Julian of Norwich is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics. She wrote one of the most remarkable and original documents of medieval religious perception, Revelations of Divine Love, which is considered the earliest published work in English by a woman.
It is known that Julian was an anchoress, or female hermit, though her exact circumstances are unclear. Her cell was in St Julian's Church in King Street. Whether she initially took the name of the church, or the church is named after her, is uncertain. The building that exists today is not exactly as Julian would have known it: the church was rebuilt after damage during the Second World War. However, we know that at some point she was enclosed in her cell as a recluse, where she lived until her death around 1416.
At the age of thirty in about 1372 and recovering from illness, Julian had a series of visions about Jesus Christ. The meanings of these were to occupy her for the rest of her life. It is not clear whether Julian was already an anchoress when she had these visions, whether she was a Benedictine nun at Carrow Priory or even if she was a laywoman. The resulting Revelations of Divine Love exist in two versions: a short text, which was probably written shortly after the visions, and a longer and more analytical version which followed further visions in 1388 and 1393. The Revelations were first published in 1395.
In the Revelations Julian debated predestination, the foreknowledge of God and the existence of evil, and expressed a desire for a more personal relationship with God beyond the use of religious iconography. She wrote that God should be regarded as a loving deity rather than one to be feared. As a female mystic, who expressed God as mother as well as father, she was open to allegations of having Lollard sympathies, particularly at a time of turbulent social unrest when the ideas of John Wycliffe were gaining momentum. Her ideas foreshadowed those of the Reformation.
Although her thoughts were controversial for the time, she was influential and well respected. This is illustrated by the large number of Norwich wills that left bequests to her. She was visited by Margery Kempe, soon after her own mystical visions began, in 1414.
Julian is widely considered one of the most important English mystics. Her work has been translated into many languages, and to this day it is celebrated by Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics alike.
Sandra Fishwick 2014
Sources and further reading
· Henrietta Leyser Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500- 1995