Today is the day we celebrate Julian of Norwich (ca. 1342 – ca. 1416) an English anchoress who is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics. She is venerated in the Anglican and Lutheran churches, but has never been canonized, or officially beatified, by the Roman Catholic Church, probably because so little is known of her life apart from her writings. Even if you are not particularly sympathetic to Christianity I would urge you to read about her, here and elsewhere, not least because she was revolutionary in many ways. I am going to call her a proto-feminist, for starters, because she was the first woman author published in the English language, and also because she shocked many contemporary theologians by insisting that God is both mother and father. Many of her thoughts are still too radical for many in the church.
Almost nothing is known about Julian’s life, not even her name. She is called “Julian” simply because her anchorite cell was built into the wall of the church of St Julian in Norwich in Norfolk (pictured). We also know, from her writing, that she had a series of visions when she was 30 years old while in the throes of a severe illness. She dates the start of these visions to when she was “30 years and a half.” They ended on 13 May 1372, and so her birth is placed at around 1342 (and hence she is remembered on this date). Subsequent to the visions she became an anchoress (religious hermit) and lived the rest of her life alone in her cell in Norwich. There is no evidence that she was a nun although she is frequently portrayed as such. Just about everything else concerning her life is conjecture and I will not bother you with the details.
At the time of Julian’s life, Norwich was the second largest city in England and an important center of commerce. Plague epidemics were rampant during the 14th century across Europe, so it was a time of great social instability, as well as uncertainty within the church. Norwich, like most urban areas, was hit hard. Many within the church saw the plague as a sign of God’s wrath against humanity, although Julian did not. By the end of the pandemic one person in three had died. No one was left untouched. Whole villages were wiped out and are known now only from soil impressions visible only from aerial photography (pictured). Thus Julian’s revelation made a profound impact on a society filled with uncertainty.
Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened (although the text may not have been finished for some years), in a version of the Revelations of Divine Love now known as the “Short Text.” This narrative of 25 chapters is about 11,000 words long. It is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390’s, Julian began to write a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as “The Long Text,” which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,500 words. This work seems to have gone through many revisions before it was finished, perhaps in the first or even second decade of the fifteenth century.
Julian became well known throughout England as a spiritual authority even though her works themselves were not widely disseminated. The English mystic Margery Kempe, who was the author of the first known autobiography written in England, mentioned going to Norwich to speak with her in around 1414. The Short Text survives in only one manuscript, the mid-15th century Amherst Manuscript, which was copied from an original written in 1413 in Julian’s own lifetime. The Short Text does not appear to have been widely read, and it was not edited for print until 1911. The Long Text appears to have been slightly better known, but still does not seem to have been widely circulated in late medieval England. The one surviving manuscript from this period is the mid- to late-fifteenth century Westminster Manuscript, which contains a portion of the Long Text (not naming Julian as its author), refashioned as a didactic treatise on contemplation.
Printed versions of the Long Text have been available since the late seventeenth century, but it was not widely known until a newly edited version came out in 1902. From that point on she has been the subject of considerable scholarly study, not least because of the controversial nature of her writings. Numerous editions have been published which have also been translated into French (five times), German (four times), Italian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Catalan, Greek and Russian.
Although Julian lived in a time of turmoil, her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. She believed that God loved everyone and wanted to save them all. Popular theology, magnified by current events that included the Black Death and a series of peasant revolts, asserted that God punished the wicked. Julian suggested a more merciful theology leaning towards universal salvation. She believed that behind the reality of hell is the greater mystery of God’s love, and harbored the hope that no one was beyond redemption.
Although Julian’s views were not typical, nor approved, the authorities did not challenge her theology because of her status as an anchoress. A lack of references to her work during her own time may indicate that the religious authorities did not count her worthy of refuting, since she was a woman. Her theology was radical for her day in three ways: her view of sin; her belief that God is all-loving and without wrath; and her view of God/Christ as mother.
Julian believed that sin was necessary because it brings people to self-knowledge, which, in turn, leads to acceptance of the role of God in their life. She taught that humans sin because they are ignorant or naive, and not because they are evil, the reason commonly given by the mediaeval church to explain sin. Julian believed that in order to learn we must fail, and in order to fail we must sin. She also believed that the pain caused by sin is an earthly reminder of the pain of the passion of Christ and that when people suffer as Christ did, they become closer to him by their experiences.
Julian saw no wrath in God. She believed wrath existed in humans, but that God forgives us for this. She wrote, “For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love.” Julian believed that it was inaccurate to speak of God’s granting forgiveness for sins, because forgiving would mean that committing the sin was wrong. She preached that sin should be seen as a part of the learning process of life, not a malice that needed forgiveness. She wrote that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when human souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder us.
Julian’s belief in God as mother was controversial. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. This notion was not novel in the Middle Ages; Bernard of Clairvaux and others from the 12th century onward had written along the same lines. Julian believed that the mother’s role was the most vital of all on earth. She emphasized this by explaining how the bond between mother and child is the only earthly relationship that comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus. She also connected God with motherhood in terms of “the foundation of our nature’s creation,” “the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins,” and “the motherhood at work.” She wrote metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor and upbringing, but saw him as a brother as well. Julian’s most famous saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” came to Julian in a vision and reflects her theology of optimism.
In 2013, an annual week-long celebration of the life and works of Julian of Norwich was inaugurated in her home city. Through concerts, lectures, workshops, and tours, the week aims to educate all interested people about Julian presenting her as a cultural, historical, literary, spiritual, and religious figure of international significance. This site provides more details www.julianweek.org. The week coincides roughly with 13 May.
There are a few traditional dishes from the region of Norwich but they are not terribly well known. My favorite is Norfolk plough pudding, a suet pudding filled with a mix of sausage meat and bacon, flavored with sage. It was customary to make this for Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany – a major holiday in the farmlands of East Anglia. Brown sugar is a normal ingredient, but I omit it because I don’t like the sweetness. Your choice.
©Norfolk Plough Pudding
8 ozs/230g self-raising flour
2 ½ ozs/70g suet, shredded
1 lb/450g pork sausage meat
8 strips streaky bacon, chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1 tbsp brown sugar
Combine the flour, suet, and salt in a large mixing bowl so that they are thoroughly mixed. Slowly add cold water, one tablespoon at a time, and knead the dough together to form a soft, pliant dough. Do not let it become sticky.
Take two-thirds of the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Grease a pudding basin and line it with the dough so that it overlaps the edge of the basin.
Pat the sausage meat against the dough so that it forms an even layer with a well in the center. Mix the chopped bacon with the sage and place it in the well inside the sausage meat. Then top up the meat filling with light stock.
Roll out the remaining dough, place it over the basin, and crimp all around the edge tightly. Trim off excess dough. Cover the top with a layer of greaseproof paper and another of foil and bind it securely to the basin with string so that it is as airtight as possible.
Place the basin in a pan of boiling water that comes two-thirds up the sides of the basin. Cover the pot and let the pudding steam for around 4 hours. Exact timing is not critical. Check the water level in the pot periodically, and top it up with hot water if it gets low.
Turn the pudding out on to a warm platter and serve it hot with your choice of steamed vegetables.