In May 1373, a woman took to her bed, believing that she was shortly going to die. She was 30 years old. To offer her comfort at the point of her death, a curate (a priest’s assistant) at her bedside held a crucifix out in front of her. At this moment, the woman – who is today known as Julian of Norwich – experienced a series of 16 extraordinary visions.
These visions are described in the Revelations of Divine Love, which is the first work in English to be authored by a woman. Two versions of the text exist. There is a 'Short Text', which appears to have been written down soon after Julian recovered from the illness that nearly killed her in 1373. In it, Julian describes the terrifying recent events of her deathbed and the spiritual comfort she received during her darkest hour. The version which you can see here – the so-called ‘Long Text’ – was composed decades after the Short Text. It represents her reflections on the meaning of the visions she experienced. It is around four times longer and appears to show the work of an editor or editors.
Scholars are divided about when Julian began work on her Long Text. In the penultimate chapter of the work she writes:
And fro the time that it was shewede, I desyerde oftentimes to witte what was oure lords mening. And fifteen yere after and mor, I was answered in gostly understanding, seyeng thus: ‘What, woldest thou wit thy lords mening in this thing? Wit it wele, love was his mening’.
[And from the time that it came to me, I often desired to know what our Lord’s meaning was. After fifteen years or more, I received an answer, saying to me: ‘What, would you like to know the Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning’.]
This would place the work of the revision in 1388, but it is clear from other evidence that the revising went on until 1393, when Julian was 50 years old. Evidently, striving to make out the meaning of her revelation was Julian’s life’s work.
The earliest manuscript of the 'Long Text' appears to have been copied by Anne Clementine Cary, a Benedictine nun living in exile from England, who died in 1671. Cary lived among a community of nuns in Cambrai or Paris and it is here that Father Serenus Cressy (1605–1674) probably encountered a manuscript of the 'Long Text' which he used to produce the first edition of Julian's work in 1670. The manuscript you can see here was probably made in around 1675, most likely from the manuscript which Cressy himself used. It is fitting that the survival of this important text about female experience was made possible by the energies of later women scribes.