9 Julian of Norwich
Dr. Karen Palmer
Julian of Norwich
We know precious little about Julian – even her name is unclear. She gives away almost no personal information in her Revelations of Divine Love. What we know can be gleaned from small scraps of information in wills, in a contemporary account, from some fleeting references in her work and from a rubric (a few lines of introductory text) in the only surviving medieval manuscript of her work.
This rubric, in a manuscript dated to 1413, describes her as a ‘Julyan that is recluse ate Norwyche and ȝitt on lyfe’ [Julian, who is a recluse in Norwich and is alive] (f. 97r). Here the word ‘recluse’ means that Julian was an anchoress – a woman who had retreated from the world to live a life of prayer and contemplation, alone in a cell. We know her today as Julian because she was attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich (although the name ‘Julian’ could also be given to a woman in this period). If she had another name, we do not know what it was.
Born in 1342, Julian of Norwich probably entered into the solitary life of an anchoress at a young age. Living in a cell adjacent to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, Julian spent at least five hours a day in prayer as she devoted herself to communion with God as an anchorite. According to Thiebaux (1994), “an anchorite was sealed up, never to re-emerge into the world. Penance, meditation, reading, and in some cases writing were the anchorite’s sole activities” (442). Of herself, Julian says she is “a devout woman, and her name is Julian, who is a recluse at Norwich and still alive, A. D. 1413” (Julian 1978, 125).
From her writings, scholars know that Julian was well-educated and familiar with the theological scholars of her day. In his introduction to Showings, Edmund Colledge notes, “Though in several places she protests that she is ignorant and that at the time of the visions she knew ‘no letter,’ this is nothing but a well-known, often-employed rhetorical device” (Julian 1978, 19). Thiebaux (1994) also speculates that, rather than a rhetorical device, it could be that Julian “intended to point to Christ as the ultimate teacher” (443). Colledge says that Julian’s writing “points to her profound knowledge and flexible use of the Latin Vulgate text, and . . . a wide range of the classical spiritual writings that were the foundations of the monastic contemplative tradition” (Julian, 1978, 20). In any case, modern scholars are impressed by the depth of Julian’s knowledge.
Despite her obvious dedication to knowledge, Julian’s studies weren’t enough to satisfy her desire to know God, so, as a young woman, Julian asked that God would grant her three favors: “The first was to have a recollection of Christ’s Passion. The second was a bodily sickness, and the third was to have, of God’s gift, three wounds” (Julian 1978, 125). She believed that these three favors would enable her to grow in her understanding of God. As much as she desired these three gifts, she prays, “Lord, you know what I want. If it be your will that I have it, grant it to me, and if it be not your will, good Lord, do not be displeased, for I want nothing which you do not want” (Julian 1978, 126).
Thiebaux (1994) notes that “during her life Julian gained a reputation for sanctity and wisdom and became the object of deep reverence” (443). Because the job of the recluse was to counsel those in the town, it makes sense that Julian would have developed such a reputation and that her words would have meant much to those in her community. In fact, records show that she was mentioned by name in at least three wills before 1415 (Malone 2002, 231). That her words continue to inspire others, especially women, to seek God, shows that her purpose is one lasting much longer than even she could have envisioned.
Here’s a short video biography of Julian:
In her Revelations, Julian describes how, in the thirtieth year of her life, she lay dying. At this point, she experienced a series of visions which she believed to be divine revelations. She tells us that this occurred in May 1373, which gives us her birthdate as late 1342.
This is the first information we have about Julian’s life. We are not sure whether she was already an anchoress at this point, or if she had had another occupation. (Although the description of her near-deathbed, with the people around her, suggests she was not enclosed in a cell.) There has been some suggestion that she was a nun. If this is the case, she may have come from Carrow Abbey, a Benedictine convent, which was a mile from the church of St Julian in Norwich. Carrow held the ‘advowson’ of the church, which was the right to appoint its rector.
Composing the Revelations of Divine Love
It seems that soon after her visions in May 1373, Julian composed what is known as the ‘Short Text’ of her Revelations. Over the next two decades, however, she meditated on the meaning of her visions, producing a much longer text, known as the ‘Long Text’ after ‘twenty yere saue thre monthys’ [three months short of twenty years]. The expansion of her work represents her transition from visionary to sophisticated theologian.
Later life and death
Whether Julian was a nun or an anchoress before the events of May 1373, she had definitely become an anchoress by 1394 when a bequest was made to ‘Julian ankorite’ [Julian the anchoress]. Julian seems to have been still alive in 1416 because in that year Isabel Ufforde, the Countess of Suffolk, left 20 shillings to a ‘Julian, recluse at Norwich’. She would have been 73.
