|A statue of Julian at Norwich Cathedral|
Julian has thus been many things to many people. Her current reputation as the 'mother of English prose' was preceded by vastly different interpretations of her importance. As such, we have not had one 'Julian', but many. This is in part due to the obscurity of Julian herself. Little is known about her life or activities, or even basic information such as her real name. The name 'Julian' is given to her on account of the fact that the cell she spent much of her life in was adjoined to the Church of St Julian in Norwich. Much of what we know about Julian comes from her surviving work, Revelations of Divine Love, which details the sixteen mystical visions she had in 1373. Even this work exists in two different forms, a 'short' text and a 'long' text which were written at different stages of Julian's later life. Her life and doctrines are thus obscure and difficult to pin down.
|Julian's most well known phrase|
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that nothing has been said of how Julian was understood between 1413 and 1843. My article fills part of that gap by tracing how Julian was interpreted in the seventeenth century. It argues that two polar opposite identities and reputations were constructed for Julian in the polemical debates between Protestants and Catholics over points of doctrine in the period. For the Benedictine monk Serenus Cressy, Julian was proof of the strength of Catholic devotional and spiritual traditions, the validity of doctrines informed by visionary experience, and the authenticity of female religious experience. His efforts in producing the first print edition of Julian’s Revelations in 1670 was symbolic of a growing confidence among certain English Benedictines over the legitimacy and popularity of their mystical spirituality. His Protestant counterpart, Edward Stillingfleet, argued Julian was indicative of the value the Roman Church placed on false and fanatical ‘revelations’. In an effort to unite moderate Episcopalians and Presbyterians under the banner of a comprehensive Church of England, Stillingfleet argued Julian was representative of everything wrong with the Roman Church. He saw her text as proof of the dangers of relying on revelations when forming doctrine, the invalidity of any doctrines which had no scriptural basis, and the danger Roman fanatics could pose to England.
My article suggests that we need to understand how Julian was interpreted in the seventeenth century in order to better appreciate how each generation has created a new 'Julian' based on their own concerns. Just as Julian had been constructed as an advocate of Catholic modernism in the early 1900s, or a 'pre-Reformation Anglican' in the 1840s, in the 1600s Julian was interpreted as both a spiritual role model and a fanatical anchoress. What makes Julian's work so fascinating is this constant process of re-imagining, or in the words of Liz Herbert McAvoy, the fact Julian needs to be viewed as ‘plural, as multiple, as variable, as unstable, metamorphosing between the centuries and becoming different things for different audiences’.
My article '"Have we any mother Juliana’s among us?": The multiple identities of Julian of Norwich in Restoration England" can be accessed here.
- Barratt, Alexandra, ‘Julian of Norwich and Her Children Today: Editions, Translations, and Versions of her Revelations’, in Sarah Salih and Denise N. Baker, eds. Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2009), 13-27.
- Dolan, Frances E., Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
- McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ‘Introduction: “God forbade…that I am a techere”: Who, or what, was Julian?’, in Liz Herbert McAvoy, ed. A Companion to Julian of Norwich (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2015), 1-18.
- Warren, Nancy Bradley, The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures, 1350–1700 (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).
- Watson, Nicholas, ‘The Composition of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love’, Speculum 68 (1993): 637-83.
- Watson, Nicholas and Jenkins, Jacqueline, eds. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).