Julian of Norwich wrote the first work in the English language which we can be sure was authored by a woman. For this fact alone she is remarkable, but she was also one of the most sophisticated and unusual theologians of her era.
Who was Julian of Norwich?
We know precious little about Julian – even her name is unclear. She gives away almost no personal information in her Revelations of Divine Love. What we know can be gleaned from small scraps of information in wills, in a contemporary account, from some fleeting references in her work and from a rubric (a few lines of introductory text) in the only surviving medieval manuscript of her work.
This rubric, in a manuscript dated to 1413, describes her as a ‘Julyan that is recluse ate Norwyche and ȝitt on lyfe’ [Julian, who is a recluse in Norwich and is alive] (f. 97r). 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.
In her Revelations, Julian describes how, in the thirtieth year of her life, she lay dying. At this point, she experienced a series of visions which she believed to be divine revelations. She tells us that this occurred in May 1373, which gives us her birthdate as late 1342.
This is the first information we have about Julian’s life. We are not sure whether she was already an anchoress at this point, or if she had had another occupation. (Although the description of her near-deathbed, with the people around her, suggests she was not enclosed in a cell.) There has been some suggestion that she was a nun. If this is the case, she may have come from Carrow Abbey, a Benedictine convent, which was a mile from the church of St Julian in Norwich. Carrow held the ‘advowson’ of the church, which was the right to appoint its rector.
Composing the Revelations of Divine Love
It seems that soon after her visions in May 1373, Julian composed what is known as the ‘Short Text’ of her Revelations. Over the next two decades, however, she meditated on the meaning of her visions, producing a much longer text, known as the ‘Long Text’ after ‘twenty yere saue thre monthys’ [three months short of twenty years]. The expansion of her work represents her transition from visionary to sophisticated theologian.
Later life and death
Whether Julian was a nun or an anchoress before the events of May 1373, she had definitely become an anchoress by 1394 when a bequest was made to ‘Julian ankorite’ [Julian the anchoress]. Julian seems to have been still alive in 1416 because in that year Isabel Ufforde, the Countess of Suffolk, left 20 shillings to a ‘Julian, recluse at Norwich’. She would have been 73.
Thus, it would appear that Julian spent at least 20 years enclosed in her cell or ‘anchorhold’. Despite this enclosure, and her protestation that she was a ‘symple creature vnlettyred’ [a simple, uneducated creature], Julian was evidently very learned and must have been exposed to theological learning either through sermons or direct access to texts.
The date of her death is unknown.
Further information about the life of Julian of Norwich can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.