Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (c. November 8, 1342 – c. 1416) is considered one of the greatest English mystics. Little is known of her life aside from her writings. Even her name is uncertain, the name "Julian" coming from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, where she was an anchoress, meaning that she was walled into the church behind the altar during a mass for the dead. At the age of 30, suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense visions of Jesus Christ. (They ended by the time she overcame her illness on May 13, 1373.) She recorded these visions soon after having them, and then again twenty years later in far more theological depth. They are the source of her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (circa 1393). This is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language. Julian became well known throughout England as a spiritual authority: Margery Kempe mentions going to Norwich to speak with Julian.

Although she lived in a time of turmoil, Julian's theology was optimistic, speaking of God's love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. She believed that God loved and wanted to save everyone. Popular theology magnified by current events including the Black Death and a series of peasant revolts assumed that God was punishing the wicked. In response, Julian suggested a far more chimerical theology, which some say leaned towards universal salvation. Because she believed that behind the reality of hell is yet a greater mystery of God's love, she has also been referred to in modern times as a proto-universalist, though she herself never actually claimed more than hope that all might be saved. Even though her views were not typical, local authorities did not challenge either her theology or her authority to make such religious claims because of her status as an anchoress.

As part of her differing view of God as compassionate and loving, she wrote of the Trinity in domestic terms and compares Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful. (See Jesus as Mother by Carolyn Walker Bynum.) Similarly, she connects God with motherhood in terms of 1) "the foundation of our nature's creation, 2) "the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins" and 3) "the motherhood at work" and speaks metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing. She, like many other great mystics, used female language for God as well as the more traditional male pronouns.

Her great saying, "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", reflects this theology. It is also one of the most individually famous lines in all of Catholic theological writing, and certainly one of the most well-known phrases of the literature of her era. It was quoted in T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding, the fourth of his Four Quartets, and served in its entirety as the title of Tod Wodicka's first novel.

Some consider her work a precursor to Martin Luther and other Reformation writers, which gives her honored status in both churches. The Roman Catholic Church has not canonized her, but she is honored by many churches, both Catholic and Reformed.

A modern statue of her has been added to the facade of the Anglican Norwich Cathedral.

The song "Julian of Norwich" by Sydney Carter commemorates her optimistic philosophy.

An analysis of the life of Julian of Norwich is provided in Petroff (1994), who notes how Julian may have become a hermit in response to her visions, citing in a footnote scholarship suggesting evidence that Julian's early visions were not experienced alone. Petroff gives a chronology of the life of Julian as follows - she had her "showings" or visions in 1373, finally reached an understanding of them around 1388, and wrote down a record of her visions around about 1393, after an earlier account which appears to have been written shortly after her visions. Julian's work has proven popular with Christian feminists; as Hampson (1990) points out, Julian referred to God as "Father-Mother", and her ways of referring to the Second Person of the Trinity also show evidence of an awareness of the feminine in the Divine. As far as we can tell, as with Margery Kempe, Julian was influenced by religious books of her time.

See also



  • Hampson, D. (1990). Theology and Feminism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Petroff, E. (1994).Body and soul : essays on medieval women and mysticism Oxford : Oxford University Press, c1994. ISBN 0195084543 ISBN 0195084551 (pbk.)

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