Julian of Norwich (1342 – 1416)
In 1373, Julian of Norwich wrote a book called Revelations of Divine Love. Inspired by a near-death experience, Julian’s book was the first book written in English by a woman. Julian’s book was suppressed for 500 years because it presented God as a God who patiently loved everyone, unconditionally, which was dangerously at odds with the teachings of the church of Julian’s time. After being secreted away and guarded by holy women for centuries, Julian’s book re-emerged in the 20th century as another voice that champions a God of love.
Julian of Norwich – The Search for the Lost Manuscript – BBC Documentary
Medieval art historian Dr. Janina Ramirez tells the incredible story of a book hidden for centuries in the shadows of history, the first book ever written in English by a woman, Julian of Norwich, in 1373.
Revelations of Divine Love dared to present an alternative vision of man’s relationship with God, a theology fundamentally at odds with the church of Julian’s time, and for 500 years the book was suppressed. It re-emerged in the 20th century as an iconic text for the women’s movement and was acknowledged as a literary masterpiece.
Janina follows the trail of the lost manuscript, travelling from Norwich to Cambrai in northern France to discover how the book survived and the brave women who championed it.
Quotes from Julian of Norwich
“I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, nor ever shall be, for He is God. God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for He is nothing but goodness.”
“God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.”
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
“…deeds are done which appear so evil to us and people suffer such terrible evils that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them; and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it so that we cannot find peace in the blessed contemplation of God as we should do; and this is why: our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might and the goodness of the Holy Trinity. And this is what he means where he says, ‘You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well’, as if he said, ‘Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.”
“And I saw that truly nothing happens by accident or luck, but everything by God’s wise providence. If it seems to be accident or luck from our point of view, our blindness and lack of foreknowledge is the cause; for matters that have been in God’s foreseeing wisdom since before time began befall us suddenly, all unawares; and so in our blindness and ignorance we say that this is accident or luck, but to our Lord God it is not so.”
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin Classics)
By Julian of Norwich (Author), A. Spearing (Introduction), Elizabeth Spearing (Translator)
Coming from a society where women were barred from serious writing and teaching, Julian, an anchorite of the great medieval city of Norwich, nevertheless uses her womanliness and the English vernacular of the day to describe a series of revelations which she received from God in the year 1373. She identifies the female nature of Christ’s suffering and the motherhood of God, using images from domestic daily life, emphasizing the homeliness of God’s love. She writes in a lively and unpretentious manner and her theology is precise without ever being pedantic.
Julian of Norwich (c. 8 November 1342 – c. 1416), also called Juliana of Norwich, was an English anchoress and an important Christian mystic and theologian. Her Revelations of Divine Love, written around 1395, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. Julian was also known as a spiritual authority within her community, where she also served as a counsellor and advisor. She is formally commemorated with a feast on 8 May in the Anglican Church, Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has not yet been formally beatified or canonised in the Roman Catholic Church, so she is not currently in the Roman Martyrology or on the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. However, she is popularly venerated by Catholics as a holy woman of God, and is therefore at times referred to as ‘Saint’, ‘Blessed’, or ‘Mother’ Julian.
Very little is known about Julian’s life. Even her name is uncertain; the name ‘Julian’ is generally thought to have been derived from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, to which her anchorite’s cell was joined. ‘Julian’ was, however, a common name among women in the Middle Ages and could possibly have belonged to the anchoress as well as to the church.
Julian’s writings indicate that she was probably born around 1342 and died around 1416. She may have been from a privileged (wealthy) family residing in or near Norwich, at the time the second largest city in England. At least one source considered it likely that she received her early education with the Benedictine nuns at nearby Carrow.
Plague epidemics were rampant during the 14th century and, according to some scholars, Julian may have become an anchoress unmarried or, having lost her family in the plague, as a widow. Becoming an anchoress may have served as a way to quarantine her from the rest of the population. There is scholarly debate as to whether Julian was a nun in a nearby convent or a laywoman.
