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. The Short Text, shown here in this manuscript, has a searing immediacy.
It 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. Another version – the so-called ‘Long Text’ – was composed around 20 years later. In the later text, Julian strives to make out the meaning of the visions she experienced. It is around four times longer and appears to show the work of an editor or editors.
Who was Julian of Norwich?
We know very little about Julian. She gives away almost no personal information in her Revelations. What we know can be gleaned from a rubric (a few lines of introductory text) in this manuscript which describes her as a ‘Julyan that is recluse ate Norwyche’ [Julian, who is a recluse in Norwich] (f. 97r – digitised image 1). Here, the word ‘recluse’ means that Julian was an anchoress – a woman who had retreated from the world to live a life of prayer and contemplation, alone in a cell. We know her today as Julian because she was attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich (although the name ‘Julian’ could also be given to a woman in this period). If she had another name, we do not know what it was.
Anchoresses were often bricked up into their cells – known as anchorholds. At the moment of their ‘enclosure’ a funeral mass was said, to signify that they were now dead to the world. The recommended size of the cell was 12 feet – just over 3.5 metres – square. Anchoresses and anchorites (male recluses) were common in England from the 13th century until the Reformation of the early 16th century. Much of what we know about their life comes from a 13th-century guide for anchoresses called the Ancrene Wisse.
A simple creature?
Aside from being the first work in English to be written by a woman, Julian’s work is all the more extraordinary because she claims that she was illiterate, calling herself a ‘simple creature that cowde [knew] no letter’. Despite her claim, the work is a sophisticated piece of theological writing which contains many powerful images, including one famous one in which Julian has an image of the universe as a thing so small that it is like a hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand. The text reads:
He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my understanding it was as round as a ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘what may this be?’ and I was answered generally thus, ‘it is all that is made’. I marvelled at how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly fall into nothing for its littleness and I was answered in my understanding ‘it lasts and ever shall, for God loves it’. (f. 99r – digitised image 5)
View a full set of images of this digitised manuscript.