Julian of Norwich, Mysticism and the Medieval Church

Molly Phillips

An Anchoress in 14th Century Norwich

It is the 1370s. At the age of thirty, you lie in a dark room. They have called in a priest to deliver your last rites: your illness has worsened. It seems this is the end. But then, something strange happens. Through the flickering candlelight, a hand thrusts a small crucifix towards your face. As you look on it, the blood painted on the wooden Christ’s face begins to move, dripping down his temples, oozing from underneath his crown of thorns. The tiny Christ comes to life before your eyes, and you experience the first of sixteen visions which will define the rest of your life. At this point in the 14th Century, Julian of Norwich was a lay woman living in her namesake city but, besides that, we actually know very little about Julian beyond this defining moment of her life, and the way that she chose to share it. Needless to say, Julian did not die on that day. She instead went on to publicise her remarkable fever-bed visions in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. It is the earliest known book to have been written in English by a woman. Not only this, but the text was written from the single room in which Julian would spend the rest of her life, as an Anchoress. Julian of Norwich underwent many deaths during her lifetime. To be an Anchoress was to die but to keep on living. Anchorites agreed to ‘die’, to all intents and purposes, by giving up the material world and resigning themselves to a life of religious devotion in a single room. Julian was willingly locked into an ‘Anchor-hold’, a room off a church just out of central Norwich. It is from this Church that we deduce her name, from St Julian. Among the multiple aspects of her life that we know nothing of, her lack of real name stands out. This is, though, likely not a coincidence: in giving up her worldly life, she also gave up her worldly identity, including her name. Anchoritic pursuits were increasingly common during the high Middle Ages. Julian lived day and night in a single room. She would be able to hear Mass on Sundays through the small window of her cell but, besides that, she would only have been aware of the outside world through whatever she could glean of the street outside, and through maid servants who came with food. But she was not allowed to enjoy this seclusion entirely. Although dead to the world, she was expected to provide spiritual guidance to wider society. The most famous of these interactions is documented in the Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe travels from what is now King’s Lynn, in a state of (not uncharacteristic) fervour to ask for Julian’s advice: ‘she [Margery] was bidden by Our Lord to go to an Anchoress in the same city [Norwich], who was called Dame Julian’.
Julian of Norwich, Mysticism and the Medieval Church
Modern Statue of Julian of Norwich, by David Holgate, outside Norwich Cathedral.

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Julian of Norwich, Mysticism and the Medieval Church
The Window to Julian’s Cell. This would have been a busy street

Revelations of Divine Love

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.
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Mysticism and Heresy

Julian of Norwich is viewed as a Mystic. Mysticism is defined by a state of oneness with the Christian Divine. For a world like Julian’s, which was decidedly Catholic (and therefore a world in which theological workings happened through Church doctrine and conversation with the Divine happened in the presence of clerical intermediates), this was a potentially dangerous narrative to publicise. It is always helpful to view Julian’s work alongside the Norwich that she lived in. By the time Julian had her visions, religious lay women were being questioned in Northern Europe. German Clerics were known to force pious women from their reclusion, something which, as a female recluse herself, Julian must have been acutely aware of. Norwich itself had a very specific relationship to pious women, being the only English city to house Béguines: a group of those persecuted women fleeing Europe and, themselves, connected to Mysticism. Potentially, then, Julian’s home city was a place of religious safety and sanctity. But it was not entirely free of danger. Accusations of heresy were thrown around 14th Century Norwich with growing speed. Julian lived through a great deal of social conflict with a group of proto-Protestants termed ‘Lollards’. The Bishop of Norwich, Henry Le Despenser disliked Lollards intently and many were burned at the stake just outside the city (where there is now a pub, called The Lollards’ Pit!). There were heresy trials throughout her lifetime, and many with beliefs akin to Julian’s own were killed for expressing them. ‘Lollardy’ became a synonym for ‘heresy’, though no one really seemed to have any precise definition of what made someone either a Lollard or a heretic. Instead it became used, in many instances, as a way to silence those who threatened to undermine mainstream Catholic doctrine. It is therefore easy to understand why Julian may have written so cautiously about her Mystic beliefs. To suggest that God is all-forgiving, to express that you have experienced visions, suggests an interconnectedness of humanity with the divine. This moves beyond the bounds of Catholic doctrine, by subtly suggesting that you do not need the intermediary of the Church to converse with the divine. But Julian is careful. She writes of her experiences as catalysed by a Catholic rite: Last Rites, and the worship of the physical image of the crucifix. She returns to the Trinity over and over again, and consistently refers to how much she trusts, appreciates and advocates for the Church’s teaching. Her novel, less-than-orthodox beliefs are tied throughout, with ideas of the Catholic and the mainstream. It is in this careful way that she is able to teach about her understanding of Christianity – something which, due to her use of the vernacular, we can assume was important to her –even in a world defined by fear of heresy. What can we take from Julian’s work? Julian takes an image of horrendous suffering and turns it into a message of forgiveness, and in doing so treads a careful line between safety and religious anxiety. Julian’s work offers a unique perspective on Christian theology, but it also tells us about how people viewed themselves in a religious context. Perhaps inadvertently, Julian delivers a message about the sheer power of the Church in the Middle Ages, and the ways in which people related to this power. That she is so aware of heresy demonstrates much about Late 14th Century Norwich: it was a social world facing religious flux, repeatedly defining itself and un-defining itself. The ordinary person could relate to the Church in any number of different ways. For someone we know so little about, Julian teaches us much. Her Revelations are ground-breaking on so many levels, some overt and some more subtle. Her work is still of great importance to theological thinkers, and expresses a unique, deeply thoughtful, and highly feminine approach to Christianity.
Julian of Norwich, Mysticism and the Medieval Church
Part of Chapter One of Revelations of Divine Love (BL MS 2499)
Julian of Norwich, Mysticism and the Medieval Church

Molly Phillips

I am a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Master of the Arts in Medieval and Early Modern Textual Cultures.
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