Julian of Norwich Essay - Critical Essays

Julian of Norwich


Julian of Norwich 1342(?)-1416(?)

(Also known as Mother Juliana of Norwich, Dame Julian, Lady Julian, and Dame Jelyan.) English devotional writer. For information on Julian's complete career, see LC, Volume 6.

Julian was the first woman writer of extended English prose. Her Revelations of Divine Love, in which she details the spiritual insights she derived from a series of sixteen visions, is considered an outstanding document of medieval religious experience. In it she considers the mysteries of Christian faith, commenting on predestination, the nature of sin, and other matters of traditional theology. Revelations of Divine Love has been praised for its freshness, simplicity, sincerity, and vigor, and it reveals the author as one endowed with an uncommon intellect and a profound faith.

Biographical Information

Julian was careful to ensure that no materials for her biography remained after her death. She asked readers of Revelations to forget the work's earthly author, and evidently she died in the obscurity she sought. Nothing is known of Julian's origin and little is known with reasonable certainty of her later life, although some facts do appear in Revelations, in scribal commentary, and in contemporary documents. That she was for some time an anchoress—a religious contemplative living a solitary life of meditation and prayer—is confirmed by a bequest in a 1404 will to "Julian an anchoress at St. Julian's Church" and by a record in Archbishop Henry Chichele's 1416 register of a legacy to "Julian, recluse at Norwich," who was, according to the register, then alive at age seventy-four. This information, considered along with Julian's age at the time of the events described in her book, points to about 1342 as her birth date. Little else is known about Julian except that she was attended by her mother during the illness described in Revelations.

Major Works

Revelations of Divine Love, Julian's only known work, is a prose account of visions she experienced while seriously ill in May of 1373. She later described these events in a short version of Revelations of Divine Love, believed to have been written soon after its author's recovery, and a longer, more reflective version, written probably about twenty years later. She recounts that while she contemplated a crucifix held before her by a curate, she was suddenly freed from pain. She reports that the crucifix before her eyes seemed to come to life and the visions began. The first fifteen "ghostly shewings" followed continuously for several hours, but then Julian's illness returned, causing her to lose faith in what she has seen. Falling asleep, she dreamed of the Devil trying to strangle her, and awoke to experience smoke, heat, and a "foul stench" apparent to no one in the room but herself. She then blessed God, and immediately lost all sense of sickness. Julian's faith in her visions returned, and that same night she experienced her sixteenth and, as far as can be gathered, final revelation. The following fifteen years she devoted to inquiry into the meaning of her visions, but her understanding was not made complete, she explains in the later version of Revelations, until nearly twenty years had passed.

Critical Reception

Julian and her work have not always been widely known and esteemed. There is no convincing evidence that there was any appreciable cult attached to her during her life; her present reputation for holiness is based on two sources only, Revelations of Divine Love and a reference to her by the fifteenth-century contemplative Margery Kempe, who visited Julian and described her as an expert in giving good counsel. The manuscript tradition for Julian's work indicates that in its author's day the Revelations enjoyed only limited circulation. In contrast with the plethora of surviving copies of the writings of such fourteenth-century English mystics as Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, of Julian's work there are singularly few—perhaps, scholars have suggested, owing to its profundity and difficulty. Revelations was rescued in the mid-seventeenth century by Augustine Baker, whose spiritual school, located among the exiled English Benedictines of France and the Low Countries, transcribed the long text and provided the copy-text for the first printing of Revelations of Divine Love. Since that time, interest in Julian's work has remained slight, although at different times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuriess such issues as the text's language, prose style, and theological content have led in turn to inquiry into the extent of Julian's learning, the nature of her illness, her place among her contemporaries, and the relationship of the two versions of her account.

For the most part, contemporary critics have given Revelations of Divine Love and its author almost unqualified praise. Near the beginning of the twentieth century, William Ralph Inge described Julian's work as a "fragrant little book," and Evelyn Underhill labelled Julian "the most attractive, if not the greatest, of the English mystics." Concentrating on the work's literary style, T. W. Coleman characterized Julian's writing as "a moorland stream flowing gently along with crystalline cleanness and a sweet musical murmur," while others have acknowledged Julian's important position in the evolution of English prose. Touching on his subject's personal qualities, David Knowles called Julian "a generous and loving woman with an extraordinary delicacy of feeling," and E. I. Watkin wrote of Julian that "she comes to us with the credentials of a personal experience whose authenticity we cannot doubt." More recently, Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, in marked contrast to some earlier critics who approached Julian as a simple, untutored devotee miraculously endowed by the Holy Spirit, have seen Julian as a great writer and scholar: "Julian became such a master of rhetorical art as to merit comparison with Geoffrey Chaucer… In adapting the rhetorician's figures and modes of thought to the needs of English prose, Julian was herself a pioneer."Outside of the critical mainstream, Julian's work has in this century been modernized, condensed, anthologized, and "interpreted" for contemporary readers, and the work's most celebrated messages, "All shall be well …" and "Love was His meaning," have been widely imitated and embraced, most notably the former saying in T. S. Eliot's 1943 poem "Little Gidding."