When she was 30 and living at home, Julian suffered from a serious illness. Since she was presumed to be near death, her curate came to administer the last rites of the Catholic Church on 8 May 1373. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed. Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb, but as she gazed on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over the next several hours, she had a series of sixteen visions of Jesus Christ, which ended by the time she recovered from her illness on 13 May 1373. Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened (although the text may not have been finished for some years), in a version of the Revelations of Divine Love often known as the Short Text; this narrative of 25 chapters is about 11,000 words long.
Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390s, Julian began to write a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as The Long Text, which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,500 words. This work seems to have gone through many revisions before it was finished, perhaps in the 1410s or even the 1420s…
Revelations of Divine Love
The Short Text survives in only one manuscript, the mid-15th century Amherst Manuscript, which was copied from an original written in 1413 in Julian’s lifetime. The Short Text does not appear to have been widely read and was not edited until 1911.
The Long Text appears to have been slightly better known, but still does not seem to have been widely circulated in late medieval England. The one surviving manuscript from this period is the mid- to late-15th century Westminster Manuscript, which contains a portion of the Long Text (not naming Julian as its author), refashioned as a didactic treatise on contemplation. The surviving manuscripts of the whole Long Text fall into two groups, with slightly different readings. On the one hand, there exists the late 16th century Brigittine Long Text manuscript, produced in exile in the Antwerp region and now known as the Paris Manuscript. The other set of readings may be found in two manuscripts, now in the British Library’s Sloane Collection. It is believed these nuns had an original, perhaps a holograph, manuscript of the Long Text written in Julian’s Norwich dialect, which was written out and preserved in the Cambrai and Paris houses of the English Benedictine nuns in exile in the mid-17th century.
The first printed version of the Revelations was edited by a Benedictine, Serenus Cressy, in 1670. It was reprinted in 1843, 1864 and again in 1902. Modern interest in the text increased with the 1877 publication of a new edition of the Long Text by Henry Collins. An important moment was the publication of Grace Warrack’s 1901 version of the book, with its “sympathetic informed introduction” and modernised language, which introduced most early 20th century readers to Julian’s writings. Following the publication of the Warrack edition, Julian’s name spread rapidly and she became a topic in many lectures and writings. Many editions of the works have been published in the last forty years, with translations into French (five times), German (four times), Italian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Catalan, Greek and Russian.
Revelations is a celebrated work in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism because of the clarity and depth of Julian’s visions of God. Julian of Norwich is now recognized as one of England’s most important mystics.
For Denys Turner the core issue Julian addresses in Revelations of Divine Love is “the problem of sin”. Julian says that sin is “behovely”, which is often translated as “necessary”, “expedient”, or “appropriate”. A more nuanced reading relates it to the scholastics “conveniens” or “fitting”.
Julian came to such a sense of the awfulness of sin that she reckoned the pains of hell are to be chosen in preference to it. “And to me was shown no harder hell than sin. For a kind soul has no hell but sin.” Julian believed that sin was necessary because it brings people to self-knowledge, which leads to acceptance of the role of God in their life. Julian describes how God suffers with his creation as it experiences great and multifaceted evil.
Julian lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s omnibenevolence and love in terms of joy and compassion. Revelations of Divine Love “contains a message of optimism based on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence.”
The most characteristic element of her mystical theology was a daring likening of divine love to motherly love, a theme found in the Biblical prophets, as in Isaiah 49:15. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. As Caroline Walker Bynum showed, this idea was also developed by Bernard of Clairvaux and others from the 12th century onward. Some scholars think this is a metaphor rather than a literal belief. In her fourteenth revelation, Julian writes of the Trinity in domestic terms, comparing Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving and merciful. F. Beer asserted that Julian believed that the maternal aspect of Christ was literal and not metaphoric: Christ is not like a mother, he is literally the mother. Julian emphasized this by explaining how the bond between mother and child is the only earthly relationship that comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus. She also wrote metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labour, and upbringing, but saw him as our brother as well.
She wrote, “For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love.” She wrote that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when human souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder us.
Although Julian’s views were not typical, the authorities might not have challenged her theology because of her status as an anchoress. A lack of references to her work during her own time may indicate that the religious authorities did not count her worthy of refuting, since she was an obscure woman.