Dame Julian of Norwich

She was born c 1342 and is variously known as Mother Julian, Dame Julian or Saint Julian. She spent her life in Norwich, and we must assume that she was born there. I have tried to read the Revelations of Divine Love several times, but I have never been able to enter fully into the mind of Dame Julian. Great though her reputation is, I suspect that I am not alone in this. Those who write about her claim to be great admirers of her writing, although I have my doubts about how well they all appreciate her theology. Recently a journalist claimed she was the female Chaucer. This statement is only true in a chronological sense, as both writers were contemporary.

The work of Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c 1343) is not popular reading material today, at least not in its original language. As a 14-year-old O level student I had to read the Nun’s Priest’ Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale in Middle English. For me this was a delight, but I suspect that a number of my colleagues found it a nightmare. The reading of the 14th century Canterbury Tales in its original version is something that I guess would defeat many modern A level students, let alone having it as part of the GCSE. I may be wrong and today’s students are as clever as their ever-increasing grades claim, but I doubt it. Personally I love Chaucer, but his subject matter could not be more different from that of Julian of Norwich. They were however both writers in the language of English, newly re-emerging after centuries when French was the language of the powerful. It survived only as the spoken tongue of the common people.

St Julian's Church

St Julian’s Church

Julian’s approach to theology is a quiet and tolerant one, that was probably at odds with orthodox thought at the time. It was wholly different to the strident and violent religious controversies that were to characterise the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation a century and a half later. Her view of Divine Love is very popular today, and she is quoted in T. S.Eliot’s Four Quartets. By contrast the opinions of Sir Thomas More on religion would nowadays provoke almost universal condemnation. For instance he opposed the use of English in dealing with religion; for daring to read the Gospels in a language they could understand he was prepared to burn heretics at the stake, in spite of the resolute way he faced his own death under Henry VIII. Taking the diametrically opposed view, Julian was the first English writer to use the vernacular to discuss God’s work.

For those of us who are not theologians her primary importance is as the first female to use English. Very little is known of her life; even her name is derived from St Julian’s church, just off King Street in Norwich, where her anchorite’s cell was built into the wall. The church still stands and is the mother shrine devoted to Julian, but it was badly damaged by bombing in 1939/45 war. The exact location of her cell is lost, and after the Reformation even her name fell into obscurity.

She was rescued from oblivion by Father Cressy, an Anglian cleric who was exiled to the Continent during the Civil War. There he converted to Catholicism,  and his Sixteen Revelations on the Love of God by Mother Juliana was published in 1670, probably in Douai. By then he was again living in England, as chaplain  to Charles II’s Catholic Queen. Julian’s fame did not really take off until a version was published in Modern English at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then her reputation has grown across the Christian world, and she is now revered internationally.

When the Revelations of Divine Love was written in the late 14th century Norwich was second only to London in size and importance. Margery Kempe (b. c 1373), another Norfolk woman, is also hailed as an early female author, and perhaps the first English woman to write her autobiography. She too wrote in Middle English. Although Margery Kempe was a mystic and made many pilgrimages in this country and abroad, she was certainly no theologian. John Skelton (b. c 1463), the first Poet Laurate in England, was another Norfolk resident. By his time the language had evolved into Modern English, the tongue we still understand today. He wrote of the nuns of Carrow Abbey, thought by some to have been where Julian received her monastic training.

The city still has more medieval churches than anywhere else in England or indeed in Northern Europe. It was the Industrial Revolution that left Norwich behind in terms of size; thank goodness it did, for if it were still the second city in the land it would be an urban sprawl over most of Norfolk. It did however retain its importance in the cultural sphere; the writer Sir Thomas Browne and the artist John Crome are just two examples of this. The earliest flowering of the intellectual life in Norwich was in the writing of Dame Julian.





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