Thus, it would appear that Julian spent at least 20 years enclosed in her cell or ‘anchorhold’. Despite this enclosure, and her protestation that she was a ‘symple creature vnlettyred’ [a simple, uneducated creature], Julian was evidently very learned and must have been exposed to theological learning either through sermons or direct access to texts.
The date of her death is unknown.
- adapted from “Julian of Norwich” licensed under CC BY.
Excerpt from “Chapter 4: Rhetorical Analysis of the Words of Women in the Bible and Church History” from Clarifying God’s Purpose for Women in Ministry Today: A Rhetorical Analysis of Women’s Words Through History by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC ND.
Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love
In May 1373, Julian took to her bed, believing that she was shortly going to die. She was 30 years old. To offer her comfort at the point of her death, a curate (a priest’s assistant) at her bedside held a crucifix out in front of her. At this moment, the woman experienced a series of 16 extraordinary visions.
These visions are described in the Revelations of Divine Love. Two versions of the text exist. There is a ‘Short Text’, which appears to have been written down soon after Julian recovered from the illness that nearly killed her in 1373. In it, Julian describes the terrifying recent events of her deathbed and the spiritual comfort she received during her darkest hour. The ‘Long Text’ was composed decades after the Short Text. It represents her reflections on the meaning of the visions she experienced. It is around four times longer and appears to show the work of an editor or editors.
Scholars are divided about when Julian began work on her Long Text. In the penultimate chapter of the work she writes:
And fro the time that it was shewede, I desyerde oftentimes to witte what was oure lords mening. And fifteen yere after and mor, I was answered in gostly understanding, seyeng thus: ‘What, woldest thou wit thy lords mening in this thing? Wit it wele, love was his mening’.
[And from the time that it came to me, I often desired to know what our Lord’s meaning was. After fifteen years or more, I received an answer, saying to me: ‘What, would you like to know the Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning’.]
This would place the work of the revision in 1388, but it is clear from other evidence that the revising went on until 1393, when Julian was 50 years old. Evidently, striving to make out the meaning of her revelation was Julian’s life’s work.
The earliest manuscript of the ‘Long Text’ appears to have been copied by Anne Clementine Cary, a Benedictine nun living in exile from England, who died in 1671. Cary lived among a community of nuns in Cambrai or Paris and it is here that Father Serenus Cressy (1605–1674) probably encountered a manuscript of the ‘Long Text’ which he used to produce the first edition of Julian’s work in 1670. The manuscript you can see here was probably made in around 1675, most likely from the manuscript which Cressy himself used. It is fitting that the survival of this important text about female experience was made possible by the energies of later women scribes.
In the first sentence of the short text of Showings, Julian says that in her vision are found “many words of comfort, greatly moving for all those who desire to be Christ’s lovers” (Julian 1978, 125). Julian here is responding to a need she sees to provide comfort for believers. Her plea to her readers is that “mightily, wisely, lovingly and meekly you contemplate God, who out of his courteous love and his endless goodness was willing to show this vision generally, to the comfort of us all” (Julian 1978, 133). Given the situation of the world, and especially of her locality, Julian’s belief that people were seeking comfort seems well-founded. According to Malone (2002), Julian’s life intersected with not only the tragedy of war, but also of disease. She says, “The Black Death hit Norwich around 1349, and in her late teens, when another plague carried off most of the children of the area. Records indicate that about one-third of the population of Norwich died as well as about half of all the clergy of the city” (233-234). Not only was there disease, but the area also experienced a series of “failed harvest and further plagues” that led to famine conditions and eventually a peasant revolt, all in addition to the Hundred Year War and the Great Schism in the church, which led many to join the Crusades (Malone 2002, 234). In the midst of death, famine, and war, it is no wonder that Julian felt a need to share comfort with her community!
In response to the need she sees, Julian set out to teach others what she had learned amidst a world where “women were warned . . . not to be so bold as to attempt to teach” (Bradley 1992, 6). In order to overcome the obstacles before her in the tempestuous world she lived in, Julian offers to teach only the simple and portrays herself in her writing as a student, with the teacher being Christ, not herself (Bradley 1992, 7). In fact, she calls herself “the wretched worm, the sinful creature to whom it was shown” (Julian 1978, 133). Even in her view of herself as wretched, Julian clearly sees herself as a mouthpiece and, in Chapter VI of the Short Text, she says, “Everything that I say about myself I mean to apply to my fellow Christians, for I am taught that this is what our Lord intends in this spiritual revelation. And therefore I pray you all for God’s sake, and I counsel you for your own profit” (Julian 1978, 133). Here, Julian acknowledges that her words are for the profit of her readers, but also says that she is only doing what she has been taught to do, laying down any claim to her own agency. Later she says, “For truly it was not revealed to me because God loves me better than the humblest soul who is in a state of grace . . . If I pay special attention to myself, I am nothing at all; but in general I am in the unity of love will all my fellow Christians” (Julian 1978, 134).
