Monday, May 13, 2024

A Reader’s Guide to the Mystical Writings of Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchoress who wrote two extraordinary books about sixteen visions of Christ granted to her when she was thirty years old, in 1373. Though she was never beatified or even widely venerated, she is informally honored on May 13th, the approximate date when she was healed from the grave illness that prompted her mystical experiences. It is characteristic of Julian’s humble soul, inquiring mind, and well-grounded spirituality that she only tentatively ascribed her remarkable recovery to miraculous intervention: “suddenly all my pain was away from me, and I was all whole.... I marveled of this change, for methought it was a mysterious working of God, and nought of nature.”

All the quotations in this article are my highly conservative translations of Julian’s Middle English text. My intent is to make her words comprehensible while retaining her style and word choice to the extent possible. To give you an idea of how readable—or unreadable, depending on your perspective—the original is, a Middle English version of the passage given above reads thus: “sodeynlye alle my paine was awaye fro me and I was alle hole.... I merveylede of this change, for methought it was a prive wyrkinge of God, and nought of kinde.” I draw attention to this linguistic dimension of Julian’s works because much of her unique value and appeal as a spiritual writer is interwoven with her use of language.

A statue of Julian, carved by local sculptor David Holgate (d. 2014), at Norwich Cathedral, East Anglia, England.

Julian’s English

Julian wrote in English at a time when the language still gave voice to the vigorous, elemental culture of the Anglo-Saxon lands. It was also a time when, in the West, most spiritual and theological works were written in Latin. Julian’s prose lacks the elegance, sophistication, and precision of Latin. It seems rather to have grown with the heather and ash groves from rich East Anglian soil: when reading it one senses the simple, endearing, forceful language of the hearth, the meadows, and the northern seas. And because she wrote in the vernacular, English speakers still have fairly direct access to her rich and fascinating interior life, which the old Catholic Encyclopedia described as “the most perfect fruit of later medieval mysticism in England.”

Whether we work through an annotated edition of Julian’s Middle English text or read a translation into modern English, we see with special clarity into a devout and brilliant medieval mind. Most of us simply cannot draw this close to the essence of the writer’s spiritual experience when we are reading something that has been translated from Latin.

“After this, Christ showed me a part of his passion near his dying. I saw that sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying; then more deathly pale, languishing; and then turned more deathly to the blue” (from Julian’s shorter account of her visions, Section 10).

Julian’s Works

Julian wrote two books about her visions, commonly called the Short Text and the Long Text. This terminology is misleading insofar as it implies that these are different “editions” of the same book, whereas they are better understood as two separate works. A more proper title for the Short Text, taken from the first sentence of the original manuscript, is A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman. The Long Text is sometimes entitled Revelations of Divine Love. Both are excellent, but part of my motivation in writing this article is to recommend the Short Text, which tends to be overshadowed by the Long Text.

“I said to me: ‘Look up to heaven to his father.’ Then saw I well, with the faith that I felt, that there was nothing between the cross and heaven that might have troubled me.... Thus chose I Jesu for my heaven.... I desired no other heaven than Jesu” (Short Text, Section 10–11).

The relationship between the Short Text and the Long Text is comparable to the relationship between a Shakespeare play in its original form and a Victorian novel based on a Shakespeare play. The Short Text is concise, vivid, deeply personal, and formed into a pleasing, orderly structure. The Long Text was written later in Julian’s life as an ambitious, exploratory expansion of the Short Text; it abounds in theological and allegorical richness but also in complexities and digressions that can become tiresome, especially for readers accustomed to modern English rather than medieval English.

“Then said our lord, asking: ‘Art thou well pleased that I suffered for thee?’ ‘Yea, good lord,’ quoth I, ‘I thank thee, good lord, blessed may thou be.’ ‘If thou be pleased,’ quoth our lord, ‘I am pleased. It is a joy and a bliss and an endless pleasure to me that ever I suffered passion for thee. For if I might suffer more, I would suffer.’ ... [Christ] is fully blissful in all the deeds that he has done concerning our salvation.... We are his bliss, we are his reward, we are his honor, we are his crown” (Short Text, Section 12).

Choosing a Modern Edition

Nowadays, Julian’s books seem to generate more enthusiasm among academics than among Christians seeking spiritual nourishment. The academic interest is understandable: Julian is reputed to be the first female English-language author, and at times her thoughts are speculative or unconventional in a way that appeals to the ethos of modern scholarship. This doesn’t mean that she dabbled in heterodoxy. In the Short Text Julian clearly states that “in all things I believe as holy church teaches. For in all this blessed showing [i.e., vision] of our lord ... I understood never nothing therein that bewilders me nor keeps me from the true teaching of holy church.”

All this attention from the scholarly community has ensured that Julian’s works are readily available to the general public. For this we should be grateful. The list below is a brief guide to some of the recently published editions, which are subject to some textual confusion: the titles currently in use do not clearly distinguish between the Short Text and the Long Text, and the two most important manuscripts in which the Long Text survives, called the “Sloane 1” and “Paris” manuscripts, have significant differences.

The Showings of Julian of Norwich (Norton critical edition, edited by Denise Baker): This is an annotated, Middle English version of the Long Text. It is relatively affordable and includes a helpful introduction and glossary.

The Shewings of Julian of Norwich (Medieval Institute Publications, edited by Georgia Crampton): This is a free, online, annotated version of the Long Text in Middle English. It is based on Sloane 1, whereas Norton preferred the more modernized language of the Paris manuscript.

Revelations of Divine Love and The Motherhood of God (translated by Frances Beer): This book includes a modern English version of the Short Text.

The Writings of Julian of Norwich (edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins): This is an extensively annotated volume intended more for researchers. It has Middle English versions of the Short Text and the Long Text.

Revelations of Divine Love (Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Barry Windeatt): This includes modern English versions of the Short Text and the Long Text.

“He looked down on the right side, and brought to my mind where our lady stood in the time of his passion, and said: ‘Will thou see her?’ And I answered and said: ‘Yea good lord, I thank thee, if it be thy will.’ ... He showed her then high and noble and glorious and pleasant to him above all creatures.... And in that word that Jesu said—‘Will thou see her?’—methought I had the most pleasure that he could have given me” (Short Text, Section 13).

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