Julian’s book is in two versions —a short text and a long. Through these, she reflects upon sixteen visions, or ‘shewings’, experienced on her apparent deathbed.
Her visions entail, with vivid closeness, the experience of being present at the Passion of Christ. The book explores what she interprets the shewings to mean. Revelations is remarkable, not only because it survives, but also because it was written by Julian. Significantly, women were not permitted to hold esteemed clerical positions which may shed light on Julian’s choice to become an Anchorite. It was, perhaps, a way of accessing and expressing her piety, and teaching others about it simultaneously.
And teaching about her beliefs seems to have been important to Julian. Revelations is written in the vernacular. This is fairly unique, especially for medieval theological texts, but Julian makes the choice not to write in Latin, thereby suggesting that she is writing for an ordinary person. We can assume that she wishes for a wide demographic of lay people – such as she was – to be able to access and muse upon her teachings. Her book is a didactic exploration of her own visions.
In each of her shewings, Julian sees the process of Christ’s death, beginning with the trickle of blood from under the wooden Christ’s crown of thorns, manifesting into his real, human form. She sees the Virgin Mary, she sees Christ’s suffering on the cross, each wound on his body apparently alive, moving with almost cinematic detail. She sees the Devil defeated by Christ’s death, and His human body decaying as the blood dries. Meanwhile, Jesus shows her things, three heavens, his pleasure in having suffered for mankind. Most famously, though, he shows her a small object, the size of a hazelnut. Julian is awed that such a tiny thing can survive, and comes to the conclusion that, ‘it lasts, and ever shall, because God loves it’.
The message of Revelations is one of divine, unconditional forgiveness, born out of Julian’s Affective Piety (her focus on Christ as a human being, as well as God incarnate). Affective Piety often develops into configuring Christ as a humane figure. A contemporary religious hermit, Richard Rolle, takes the fact of Christ’s suffering for humanity, and uses it to paint Him as an all-generous lover. Julian does not. Rolle’s Christ is a man who suffers for us, and in doing so is removed from humanity and their own experience. Julian’s Christ suffers, and acknowledges our own earthly suffering. Christ is, for Julian, maternal. Christ’s Passion, which Julian sees first-hand in her visions, is an example of extreme yet generative pain, which she aligns with the pain of childbirth. She observes that, ‘in mercy he reformeth us and restoreth, and by the vertu of his passion, his deth and uprising oneth us to oure substance.’ (p.309 Revelations ‘…he reforms us, and restores, and by the virture of his passion, his death and rebirth, unites us to our substance’).
It is Jesus’ maternal side which lets Julian extrapolate an eternal forgiveness. She configures a version of Christianity which accounts for human error. This defines her Mysticism (more on this in a second), but also draws her closer to accusations of heresy which were frighteningly common during her lifetime.