Julian is celebrated for her fundamental outlook of optimism and as a spiritual teacher of the first order. Her Revelations of Divine Love is recognized as a sound and consoling spiritual document, offering its readers a rich source of instruction impressive for its stylistic virtues and sober piety. Its message once nearly lost, Julian's Revelations of Divine Love has found an audience, and Julian is admired today as a woman of intellect and faith.

Principal Works

XVI Revelations of Divine Love, Shewed to a Devout Servant of Our Lord, Called Mother Juliana, an Anchorete of Norwich, Who Lived in the Days of King Edward the Third (meditation) 1670

Comfortable Words for Christ's Lovers, Being the Visions and Voices Vouchsafed to Lady Julian (meditation) 1911

A Shewing of God's Love: The Shorter Version of Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (meditation) 1958

A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. 2 vols. (meditation) 1978

Showings meditation (meditation) 1978


Robert H. Thouless (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "Some Characteristics of Julian's Thought" in The Lady Julian: A Psychological Study, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1924, pp. 51-65.

[Considering Julian's mystical experiences within a psychoanalytic framework, Thouless speculates on the psychic sources and meanings of her imagery.]

Before passing to a consideration of particular teachings embodied in the shewings of the Lady Julian, we may notice two characteristics of her thought which must strike at once her most casual reader. These are the rich content of imagery in her thinking, and her almost repellent insistence on the physical awfulness of the crucifixion. The former is a point of...

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Evelyn Underhill (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "English Medieval Mystics" in The Mystics of the Church, James Clarke & Co., 1925, 11. 110-32.

[In the excerpt that follows, Underhill emphasizes Julian's skill as a writer, noting especially her ability to fuse 'feeling and expression" and "soaring philosophy with homely simplicity."]

[Julian of Norwich] stands out with peculiar distinctness. As the first real English woman of letters, she has special interest for us: the more so when we consider the beauty of character, depth of thought, and poetic feeling which her one book displays. In her mingled homeliness and philosophic instinct, her passion for Nature, her profound devotion to the Holy Name, she...

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David Knowles (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Margery Kempe and Dame Julian" in The English Mystics, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1927, pp. 128-49.

[In the following excerpt, Knowles examines Julian's work in order to characterize her qualities as a writer and as a mystic. In both capacities, he contends, her sincerity of feeling and natural style set her apart from her contemporaries.]

We have already in an earlier chapter considered a spiritual writing which had for its end the direction of ancresses. We havenow to examine the writings of two holy women who followed this life of solitude, Margery Kempe of Lynn and Dame Julian of Norwich; and though we have only a few pages to tell us of the first,...

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Conrad Pepler (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Mother Julian and Visions" in The English Religious Heritage, B. Herder Book Co., 1958, pp. 305-20.

[In the excerpt that follows, Pepler discusses the often controversial matter of whether Julian's visions were authentic spiritual events. He concludes that even her confessed moment of doubt does not detract from what he considers evidence that her revelations were divinely inspired.]

The Riwle written at the very end of the twelfth century for two or three sisters, anchoresses, was designed to train its readers in the more perfect life of contemplation. But it was treating of the first stages of the spiritual life, and, as we have seen, it only rises...

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B. A. Windeatt (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Julian of Norwich and Her Audience," The Review of English Studies, n.s. Vol. xxviii, No. 109, February 1977, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Windeatt compares the early, shorter version of Revelations with the later and longer edition in order to demonstrate the sense of authority and control over her material and awareness of her audience that Julian developed during the years between the two works.]

It is an unusual opportunity, but in the manuscript situation of the Revelations of Julian of Norwich there is indeed a chance to see a mystic's literary revision of her account of her experience and of her interpretation of it.


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Jennifer P. Heimmel (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Culmination of the Tradition in Julian and her Revelations" in "God Is Our Mother": Julian of Norwich and the Medieval Image of Christian Feminine Divinity, pp. 46-69, Institut fir Anglistik und Amerikanistik Universitat Salzburg, 1982, pp. 46-69.

