The medieval religious life provided a refuge for widows and elderly women in search of calm and peace at the end of their lives. It was an alternative to marriage, and childbearing, for women and girls from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the cloistered life was not the only path for a woman who wanted to devote her life to God. One such devotee was Saint Julian of Norwich, an anchorite and mystic who lived in a cell at the parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich.
Julian’s life was remarkable in its simplicity, devotion and spirituality, and because of her writing. Having survived 600 years, her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the earliest surviving of its kind – a book written in English, by a woman. She is renowned for her words
‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
These simple words still offer hope and encourage positivity today, especially in the atmosphere in which we are all currently living.
Julian’s true identity and origins remain obscured. It is possible that Julian took her name from the church in which she lived, St Julian’s, however, it may have been hers from birth. Although Julian was not a common name for a woman at the time, it was not unknown. It may even be a derivative of Juliana, a more familiar woman’s name. However, there was a contemporary of the same name, Julian of Erpingham, who was from one of the foremost noble families of Norwich in the 14th century.
Julian of Erpingham has been suggested by Father John Julian as a possible candidate for the identity of Julian of Norwich. She was the sister of Sir Thomas of Erpingham, who had been a friend of Edward III and later fought at Agincourt in 1415. Julian of Erpingham was married twice; her first husband died in 1373, and her second was dead by 1393. She had at least three children, with a daughter already married and the youngest possibly fostered out by the time Julian entered the Church. If Julian of Erpingham and Julian of Norwich are one and the same person – and this is far from certain – the legacies from her two husbands would have helped to pay for Julian’s upkeep once she had dedicated herself to God.
It is also possible that Julian had been a nun at the Benedictine priory of Carrow, which was close by and had an affinity with St Julian’s Church. She was probably from a well-to-do, if not noble, family as she seems to have had some level of education; given that she could, at least, read before she became an anchorite. However, we simply do not know enough about Julian’s early life to positively identify her origins. Although Revelations of Divine Love is considered autobiographical, it concentrates on her spiritual journey, as opposed to her physical life. We can glean some insight, if not a great deal, from the information she gives at various points in her text. For example, we know that Julian was born in the second half of the year 1342, as she mentions in her writing that she received her visions in May 1373, when she was aged thirty-and-a-half.
In that month Julian suffered an illness so serious that her life was despaired of. Whether it was the Black Death, prevalent in England since its first major outbreak in 1348–9, or some other disease, as her illness progressed she was paralysed to the extent that she could barely even move her eyelids. She was given the last rites and she wrote of how the priest
‘…set the cross before my face and said, “I have brought you the image of your maker and saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it.”’Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Julian wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that she had wanted to have a life-threatening illness, which would bring her close to death, but from which she would be saved. Maybe she believed it would bring her closer to God? Whatever the reason, her illness brought on a series of visions in which she encountered Jesus Christ and his mother the Virgin Mary. The sixteen visions were to form the basis for the direction of her spiritual life and for her book, charting her struggle to understand the divine. Julian wrote two versions of Revelations of Divine Love; the Short Text is believed to have been written soon after experiencing her visions, though it took several years to complete. The Long Text – which is six times as long – is more contemplative and appears to have been a constant work-in progress in her later years.
Although her near-death experience directed her later life, it was only many years after her illness that Julian entered her cell as an anchorite. The exact date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been in the 1390s that her enclosure may have come, possibly after the death of her husband or family members. The life of an anchorite was a strange, solitary existence in which the person was physically cut off from the world, while still being a part of it. It was a life that could be followed by a man or woman, but was one which could not be lightly taken on by the anchorite themselves, or by the Church at large.
Not all were suited to the life and a person wanting to profess themselves as an anchorite had to go through a rigorous process to assess that suitability. This even included an interview with the bishop. In Julian’s case, it was probably Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, in the late 14th century. Of particular concern was the anchorite’s mental capacity to deal with the solitude and limitation on human contact. Once the Church had endorsed a person’s suitability to become an anchorite, there was a specific ceremony to signify the end of the life they had previously known.
An anchorite was, effectively, dead to the world. They would live in a small cell, attached to the church. As they were led to this cell, a requiem Mass would be sung for them and they would receive extreme unction, normally reserved for the dying. They would be sprinkled with dust, to signify their burial, and then the door to the cell bolted from the outside. In some cases, the cell was walled up. The only access to the outside world was a small, curtained window.
