As the fallout from the Black Death threw England into turmoil, a woman with a man's name produced a piece of literature that still resonates across the world today. In the realm of value in a post I am sharing somethings that until today I wasn't aware of.
Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1416)
Julian was an anchoress, someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic, and—circumstances permitting - Eucharist-focused life. She could fairly be described as the 'mother' of English literature. The process of becoming an anchoress was quite gruelling judging by the descriptions I have read. It wasn't simply withdrawing from the world and becoming a religious couch potato. You had to give up your life and be walled up in a cell until your death. Those who chose this path would be witnesses at their own funerals, receiving the last rites, and have the door to their room sealed or bricked up. They could never leave on pain of excommunication.
An anchoress cell
Julian probably took her name from the church in which she was walled up for decades. She wrote a mystical text which should rightly be propped up next to your copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Revelations of Divine Love was produced in 1395 a time in which the church was in turmoil with two popes, disease, riots and war.
The schism in the Catholic church ran for almost 40 years when Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy from Avignon in France to Rome. The ripples from this ecclesiastic pebble dropped in the religious pond spread across all of Europe with people not knowing to which pope prayers should be designated. Following the death of John Wycliffe in 1384 heretics were becoming increasingly persecuted. He had argued for a reformation of the church with no relics or pilgrimages, no payment for indulgences, and access to the Scriptures through English translations. Wycliffe's supporters were termed Lollards and were rounded up and executed. The Lollard's Pit was close to Julian's cell on King's Street in Norwich and she would have been acutely aware that any heresy would have been sniffed out and dealt with summarily.
During all this turmoil and indiscriminate death Julian wrote a calm, optimistic and loving book. In the book she stresses that God sees no sin, he is both mother and father, and that love is the root of everything.
It is believed that Julian was around forty years of age when she elected to become an anchoress and possibly as the result of serious illness. It could have been a touch of the plague, Norwich lost over half of its population at this time. She was receiving the last rites and a crucifix was held in front of her which supposedly triggered 16 revelations that formed the basis of meditation for the rest of her life.
When Julian decided to become an anchoress there were benefits that even in modern times some would welcome the opportunity. She was in her forties and had enough personal wealth to sustain her and a maid to see to her daily needs. She would not have to marry again or undertake the potentially deadly procedure of medieval childbirth, and she would have the time and freedom to meditate and to read and write. At that time women couldn't attend university - they couldn't even get a decent education - so becoming an anchoress meant that although physically restricted she was intellectually free.
A printed version of this book didn't become widely available until the turn of the twentieth century but is fast becoming a must have or read. Apparently, the work has inspired the pope, and the Queen has Julian's words on a stained glass window in front of which she prays.
I leave you with an inspirational quote from the book,
“Truth sees God, and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love.”
― Julian of Norwich,
― Julian of Norwich,