[In the following excerpt, Heimmel credits Julian with being the first Christian writer to synthesize a cohesive image of "God the mother" from the suggestions of feminine divinity scattered throughout the Bible and other traditional sources.]

It was not until approximately 1393 that the medieval image of a Christian feminine divinity reached its culmination in the single work of an English anchoress and...

(The entire section is 7610 words.)

Ritamary Bradley (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Julian of Norwich: Writer and Mystic" in An Introduction to Medieval Mystics of Europe, edited by Paul E. Szarmach, State University of New York Press, 1984, pp. 195-216.

[In the essay that follows, Bradley places Julian's writings within the context of the traditions of Christian mysticism and the canon of English literature.]

Julian of Norwich is the first known woman of letters in English literature, and one is hard-put to find prose superior to hers in the Middle English period. She belongs, by right, to the mainstream of studies in literature and culture. This survey article undertakes to show that Julian deserves to be rated as a distinguished prose...

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Kenneth Leech (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Contemplative and Radical: Julian Meets John Ball" in Julian: Woman of Our Day, edited by Robert Llewelyn, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985, pp. 89-101.

[In the following essay Leech speculates on Julian's attitude toward the social upheaval of her day. He imagines her as the sympathetic supporter of peasants protesting the conditions of their lives.]

In 1973 a group of people gathered in Norwich, England, to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Julian's Revelations and to consider her relevance to the spiritual needs of the twentieth century. At one point in the discussions, a devout evangelical psychiatrist was reflecting on the pastoral value of the...

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Joan M. Nuth (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Work of Grace" in Wisdom's Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich, Crossroad, 1991, pp. 148-69.

[In the following excerpt, Nuth delineates Julian's concept of grace, which she says finds its coherence in Julian's unfailing emphasis on divine love for humanity.]

Although the Spirit of God is active with the whole trinity in the works of nature and mercy already described, the particular work attributed to the Spirit by Julian is eschatological fulfillment, which she calls the work of grace:

Grace works with mercy, and especially in two properties, … which working belongs to the third person, the Holy Spirit. He...

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Denise Nowakowski Baker (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Parable of the Lord and Servant and the Doctrine of Original Sin" in Julian of Norwich's "Showings": From Vision to Book, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 83-106.

[In the excerpt that follows, Baker examines several of Julian's revelations in detail, focusing on the vision that derived from the biblical parable of the Lord and the Servant. The critic suggests that Julian's interpretation of this vision diverges from traditional emphasis on sin and punishment, and instead uses the story to demonstrate forgiveness and redemption.]

One of the most striking features of Julian of Norwich's solution to the problem of evil is her refusal to attribute wrath...

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Grace M. Jantzen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "'Cry out and write': Hysticism and the Struggle for Authority" in Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 157-92.

[In the following excerpt, Jantzen charts the "reintegration" of body and spirit performed in Julian's revelationsa feature that Jantzen claims breaks with Christian tradition and arises from Julian's experiences as a woman.]

… As the Middle Ages waned, increasing numbers of women learned to read and write, in the vernacular if not in Latin. How Julian of Norwich was educated it is impossible to say. She was born in 1342, probably somewhere in East Anglia or the Midlands. Virtually everything that...

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Maria R. Lichtmann (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'God fulfylled my bodye': Body, Self, and God in Julian of Norwich" in Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, edited by Jane Chance, University Press of Florida, 1990, pp. 263-78.

[In the following essay, Lichtmann discerns in Julian's writings radical notions of sensuality and the feminine in divinity; she concludes that Julian "offers us … a theology of the body."]

Sometime after she received a series of sixteen "showings" or revelations during the course of a nearly fatal illness, Julian of Norwich became an anchoress, walling herself up in a cell attached to a church in Norwich, England. In such a state of isolation, Julian would seem an odd choice...

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Further Reading


Sawyer, Michael E. "Julian of Norwich." In his A Bibliographical Index of Five English Mystics: Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, the Author of "The Cloud of Unknowing," Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, pp. 53-68. Pittsburgh: Clifford E. Barbour Library, Pittsburgh Theological Semninary, 1978.

Secondary bibliography.


Beer, Frances. "Julian of Norwich." In her Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages, pp. 130-57.

Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1992.

An overview of Julian's life and work with an emphasis on her unique ability to both convey and...

(The entire section is 853 words.)