Covering many topics, “Julian’s lessons involve perception and understanding focused in love” (Bradley 1992, 5). In Chapter IV of the Short Text, Julian reflects on the great love of Christ for His creation saying, “he is our clothing, for he is that love which wraps and enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us” (Julian 1978, 130). She goes on to explain the application of this understanding:
But what is that to me? It is that God is the Creator and the lover and the protector. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have love or rest or true happiness; until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between God and me . . . For this is the reason why those who deliberately occupy themselves with earthly business, constantly seeking worldly well-0being, have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls. (Julian 1978, 131-132)
Content adapted from “The Long Text of Julian of Norwich Revelations of Divine Love” licensed under CC BY …
and from “Chapter 4: Rhetorical Analysis of the Words of Women in the Bible and Church History” from Clarifying God’s Purpose for Women in Ministry Today: A Rhetorical Analysis of Women’s Words Through History by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC ND.
Excerpt from Revelations of Divine Love
(Read the Full Text here.)
“A Revelation of Love—in Sixteen Shewings”
This is a Revelation of Love that Jesus Christ, our endless bliss, made in Sixteen Shewings, or Revelations particular.
Of the which the First is of His precious crowning with thorns; and therewith was comprehended and specified the Trinity, with the Incarnation, and unity betwixt God and man’s soul; with many fair shewings of endless wisdom and teachings of love: in which all the Shewings that follow be grounded and oned.
The Second is the changing of colour of His fair face in token of His dearworthy Passion.
The Third is that our Lord God, Allmighty Wisdom, All-Love, right as verily as He hath made everything that is, all-so verily He doeth and worketh all-thing that is done.
The Fourth is the scourging of His tender body, with plenteous shedding of His blood.
The Fifth is that the Fiend is overcome by the precious Passion of Christ.
The Sixth is the worshipful thanking by our Lord[Pg 2] God in which He rewardeth His blessed servants in Heaven.
The Seventh is [our] often feeling of weal and woe; (the feeling of weal is gracious touching and lightening, with true assuredness of endless joy; the feeling of woe is temptation by heaviness and irksomeness of our fleshly living;) with ghostly understanding that we are kept all as securely in Love in woe as in weal, by the Goodness of God.
The Eighth is of the last pains of Christ, and His cruel dying.
The Ninth is of the pleasing which is in the Blissful Trinity by the hard Passion of Christ and His rueful dying: in which joy and pleasing He willeth that we be solaced and mirthed with Him, till when we come to the fulness in Heaven.
The Tenth is, our Lord Jesus sheweth in love His blissful heart even cloven in two, rejoicing.
The Eleventh is an high ghostly Shewing of His dearworthy Mother.
The Twelfth is that our Lord is most worthy Being.
The Thirteenth is that our Lord God willeth we have great regard to all the deeds that He hath done: in the great nobleness of the making of all things; and the excellency of man’s making, which is above all his works; and the precious Amends that He hath made for man’s sin, turning all our blame into endless worship. In which Shewing also our Lord saith: Behold and see! For by the same Might, Wisdom, and Goodness that I have done all this, by the same Might, Wisdom, and Goodness I shall[Pg 3] make well all that is not well; and thou shalt see it. And in this He willeth that we keep us in the Faith and truth of Holy Church, not desiring to see into His secret things now, save as it belongeth to us in this life.
The Fourteenth is that our Lord is the Ground of our Prayer. Herein were seen two properties: the one is rightful prayer, the other is steadfast trust; which He willeth should both be alike large; and thus our prayer pleaseth Him and He of His Goodness fulfilleth it.
The Fifteenth is that we shall suddenly be taken from all our pain and from all our woe, and of His Goodness we shall come up above, where we shall have our Lord Jesus for our meed and be fulfilled with joy and bliss in Heaven.
The Sixteenth is that the Blissful Trinity, our Maker, in Christ Jesus our Saviour endlessly dwelleth in our soul, worshipfully ruling and protecting all things, us mightily and wisely saving and keeping, for love; and we shall not be overcome of our Enemy.
made one, united.
MS. “Asseth” = Satisfaction, making-enough.
