Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written by Dame Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century anchoress or religious recluse, A Book of Showings (also known as Revelations of Divine Love) is the record of sixteen visions that came to Julian during a nearly fatal illness in May, 1373. While no original fourteenth century manuscripts survive, four later, complete copies still exist. One is shorter than the rest and may be based on Julian’s original record of her experience. The other three, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, preserve a longer version that reflects Julian’s fifteen to twenty years of meditation on the visions; this is the version usually read today. The overall theme, as suggested by the alternate title, is the love of God shown in Creation, in Jesus Christ, and in the life of the believer. Although Julian is not the only female religious mystic of the Middle Ages, she is unique in style and in her exposition of the feminine aspects of God.

After a brief outline of the book, Julian explains how the visions came to her on May 8, 1373; she was thirty-one years old. She views the illness that brought her near death and the visions that came when everyone, including Julian herself, had given her up for dead as the answer to her prayers to understand Christ’s suffering on the cross, to suffer physically for God’s sake, and to experience sincere repentance, compassion, and a desire to know God.

The first twelve revelations deal with the...

(The entire section is 493 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, Julian was apparently well known locally as a holy woman and spiritual counselor during her lifetime, as shown by bequests to her in several wills of that time and by a visit with her recorded by another English mystic, Margery Kempe, in the autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe (wr. 1436). From the few surviving manuscripts, however, it seems that A Book of Showings was not widely read, perhaps because the theological views of women were not highly valued, with few exceptions. Julian herself acknowledged that some readers would question the validity of her revelations because of her sex. Julian’s visions were preserved by exiled English Benedictine nuns in France, whose chaplain produced the first printed edition in 1670. Julian is cited as an influence on Florence Nightingale, the nineteenth century pioneer in nursing. Late twentieth century writers Annie Dillard and Mary Gordon have also been influenced by The Book of Showings.

Interest in Julian’s visions began to revive at the beginning of the twentieth century when Grace Warrack translated the long text from Middle English in 1901. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) shows the influence of Julian’s mysticism, especially in “Little Gidding.” The first critical edition of A Book of Showings, by Anna Maria Reynolds, appeared in 1956. In 1973, the Anglican church celebrated the...

(The entire section is 411 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Baker, Denise N. Julian of Norwich’s “Showings”: From Vision to Book. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Traces the evolution of Julian’s writings from the origin of her visions in affective spiritual practices to the sophisticated theology of the educated medieval woman.

Beer, Frances. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell Press, 1992. Beer summarizes and explicates A Book of Showings, focusing on Julian’s visions of the Crucifixion and Christ’s suffering as parallel to human suffering, which is intended to draw people to God. The author clearly admires Julian as a person and as a spiritual authority.

Bradley, Ritamary. “Julian of Norwich: Writer and Mystic.” In An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe, edited by Paul E. Szarmach. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Bradley analyzes Julian’s style and use of figurative language, and she outlines what she considers to be the key features of Julian’s theology: the nature of the Trinity and of God’s transforming love. Discussions of Julian’s place in the Christian mystical tradition and of her modern influence are particularly helpful.

Coleman, T. W. English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. In his chapter on Julian, Coleman gives detailed...

(The entire section is 639 words.)