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Getting Medieval On You: Julian of Norwich

Illustration for article titled Getting Medieval On You: Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was the first woman to have a book published in the English Language. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, was a hallmark of women's writing being recognized. For the majority of Julian's existence, Julian lived a solitary, but interesting life.

Little is known of Julian's early life, but historians have surmised that she was born in 1342, in or around the town of Norwich. This time period was when the Black Death was running rampant in England. (Shrine) Historians don't know the personal name of Julian of Norwich. Julian was dubbed so because eventually, she had lived in the Church of Saint Julian. (Shrine)

Norwich's emphasis on educating the masses causes this city to stand out in Medieval England. Because of Norwich's flourishing religious life, many boarding schools for both boys and girls sprung up throughout the city. Although Julian claimed that she was "unlettered" in her writings, this can be interpreted as she did not know how to speak Latin, or received a formal college education. At some point, Julian had to learn how to read and write in English, and attending one of the schools offered by the convents is a likely possibility. (Jantzen) If Julian did not attend such a school, there is a possibility that she had a brother who attended, and who in turn, taught her how to read and write. (Jantzen)

When she was 30, and living at home (not in the cathedral), Julian became deathly ill. Julian was so riddled with sickness, that a Priest gave her last rights. While she was ill, she allegedly had visions of Christ. This was, arguably, what Julian wanted, as she notes in her book that she desired to have an illness when she was 30, (the same age that Christ began his ministry), to become closer to God. (Shrine) The visions Julian received continued from May 8th (three Sundays after Easter), and for the next 12 hours, in which Julian received 15 revelations of God's love, with an additional 16th coming that Monday morning. (Shrine) Julian then resolved to dedicate the remainder of her life to Christ, and moved into the anchoress cell at the Church of Saint Julian the next day. (Shrine)

Debates on whether she was an anchoress (a person who chose to live in divine solitude), or a reclusive Benedictine Nun go on to this day. Regardless, along with her divine visions, Julian may have chosen this life of service to Christ because she was unmarried, lost her family to the plague, or was widowed by the plague. Contemporary scholar's dispute whether her life of solitude was a form of quarantine against the plague itself. (Encyclopedia)

Julian lived in a cell with three windows. One window was open to the Church, so Julian could hear mass and receive the sacred sacraments. Another window opened to her servant's quarters, so she could communicate with her serving lady about daily chores. The other window was delegated to individuals seeking advice and consul, so Julian could communicate with them. (Shrine)

Julian wrote two versions of her book, Revelations of Divine Love. The first version was written right after Julian's arrival in the anchoress' cell. The second version was written years later, after much contemplation and prayer by Julian. (Shrine) Julian's book itself showed God as a compassionate being, who wanted to save every human soul. (Shrine) Julian wrote: "He loves us and enjoys us, and so he wills that we love him and enjoy him, and firmly trust him; and all shall be well." (Shrine) This view of an all-loving God differed with contemporary opinions of the time, which viewed God as wrathful and vengeful, having unleashed the plague upon England to punish the wicked.

Arguably, Julian's most controversial theory was in regards to Christ. Julian viewed Christ as being a mother. Expanding on this concept, Julian compared Christ to being a mother that is wise, loving, and merciful. (Jantzen) Julian also argued that the bond between Mother and Child is the only earthly relationship that comes close to describing the ideal relationship between an individual and Jesus. (Jantzen) Julian also argued that God was a much of a Mother to his flock as a Father. Julian also viewed motherhood as being one of the noblest positions on earth that a woman can hold. Julian connected every aspect of motherhood (conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing) with Jesus. (Jantzen) Although these opinions were controversial, Julian was not challenged. This could be simply because Church leaders thought that Julian was irreverent, because she was a woman. (Jantzen)

Julian died in 1413. Julian became a Saint in both the Catholic Church, and the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. Her feast day is May 13th in the Catholic faith, and May 8th in the Anglican and Lutheran faiths. Julian's credo, "All shall be well," (supposedly said to Julian by God himself) became one of the best known phrases of literature from her time period. (Jantzen) Julian has been forgotten in the dusty dregs of history to the general populace outside of Norwich and religious scholars. Now is the time to bring Julian to the forefront. Julian's contributions and controversial opinions to history should not be overlooked, or forgotten.


Works Cited

Encyclopedia, New Advent Catholic. Julian of Norwich. n.d. 6 October 2014.

Jantzen, G. Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. Paulist Press, 1988.

Shrine, St. Julian's Church and. the Lady Julian. n.d. 7 October 2014.

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