“A simple creature unlettered.—Which creature afore desired three gifts of God”
These Revelations were shewed to a simple creature unlettered, the year of our Lord 1373, the Thirteenth day of May. Which creature [had] afore desired three gifts of God. The First was mind of His Passion; the Second was bodily sickness in youth, at thirty years[Pg 4] of age; the Third was to have of God’s gift three wounds.
As to the First, methought I had some feeling in the Passion of Christ, but yet I desired more by the grace of God. Methought I would have been that time with Mary Magdalene, and with other that were Christ’s lovers, and therefore I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily pains of our Saviour and of the compassion of our Lady and of all His true lovers that saw, that time, His pains. For I would be one of them and suffer with Him. Other sight nor shewing of God desired I never none, till the soul were disparted from the body. The cause of this petition was that after the shewing I should have the more true mind in the Passion of Christ.
The Second came to my mind with contrition; [I] freely desiring that sickness [to be] so hard as to death, that I might in that sickness receive all my rites of Holy Church, myself thinking that I should die, and that all creatures might suppose the same that saw me: for I would have no manner of comfort of earthly life. In this sickness I desired to have all manner of pains bodily and ghostly that I should have if I should die, (with all the dreads and tempests of the fiends) except the outpassing of the soul. And this I meant for [that] I would be purged, by the mercy of God, and afterward live more to the worship of God because of that sickness. And that for the more furthering in my death: for I desired to be soon with my God.
These two desires of the Passion and the sickness I desired with a condition, saying thus: Lord, Thou knowest[Pg 5] what I would,—if it be Thy will that I have it—; and if it be not Thy will, good Lord, be not displeased: for I will nought but as Thou wilt.
For the Third [petition], by the grace of God and teaching of Holy Church I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds in my life: that is to say, the wound of very contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of steadfast longing toward God. And all this last petition I asked without any condition.
These two desires aforesaid passed from my mind, but the third dwelled with me continually.
“that cowde no letter” = unskilled in letters.
thought of, designed.
MS. “wilful” = earnest, with set will.
“I desired to suffer with Him”
And when I was thirty years old and a half, God sent me a bodily sickness, in which I lay three days and three nights; and on the fourth night I took all my rites of Holy Church, and weened not to have lived till day. And after this I languored forth two days and two nights, and on the third night I weened oftentimes to have passed; and so weened they that were with me.
And being in youth as yet, I thought it great sorrow to die;—but for nothing that was in earth that meliked to live for, nor for no pain that I had fear of: for I[Pg 6] trusted in God of His mercy. But it was to have lived that I might have loved God better, and longer time, that I might have the more knowing and loving of God in bliss of Heaven. For methought all the time that I had lived here so little and so short in regard of that endless bliss,—I thought [it was as] nothing. Wherefore I thought: Good Lord, may my living no longer be to Thy worship! And I understood by my reason and by my feeling of my pains that I should die; and I assented fully with all the will of my heart to be at God’s will.
Thus I dured till day, and by then my body was dead from the middle downwards, as to my feeling. Then was I minded to be set upright, backward leaning, with help,—for to have more freedom of my heart to be at God’s will, and thinking on God while my life would last.
My Curate was sent for to be at my ending, and by that time when he came I had set my eyes, and might not speak. He set the Cross before my face and said: I have brought thee the Image of thy Maker and Saviour: look thereupon and comfort thee therewith.
Methought I was well [as it was], for my eyes were set uprightward unto Heaven, where I trusted to come by the mercy of God; but nevertheless I assented to set my eyes on the face of the Crucifix, if I might; and so I did. For methought I might longer dure to look even-forth than right up.
After this my sight began to fail, and it was all dark about me in the chamber, as if it had been night, save in[Pg 7] the Image of the Cross whereon I beheld a common light; and I wist not how. All that was away from the Cross was of horror to me, as if it had been greatly occupied by the fiends.
After this the upper part of my body began to die, so far forth that scarcely I had any feeling;—with shortness of breath. And then I weened in sooth to have passed.
And in this [moment] suddenly all my pain was taken from me, and I was as whole (and specially in the upper part of my body) as ever I was afore.
I marvelled at this sudden change; for methought it was a privy working of God, and not of nature. And yet by the feeling of this ease I trusted never the more to live; nor was the feeling of this ease any full ease unto me: for methought I had liefer have been delivered from this world.
Then came suddenly to my mind that I should desire the second wound of our Lord’s gracious gift: that my body might be fulfilled with mind and feeling of His blessed Passion. For I would that His pains were my pains, with compassion and afterward longing to God. But in this I desired never bodily sight nor shewing of God, but compassion such as a kind soul might have with our Lord Jesus, that for love would be a mortal man: and therefore I desired to suffer with Him.
“I langorid forth” = languished on.
