When I mention my fascination with Julian of Norwich to the many people who have never heard the name, their first response is usually: “Who’s he?”
A tricky foundation upon which to convince them that the she (not he) in question is a 14th-century mystic from Norwich whose book should be studied alongside Chaucer as one of the early English literary masterpieces.
Julian was the first known woman to write in English, an accolade that in itself should earn her text, the Revelations of Divine Love, recognition. But whether she was male or female, born in the 14th century or the 21st, the book she wrote was a literary achievement by any standard.
There are many reasons I think Julian is remarkable. First, she lived through some of the most turbulent decades in English history, which saw the aftermath of the Black Death, the Western Schism and the climax of the Hundred Years’ War with France. Secondly, despite the plague, horror and heresy that raged around her, she managed to find an optimism and hope that was not trite and conciliatory, but robust and determined. Thirdly, her writing is sublime and timeless.
Those who have heard of Julian may know of her famous phrase: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It is justly well known, since its potency resonates across the centuries. She would have learnt rhetorical devices like the Rule of Three not from a university lecturer (since women were denied such an education), but from the sermons of her priest. Yet Julian was a self-taught writer, quietly penning a masterpiece over decades while walled up in an anchoress’s cell next to a church in Norwich dedicated to St Julian.
The life of an anchoress seems suspiciously “Dark Age” to our modern sensibilities. The rituals of enclosure are dramatic: the woman is given the Last Rites – effectively dead to the world – and is then led into a room, the door sealed or bricked up, to spend the rest of her living days shut within. She would have a window on to the church, another curtained one on to the street, and a further one through which she interacted with a maid (who would take care of her physical needs). But she could not leave the cell on pain of excommunication.
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