had understanding … I intend to preserve whole." It may be to insure the orthodoxy of her ideas for her readers that she pondered over the meaning of her experience for 20 years.
The most important independent witness to the life of Julian is another English mystic, Margery Kempe , whose biography includes a description of her meeting in 1413 with an anchoress named "Dame Julian." Margery had also experienced some strange spiritual revelations and went to Julian for advice and council, because she was "well known to be an expert in spiritual guidance." Julian's advice to Margery confirms our image of Julian as compassionate and concerned for others. She accepted the validity of Margery's experience and advised her to trust in it. Margery wrote that Julian advised her: "set all your trust in God and fear not the language of the world. … Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall keep your soul." Joan Nuth observes that this confirmation of Margery was "the comfort that Margery needed, voiced by an authority that Margery's world was compelled to acknowledge." Wrote Margery: "Much was the holy dalliance that the anchoress and this creature [Margery] had by communing in the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ the many days that they were together."
For her part, Julian does not mention Margery or anything else about her life as an anchoress. Neither does she make reference to the social turmoils of her day. She does not even tell us her real name, but rather adopts the name of the church in which she resides, a common practice of anchorites. Instead, her writing focuses on what she considers to be the only really important part of her history, the 16 revelations. While some of her visions are visual, others are aural and still others are moments of intellectual insight; all, however, center on understanding the suffering of Christ. In her first vision, it is the sight of blood running down from Christ's head as the crown of thorns is placed on his brow that fills her with a new awareness of how Christ, and therefore God, suffers for her. She states that she is astonished by this "wonder and marvel" which indicates to her the nearness of God.
Modern scholars have struggled with understanding these visions. Some have speculated that Julian was delirious or mentally ill, but in 1958 Paul Molinari argued for the validity of her experience, and his arguments have been generally accepted. In her own day, such visions would be considered highly unusual but not fabrications. The three gifts or graces for which Julian prayed are typical of the piety of the time, which stressed awareness of the passion of Christ as the means towards spiritual growth. Art of the time also emphasized the theme of pity for Christ's suffering, often depicting the thinness of Christ's body and the agony on Mary's face as she looks at the cross.
Julian writes that the desire for three graces was inspired by the story of St. Cecilia , who received three physical wounds and died. Her desire for an illness is suggested in the Ancrene Rule, which urges aspiring anchorites to cultivate an awareness of Christ's physical sufferings and the healing effects of illness sent by God in order to feel confidence that their own sins were forgiven. Caroline Bynum has outlined the frequency of visions among women mystics of the Middle Ages and Elizabeth Petroff has argued that for women, who had little access to education, visions served as the primary texts of their religious understanding. States Julian: "What is truly important is not the fact of these experiences themselves, but the deepened love of God which results from them and insights communicated with them." In the Long Text, she admits that after struggling with the meaning of her revelations she realized the key: "I knew it well, love was His meaning. Who shows it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it to you? For love. In this love we have our beginning and in all this we shall see God eternally."
The main theme of her book is understanding the nature of divine love as it relates to the church's teaching about the pervasiveness of sin. How can a loving God condemn humanity for their sin? And, given the reality of sin, how can Christians ever hope that "all shall be well" in eternity? Julian answers such questions through exploring the meaning of one of her visions. Commonly referred to as the parable of the Lord and Servant, this vision describes how the mystery of God's love surpasses the logic of human reason. To describe the quality of that love, Julian describes Christ as our Mother: "And so in our making, God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord." The result is an overwhelming confidence in the ultimate mercy of God's love to grant humans life everlasting.
While Julian is not unique in exploring the theme of the motherhood of God (Anselm also refers to this theme), she develops this idea more thoroughly than any other theologian of her time. In doing so, she deviates from the bulk of theological writing of her day, which focused on divine judgment. By comparing the two versions of her text, we catch a glimpse of the difficulty of claiming her own ideas, as well as her growing confidence as a thinker and writer. In the sixth chapter of the Short Text, she urges her readers not to think of her as a teacher, "for I am a woman, ignorant, weak, and frail," yet she speculates that at the same time it was God's will that she tell others about the goodness of God. She suggests that her readers will understand this better as they read, that is, if her writing is "well and truly accepted." The chapter ends with an assertion that Jesus is the true teacher, and that the teaching revealed to her did not lead her astray from "the true doctrine of the holy Church."
In the Long Text, this entire section is replaced by a simple statement that the revelation was given to her to teach "our souls wisely to adhere to the goodness of God." The deletion is in stark contrast to the rest of the Long Text, which generally amplifies the earlier version. Unique to the Long Text, which expands 25 chapters of the Short Text to 86, are two of the author's most important theological themes, explored in the parable of the Lord and Servant (chapters 51–57) and the motherhood of Christ (chapters 58–61). Throughout the Long Text, also, are assertions of the orthodoxy of the writer's ideas especially in regard to sin, salvation, and the nature of God, which seem to be included more to comfort the reader than to defend herself against critics.
Few copies of Julian's work have survived, suggesting that it had limited appeal in her time. Some copies may have been destroyed during the English reformation and the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century, or the work may have been judged heretical. Readers are warned in notes added to the end of the Long Text to accept and understand it all as in agreement with scripture, rather than take sections out of context, which is the downfall of heretics. In any case, there are only three complete manuscripts of the Long Text, and one known copy of the Short Text, included in an anthology of short spiritual texts. The earliest copy of the Long Text, found in Paris, is probably from the 17th century and was most likely brought to France by monks and nuns who had fled from England.
Julian remained a little-known figure until this century which has seen revived interest in her work, especially her ideas about the motherhood of God, as a source of mystical and theological insight. One indication that she has achieved status as a significant Christian mystic and writer is the fact that Julian's book was published as the first volume of the acclaimed series Classics of Western Spirituality.
In May 1973, an ecumenical celebration was held in Norwich to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Julian's revelations. One can still find evidence of her influence at the Julian shrine, where prayer and spiritual counsel continue in a chapel built where her cell once stood. As her popularity grows, Julian's message of God's love may indeed become well known.
Jantzen, Grace. Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. NY: Paulist Press, 1988.
Jones, Catherine. "The English Mystic: Julian of Norwich," in Medieval Women Writers. Edited by Katharina M. Wilson. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984, pp. 269–296.
Julian of Norwich. Showings. Translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
Nuth, Joan. Wisdom's Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich. NY: Crossroad, 1991.
Wolters, Clifton. Introduction to Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. NY: Penguin Books, 1966.
Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Jane McAvoy , Associate Professor of Theology, Lexington Theological Seminary, Kentucky