We love to celebrate notable women through history, but some deserve to be more highly celebrated - outside of academic circles, anyway. One, in particular, tends to be Julian of Norwich; the first woman to write a book in the English language (which has survived, anyway) and a hugely respected writer and mystic (no crystal balls here!).
She’s quite an enigma, though; we don’t know much about her apart from what we can glean from her book, The Revelations of Divine Love – plenty of drama involved!
Actually, we have no idea her name was even Julian - in fact, it probably wasn’t! Her name is taken from St Julian’s Church here in Norwich where she lived; she was an anchoress for the majority of her life. Anchoresses ‘retire from the world’ – or from mainstream society, anyway – to live a solitary life of prayer and mortification in their rooms (or ‘cells’ as they were charmingly called). Julian’s cell was attached to the church, and apparently had three windows: one to look onto the church to receive communion, one to speak to her assistant and one to speak to those in the ‘outside world’. We think of her today as a mystic and also a sort of counsellor, offering advice and teachings from God to the public.
We’re only aware of her birth year because in Revelations of Divine Love she writes that she is 30.5 years old when she experienced the visions, meaning that – calculators out - she must have been born in 1342.
The book in question, Revelations of Divine Love, was based on sixteen visions Julian experienced on what she thought was her deathbed in 1373. She saw Christ bleeding right in front of her eyes, suddenly understanding his great suffering and love for humankind and relaying his messages through her writing.
She originally wrote what we could now call ‘version 1’ straight after she received the revelations, then twenty years later she wrote a longer, more detailed version which includes her personal thoughts on this experience. Sadly there are only copies from the 17th century onwards of the earlier versions still existing today, and if you want to check out a 15th century version you’ll find only fragments still in existence. If you fancy taking a look at Julian’s musings yourselves but are unsure where to start, why not pop over to the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell, who have a copy exhibited – you’ll probably be able to find out some more information from a museum guide, too!
Julian was often thought of as a very optimistic person, having made various positive comments including “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” and “The greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love”, She was also a bit of a medieval feminist, including in Revelations of Divine Love some egalitarian phrases such as: “But for I am a woman should I therefore live that I should not tell you the goodness of God?” and positioning Jesus as a mother figure, writing: “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, more courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.” She was often visited for advice which she gave willingly - she might not have shared a glass of wine with you, but she’d probably have cheered you up if you were in need of a pep talk!
Julian of Norwich’s influence and importance certainly hasn’t wavered; today she is still hugely respected by historians, literary academics and theologians. Not only that, but her work has influenced countless writers, poets and even singers; some of the most well-known references by T.S. Elliot, Sydney Carter and Iris Murdoch. The University of East Anglia dedicated the ‘Julian Study Centre’ to her whilst Norwich as a city celebrates every year with a wide range of activities, lectures and exhibitions dedicated to her legacy. And long may it continue!