I thought often that I was about to die.
Or it may be, at in de Cressy’s version: May my living be no longer to Thy worship?
“kinde,” true to its nature that was made after the likeness of the Creating Son of God, the type and the Head of Mankind,—therefore loving, and sympathetic with Him, and compassionate of His earthly sufferings: Who, Himself, for Love’s sake, suffered as man.
“I saw … as it were in the time of His Passion…. And in the same Shewing suddenly the Trinity filled my heart with utmost joy”
In this [moment] suddenly I saw the red blood trickle down from under the Garland hot and freshly and right plenteously, as it were in the time of His Passion when the Garland of thorns was pressed on His blessed head who was both God and Man, the same that suffered thus for me. I conceived truly and mightily that it was Himself shewed it me, without any mean.
And in the same Shewing suddenly the Trinity fulfilled my heart most of joy. And so I understood it shall be in heaven without end to all that shall come there. For the Trinity is God: God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting love and everlasting joy and bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ. And this was shewed in the First [Shewing] and in all: for where Jesus appeareth, the blessed Trinity is understood, as to my sight.
And I said: Benedicite Domine! This I said for reverence in my meaning, with mighty voice; and full greatly was astonied for wonder and marvel that I had, that He that is so reverend and dreadful will be so homely with a sinful creature living in wretched flesh.
This [Shewing] I took for the time of my temptation,—for[Pg 9] methought by the sufferance of God I should be tempted of fiends ere I died. Through this sight of the blessed Passion, with the Godhead that I saw in mine understanding, I knew well that It was strength enough for me, yea, and for all creatures living, against all the fiends of hell and ghostly temptation.
In this [Shewing] He brought our blessed Lady to my understanding. I saw her ghostly, in bodily likeness: a simple maid and a meek, young of age and little waxen above a child, in the stature that she was when she conceived. Also God shewed in part the wisdom and the truth of her soul: wherein I understood the reverent beholding in which she beheld her God and Maker, marvelling with great reverence that He would be born of her that was a simple creature of His making. And this wisdom and truth: knowing the greatness of her Maker and the littleness of herself that was made,—caused her to say full meekly to Gabriel: Lo me, God’s handmaid! In this sight I understood soothly that she is more than all that God made beneath her in worthiness and grace; for above her is nothing that is made but the blessed [Manhood] of Christ, as to my sight.
Either: In this sight—Shewing—of her; or In this her sight,—insight—beholding (vii., xliv., lxv.). See Rev. xi. ch. xxv., “For our Lord shewed me nothing in special but our Lady Saint Mary; and her He shewed three times.” The first shewing is here (a sight referred to in ch. vii. and elsewhere); the second, in ch. xviii.; the third, in ch. xxv.
This word is in S. de Cressy’s edition.
“God, of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself;—only in Thee I have all”
In this same time our Lord shewed me a spiritual sight of His homely loving.
I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all encloseth us for tender love, that He may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good, as to mine understanding.
Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it. But what is to me verily the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover,—I cannot tell; for till I am Substantially oned to Him, I may never have full rest nor very bliss: that is to say, till I be so fastened to Him, that there is right nought that is made betwixt my God and me.
It needeth us to have knowing of the littleness of creatures and to hold as nought all-thing that is made, for to love and have God that is unmade. For this is the cause why we be not all in ease of heart and soul: that we seek here rest in those things that are so little, wherein is no rest, and know not our God that is All-mighty, All-wise, All-good. For He is the Very Rest. God willeth to be known, and it pleaseth Him that we rest in Him; for all that is beneath Him sufficeth not us. And this is the cause why that no soul is rested till it is made nought as to all things that are made. When it is willingly made nought, for love, to have Him that is all, then is it able to receive spiritual rest.
Also our Lord God shewed that it is full great pleasance to Him that a helpless soul come to Him simply and plainly and homely. For this is the natural yearnings of the soul, by the touching of the Holy Ghost (as by the understanding that I have in this Shewing): God, of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself: for Thou art enough to me, and I may nothing ask that is less that may be full worship to Thee; and if I ask anything that is less, ever me wanteth,—but only in Thee I have all.
And these words are full lovely to the soul, and full near touch they the will of God and His Goodness. For His Goodness comprehendeth all His creatures and all His blessed works, and overpasseth without end. For He is the endlessness, and He hath made us only to Himself, and restored us by His blessed Passion, and keepeth us in His blessed love; and all this of His Goodness.
MS. “ghostly,” and so, generally, throughout the MS.
“Becloseth,” and so generally.
i.e. in essence united.
“nowtid of.” de Cressy: “naughted (emptied).”
Excerpt under Public Domain.