Once they had taken their vows, anchorites were forbidden to leave their cell, on pain of excommunication from the Church. As an anchoress, Julian had to adhere to vows of poverty and chastity and to remain in her cell for the rest of her life. She was not allowed to teach young girls, or possess valuables. Conversations with men in private were strictly forbidden and communication with the outside world was done from behind a black curtain, through which she could also hear the daily church offices, even if she couldn’t interact with them.
Julian would been permitted a servant to see to her daily needs, such as food, laundry, and clearing away waste. However, her daily interactions with her servant would have been restricted to dealing with her physical needs, rather than friendship and companionship. She was also allowed to keep a cat, to control the mice and rats; many images of Julian show her dressed in the habit of a nun, with a cat sat at her feet as she studies her books.
Anchorites were expected to devote their lives to prayers and contemplation, to be a benefit to their community and to work for it by praying for their souls. They were an integral part of the Church, and the parish in which they lived;
True anchoresses are indeed birds of heaven which fly up high and sit singing merrily on the green boughs – that is, direct their thoughts upwards at the bliss of heaven.’Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse
Once Julian entered her cell, her time was her own. She could manage her own daily routine, although she probably followed the canonical hours and prayed seven times daily. Julian probably read a great deal, she would have had access to books brought by well-wishers and the large selection available at the library of the cathedral priory in Norwich; a collection that was added to in 1407 by a substantial bequest of more than 200 books from Cardinal Adam Easton, a supporter of Bridget of Sweden, who was later canonised.
Julian spent many hours in contemplation, reading and writing. Revelations of Divine Love was written in the English vernacular, in beautiful, poetic prose; remarkably, it was written by Julian herself, rather than dictated to a scribe. The text’s near-miraculous survival, through 600 years and the Reformation, is due to three Long Text manuscripts, which were copied in the 17th century by English nuns at Cambrai and Paris. The book describes the sixteen visions of Christ that she had received during her illness, and her subsequent reflections on their meaning.
Not only does Julian describe her visions in the book, but she also describes the physical experience of the visions, saying,
‘All this was shown in three ways: that is to say, by bodily sight, and by words formed in my understanding, and by spiritual visions. But I neither can nor know how to disclose the spiritual vision as openly or as fully as I would wish’.Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Revelations of Divine Love is a spiritual autobiography, contemplating the relationship between love, sin, suffering and God. It is heavily imbued with mysticism, where the author attempts to move beyond normal human thought, exploring sensations and feelings and the relationship with God. Its message of love and peace still gives it relevance today, and her thoughts are possibly more widely respected now than at any time in the past.
Though Julian was appreciated in her own time. People visited to talk with her. A few years before Julian’s death, she was visited by fellow mystic Margery Kempe. Margery’s approach to her religion was a direct contrast to the path followed by Julian, but the meeting between the two women strikes me as extraordinary. Margery Kempe was about thirty years younger than Julian of Norwich, born around 1373, possibly even in the same year that Julian experienced her visions.
Julian was the recipient of several legacies, which helped to pay for her keep. In his will, Richard Reed left 2s to ‘Julian anchorite’, while Thomas Edmund, in 1404, bequeathed a legacy of 12d to Julian and 8d to Sara, her maid.
Julian died in, or shortly after, 1416; she was around seventy-three years old. She is commemorated in the Anglican calendar on 8 May. Julian had pursued her calling with quiet dignity and spirituality, ensuring her place in history as a heroine to women on many levels, not only for her piety but also as a writer, a mystic and a visionary, whose approach to God is arguably more relevant today than it was in her own day.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love; Janina Ramirez, Julian of Norwich, a Very Brief History; Father John Julian, The Complete Julian of Norwich; Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses; Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450-1500; Toni Mount, A Year in the Life of Medieval England; Felicity Riddy, Oxforddnb.com, Kempe, Margery (9b.c. 1373, d. in or after 1438); Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe; Santha Bhattacharji, Oxfroddnb, Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)
Images courtesy of Wikipedia
The story of St Julian of Norwich appears in my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword, Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.
©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly