History is largely dominated by men. Kings, popes, bishops, monks, knights… they have defined the course of history, and they have written history. Despite the valiant attempts of feminists in the past century, writing women into history is a difficult process. Individuals who managed to break the mould are now widely celebrated: Joan of Arc, Æthelflæd, Elizabeth I. Yet for every one woman written into history there are many hundreds of men that drown out their achievements.
And so it is with literature. The canonical texts of the past two millennia are largely written by male authors. We read Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Joyce. The father of English literature is Chaucer. But who is the mother? The first known woman to write a book in English is an obscure anchoress from Norwich, whose very name has been given a masculine twist: Julian.
The word ‘anchoress’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to retire’, and anchoresses gave up their lives on Earth to be walled up in a cell until death. They would be witnesses at their own funerals, receiving the last rites, and have the door to their room sealed or bricked up. They could not leave again on pain of excommunication.
Julian most probably took her name from the church in which she was walled up for decades, St Julian’s Church off King’s Street. She wrote a mystical text in the late 14th century entitled Revelations of Divine Love, but it is virtually unheard of. Certainly students don’t have a copy of it propped up next to The Canterbury Tales as they learn about the birth of English literature.
Yet it is one of the most stunning literary achievements of the medieval period. This book could have been written in any time, any place, by a male or a female writer, and it would still be considered an incredible work. The fact that it was written during one of the most turbulent times in European history, simply adds to its mystery.
Who was Julian of Norwich?
Julian was born in 1343, and died around 1416. Her life encompassed a period in which the wheels were coming off church and state, with disease, corruption, war and fear rife.
Many of the wider problems of this period were triggered in 1349 when the Black Death reached British shores. It decimated the population of Julian’s hometown, with figures suggesting that 7,000 of 12,000 occupants died. Norwich was probably worse hit than most cities because of the regular stream of ships from Flanders, with which they had very close trade links.
Norwich was a vibrant mercantile city, the second largest after London at this point, but the effect of the Black Death and subsequent plagues would have lasting repercussions for its social and economic stability.
The ancient feudal system of medieval England was under threat, as a smaller number of peasants were able to demand better pay and rights to continue to work.
Then, when Edward III relaunched the Hundred Years’ War – and took much of the nobility across the English Channel to fight with him in France – many towns and villages were left leaderless, as both temporal and spiritual guidance was hard to come by.
Tensions that had been rising for decades spilled over in 1381 with the Peasants’ Revolt. Julian would have witnessed the riots in Norwich, where Geoffrey Litster, ‘The King of the Commoners’, and his followers took the castle, raiding houses, monasteries and churches across the city.
Litster was ultimately defeated at the battle of North Walsham, suppressed by Julian’s own bishop, the tyrannical Henry Despenser, known as ‘The Fighting Bishop’. Once he had led his troops against the rebels in Norwich, he personally supervised while Litster was tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered. He imposed some stability back on the city with an iron fist, but then unsettled it once again by taking the warriors on an ultimately futile crusade. His mission was prompted by the other major event rocking late 14th-century Europe: the Great Western Schism.
The great schism
From 1378 to 1417, so through most of Julian’s adult life, there was a divide in Christendom as two or more popes claimed the papacy.
The Schism was triggered when Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome from Avignon, where it had been established from the turn of the century. This led to rival popes in the two sees, and men, including Bishop Despenser and the citizens of Norwich, were called to fight in support of one or other claimant. The schism would have been felt among Christians in Norwich, as they could not clearly designate their prayers to one pope or another while the international church warred within itself.
The community was also looking inwards, as heretics became increasingly persecuted following the death of John Wycliffe in 1384. He had called for a transformation of the church, with no relics or pilgrimage, no payment for indulgences, and access to the Scriptures through translation into English. Those who followed his teachings (known as Lollards) were rounded up and executed. The Lollards’ Pit was close to Julian’s cell on King’s Street, and she would have been acutely aware that any whiff of heresy would be sniffed out and punished.
So Julian lived through a time when the church was divided, communities were imploding and death was indiscriminate. Yet in the midst of this chaos she wrote a calm, optimistic and loving book. In it she stresses that God sees no sin, he is both mother and father, and that love is the root of everything.
