She was one of medieval England’s most radical thinkers, yet her writings remained unknown for centuries. Born in 1343, Julian of Norwich was the first known woman to write a book in English – a potentially life-threatening endeavour. This was a time when society condemned women’s writing and heretics could be burnt at the stake for reading the Bible in English. But, despite these dangers, Julian continued to write her mystical masterpiece, Revelations of Divine Love, a text that went on to transform Christian thought.
Who was Julian of Norwich?
Much of Julian’s life remains a mystery, but it’s likely that she took her name from St Julian’s Church in Norwich, where she lived as an anchoress for around 20 years. An anchoress was a female religious hermit, who devoted her life to God. While it’s estimated that during the 13th to 15th centuries there were around 200 people (both male and female) living an anchoritic life, it was a strict and – to modern readers – extreme way of living.
Anchoresses such as Julian were confined to a cell for the rest of their lives in order to contemplate God. To become an anchoress, Julian would have taken part in a rite of enclosure, led by a bishop. Julian would have received the office of the dead and dust would have been thrown over her to symbolise the end of her earthly life. For those who tried to leave their cell, the punishment was excommunication.
Julian would have spent her days in prayer and contemplation. But, despite being enclosed, Julian still played an active part in community life. Her cell had a window that opened onto the church, which enabled her to participate in daily services. Another window opened onto the outside world, where Julian would offer spiritual guidance to those who sought it. One such visitor was the mystic Margery Kempe, author of the earliest surviving autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe. In her work, Margery describes her meeting with Julian:
“Then she was commanded by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city who was called Dame Julian. And so she did, and told her about the grace, that God had put into her soul, of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion […] and also many wonderful revelations, which she described to the anchoress to find out if there were any deception in them, for the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good advice.”
Revelations of Divine Love
During confinement, Julian set to work on her influential text, Revelations of Divine Love. The inspiration for her work stemmed from a series of divine encounters she experienced on her deathbed, at the age of 30. These are believed to have occurred before Julian became an anchoress and focus on Christ’s sufferings at the Crucifixion.
Julian devoted her life to interpreting the meaning of her visions. Her text contains two parts: the ‘Short Text’, thought to have been written shortly after her near-fatal illness in 1373, and the ‘Long Text.’ This latter section was completed some twenty years later and interrogates and expands upon her revelations. But the ideas she expressed in her writings were radical. Julian’s description of a motherly, unconditionally loving God was in stark opposition to the church’s teachings, which believed in eternal damnation.
Julian was also writing in Middle English – specifically an East Anglian dialect – at a time when writing in the vernacular was thought unsuitable for women. In late medieval England, Latin was the language of learning and the Church, and would have been taught mostly to men and clerics. But, by writing her text in English, Julian was making her work accessible to all ‘fellow Christians’, not simply the intellectual elite.
Julian is believed to have died around 1416, but her teachings of love and compassion, coupled with her positive vision for the world remain just as relevant to modern readers. While her original manuscript has been lost, thanks to the bravery of a group of Catholics nuns and the work of 20th century translator Grace Warrack, Julian’s writings are able to touch the lives of communities around the world.
In this time of global anxiety and uncertainty, her words: “All shall be well, all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well,” offer hope for a brighter future.
To discover more about Julian of Norwich…
Read her Revelations of Divine Love (I recommend this Penguin Classics translation by Elizabeth Spearing)
Pay a visit to Julian’s cell at St Julian’s Church in Norwich stjohnstimberhill.org
Read Dr Janina Ramirez’s work Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History
Watch Dr Janina Ramirez’s BBC 4 documentary The Search for the Lost Manuscript: Julian of Norwich
Head to Norwich Cathedral to see a stained-glass window and statue of Julian cathedral.org.uk