Editing by: Vicki Madden
Art: ‘The Young Virgin’, Francisco de Zurbarán
Julian of Norwich, an early fifteenth century East Anglian anchoress, and important Christian mystic and theologian, is the first person to draw attention to her own limitations as a woman. She makes it clear that she is unable to serve as a teacher to her reader, ‘For I am a woman, lewed, febille, and freylle’ (ST 7). Julian pens this admission close to the beginning of her writings, in which she wonderfully and wisely documents a divine visionary experience she had whilst deathly ill in 1373 and on which she continued to ruminate over the course of her subsequent life of enclosure in a Norwich anchorhold. In contrast to her contemporary counterparts, Margery Kempe in particular, Julian is often unduly overlooked in every strand of medieval studies despite being uncontestably deserving of canonical status, not least because she is the first woman ever known to write in the English language.
Testament to her life of enclosure are the two versions of Julian’s writings that survive, both of which ostensibly describe the same visionary event. A minimum of fifteen years separates these texts, however, and as a result, the second, far longer redaction is notably influenced by the extended period of contemplation that spurred the anchoress to return to her earlier composition (Watson and Jenkins 33). The differences between Julian’s short and long works range from narrative expansion on her visions and elaboration upon their meaning, to the addition of visionary moments that go wholly unmentioned in the first text. The longer text professes itself to be ‘begunne be Gods gift and his grace, but it is not yet performid’ (LT 86). Each of Julian’s texts, therefore, is provisional to the time of its writing and each represents a single moment in their authoress’ life-long interpretative process.
The anchoress’ personal commitment to seek the true meaning of that which was shown to her is matched in her sense of responsibility to accurately and widely share her revelations with ‘alle myne evyn-Cristende’ (ST 7). As aforementioned, at the beginning of her first text, Julian shows great concern for her limitations as a woman, distinguishing the spiritual tasks of sharing and teaching God’s word and committing only to the former. She justifies the importance of doing this by boldly asking: ‘Botte for I am a woman shulde I therefore leve that I shulde nought telle yowe the goodenes of God, sine that I sawe in that same time that it is his wille that it be knawne?’ (ST 7). The distinction that she draws, thus, reiterates the limited religious authority granted to late medieval women but simultaneously provides the justificatory framework for Julian to produce her spiritual works.
Among the most remarkable of the differences between the short and long texts left for us by Julian is the change in the anchoress’ view of herself as writer. Julian’s concerns about her female status inherently limiting the authority with which she might mediate God’s meaning through her text are far less prevalent in her later work. Indeed, the aforementioned passage asserting her frailty is removed entirely. Barry Windeatt suggests that this newfound assuredness may well be a mark that Julian, now so deeply committed to and convinced by her ruminations and their orthodoxy, no longer felt the need to defend her devotional vocation (xxi). Certainly, though her writings are consistently creative and complex, they never veer from orthodoxy and reflect the efforts of an intelligent and pious woman who sought to grasp God’s truths.
I came to Julian in my third year of undergraduate study whilst on exchange at McGill University, where I had elected to take a non-compulsory Middle English class. The Writings of Julian of Norwich was a recommended text one week. I, like nearly everyone to whom I mention her, had never heard of the anchoress prior to this, nor would I likely ever have heard of her (other than perhaps by way of a passing reference in secondary material) had I completed the traditional English Literature honours course at Edinburgh. This is astonishing not only because of her largely unacknowledged position of being England’s first authoress but also, all the more importantly, because Julian’s texts are fascinating works in and of themselves. They are theologically intriguing, offer beautiful and image-rich prose, stimulate nuanced discussion on the matter of auctoritas, contribute considerably to discussions of late medieval devotional practice and provide the very rare occasion for a scholar to bear witness to a medieval writer’s ‘editorial’ processes.
The canonical Middle English texts recommended to fresh-faced undergraduates, while studied for very good reason, offer a limited picture of medieval women and their experiences. Marian lyrics or even The Wife of Bath present female lives that are fascinating cases to study but must be taught as exemplifying existences that were far from the norm. Of course, Julian hardly leads an average life; the life of the late medieval anchor was ‘small but significant’ and Julian’s texts have rendered her mark on history all the more momentous (Baker 148). As she suggests, the truths she was shown and that she sought, preserved in her writing, greatly exceed her own experience of them. In the same way, Julian’s texts serve as a springboard to innumerable socio-historical and literary issues beyond the visionary events they describe. These include the subject of hermeneutics, the practice of affective piety and lay female religious experience, the study of which can help us move towards a more nuanced view of women’s experience in the Middle Ages. The breadth of topics on the curriculum that Julian’s writings can pertinently inform means she could easily appear on reading lists varying from first year undergraduate survey classes, to a specialised Honours course in women’s writing, religious literature, representations of the body, saints’ lives, or the material text, to name but a few.
The prevailing understanding of the medieval period, largely due to its misrepresentation in popular media, is almost entirely informed by sweeping stereotypes and false assertions. The parallels between this and contemporary issues regarding the representation of minority groups are unmistakable. Certainly, minority groups in the Middle Ages, women among them, remain those most reductively represented in both popular culture and academic spheres. This, fortunately, is slowly changing as a result of a reassessment of the medieval corpus; however, there remains a long way to go, for as Julian concludes, ‘Than is this the remedye, to knaw . . . and refuse the fals’ (ST 23).
ST ‘Short Text’ in Julian of Norwich. Edited by Barry Windeatt (2016), pp. 3-26.
LT ‘Long Text’ in Julian of Norwich. Edited by Barry Windeatt (2016), pp. 27-164.
Baker, Denise, ‘Julian of Norwich and Anchoritic Literature.’ Mystics Quarterly vol. 19, no. 4, 1993, pp. 148-160.
Jenkins, Jacqueline and Nicholas Watson. Introduction. The Writings of Julian of Norwich. Edited by Jenkins and Watson. Pennsylvania University Press, 2006, pp. 1-59.
Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love. Edited by Barry Windeatt. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. xiii-lii.
About the author:
Katherine Dixon is a current MPhil Medieval Literature student at the University of Cambridge. At undergraduate she read English Literature at Edinburgh, spending her third year on exchange at McGill University in Montréal. At present she is exploring divine revelation in Julian of Norwich and her research interests include late medieval scholasticism and lay spirituality.