“The greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love,” she writes. In another section, she declares: “God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.”
The meaning of love
At a time when the Last Judgment loomed heavy over church doorways, Julian argued that a loving God could not condemn those he loves to damnation for sin. In the ‘Parable of the Lord and Servant’ she describes how sin is the gateway through which a fallen person can understand what it means to be loved; to be picked up, dusted down and held close.
Julian does not frenetically encourage her readers to look to their souls in imminent belief of an End of Days. Instead, she sees a longer narrative, in which ultimately “all shall be well” for we are loved. In one vision she sees the universe in a hazelnut, which she holds in the palm of her hand. It remains safe, and humanity continues to persevere, because it is part of a bigger scheme held together by love. This is radical stuff.
Dressed as a nun
We know virtually nothing about Julian’s early life, but she does provide a few clues in the Revelations. Although she is often depicted dressed as a nun, she was more probably a pious laywoman who chose to become an anchoress around the age of 40. Before this she could have had one or more husbands, and even children, which is suggested by the homely comparisons she makes throughout her book. One suggestion is that she was Julian of Erpingham, sister of an Agincourt knight and member of a wealthy family in Norfolk.
But whether we identify her with an individual or not, we do know what happened to her at one important moment. On 8 May 1373 she was lying on her deathbed, and received the last rites. She may have been afflicted by one of the later plagues that swept through Norwich. She thought she was going to die, was paralysed and could hardly move her eyes. The curate held a crucifix in front of her, and this triggered a set of 16 revelations that would form the basis of her meditations for the rest of her life.
Her visions could be explained as hallucinations brought about through fever, but to Julian they were real and they were a gift from God. She recovered from her sickness, but some years later took the decision to become an anchoress.
It was a drastic decision, but there were benefits for Julian. She was in her forties by the time she became an anchoress, and would have had enough independent wealth to sustain her and a maid who would look after 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, read and write. Women could not attend university – they couldn’t even get a decent education – so becoming an anchoress meant that, although she was physically restricted, her intellect could be free.
The Protestant Reformation led to the destruction of many Catholic texts. Julian’s was just the sort of mystical literature targeted by reformers, who felt all knowledge should be drawn directly from the Scriptures. Yet while many texts like Julian’s have no doubt been lost to the flames, hers was guarded by a group of brave young Catholics.
Gertrude More, granddaughter of Thomas More, played a particularly important role, as did a Scottish Presbyterian woman Grace Warrack, who was responsible for the printed version of Revelations of Divine Love, which only appeared at the turn of the 20th century.
Julian’s text is enjoying an incredible revival. Her work recently inspired the pope, and the Queen has her words on a stained glass window in front of her when she prays at the Chapel Royal.
Revelations of Divine Love is now available in a wonderful new translation, and her ideas are spreading around the world, influencing Christians and non-Christians alike. Her most famous phrase is something we all need to hear today: “All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Dr Janina Ramirez is a historian and TV presenter.
Medieval women with a hotline to God
Julian wasn’t the only woman to experience visions in the Middle Ages…
Hildegard of Bingen
Born in 1098, Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess known for her work in music, astrology, linguistics, natural history and medicine. She received numerous visions that she wrote up in a series of powerful books.
Marie of Oignies
Marie of Oignies (1177–1213) was born in Nivelles in modern-day Belgium, and was the founder of the Beguines, a group of pious laywomen who cared for the sick. Her life was recorded by her male confessor, and in it he charts the miracles she performed and visions she experienced.
Born in Bishop’s Lynn around 1373, Margery Kempe visited Julian in her cell when she was 30 and the anchoress was approaching the end of her life. She was married and had 14 children, but her husband agreed to a celibate relationship. Her visions of Christ were highly sensual and she was afflicted with uncontrollable tears, which made her a problem for the established church.
Brigid of Sweden
Brigid of Sweden is now one of the six patron saints of Europe, and lived from 1303–73. She was the daughter of a famous knight, married and had eight children. When she was 10 she received the first of her visions, and she went on to found the Bridgettine Order.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine