(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.