August 12, 2020

iMonk Book Club: Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography

Editor’s note: Today we jump in to the next book in the InternetMonk book club. The discussion this week will be led by Damaris Zehner and Martha of Ireland. I’ve really been looking forward to what they have to say about a woman we know very little of other than her quote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” We start today with a look at the book by Martha. Tomorrow Damaris will take us deeper and pose some questions that we will look at throughout the week. Martha will be back with us on Tuesday. Remember, this is a group activity. Join us in this conversation.  JD

The first thing to say is that this is a very handsome edition.  As a reader, I appreciate when care and effort is taken, especially with a hardback (too many publishers nowadays seem to take the “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” approach) and this book is a delightful specimen of a published object, with a lovely layout and carefully chosen illustrations and artwork.

Next, the author is Amy Frykholm, whom the dustjacket author’s bio tells us “is a Special Correspondent for The Christian Century” and has previously authored a book entitled “Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America”.  Those of you more familiar with “The Christian Century” than I am will be better placed to appreciate or identify any biases Ms. Frykholm may bring to the subject.  She perhaps over-emphasises Julian as a rara avis, a unique voice that comes out of no tradition before her, but Julian was indeed an unusual and in many ways unique woman.

So who was this mystic and contemplative?  Julian of Norwich was an Englishwoman living in or around Norwich, the capital city of Norfolk, a county on the east of England and an important trading port and the second largest city after London.  She was born around 1342, had a severe illness which led to significant spiritual experiences in 1373, became a solitary religious and wrote a longer and more detailed account of her visions in 1393, and died in 1416 at 74 years of age.  That is all we know about her.  We don’t know if she was married, widowed, single, a nun, a laywoman, what her station in life was, even if the name by which we know her was her baptismal name or the name in religion by which she was known.  We don’t know how she came to write her book, who her spiritual directors or influences were, or how the book was preserved and passed on up to the 17th century when an English Benedictine monk who was chaplain to a convent of English Benedictine nuns in Paris edited the first printed edition of “The Revelations of Divine Love”.

This lack of information means that we can construct as many theories around Dame Julian’s life as have been done for Shakespeare, and Frykholm engages in an imaginative, but sympathetic, evocation of who this woman was and what her circumstances were – we are invited to construct in our imaginations a picture of Julian’s everyday life as a woman running her household in much the same fashion as the people of the 13th and 14th centuries were encouraged to construct imaginative tableaux of the lives of Christ and the saints in order to enter into a relationship with them.

I think Frykholm has a tendency to over-emphasise Julian’s mystical experience as something contrary to the whole tenor of the Church and the times; in her Introduction, she mentions a “heavy world of religious obligation” that Julian “overturn(ed)” by her discovery of wonder, release from guilt for sin and unity as right relationship between God and the soul.  Yet, as she demonstrates with her description of Julian fulfilling her Easter duty, the Middle Ages saw a turning from the imagery of Christ in Majesty (which was allied to the representation of Christ in Judgement) and Christ Pantocrator to the affective devotional exercises preached by the Franciscans and other friars, where the use of imagination to place before one’s interior vision the wounds of the suffering Christ during His Passion in order to invoke compassion for His suffering and ruth for one’s sins.  The stern and wrathful Judge was replaced by the piteous Man of Sorrows, as in the lyrics of “Love Me Broughte.”

Frykholm also makes a great point that Julian wrote in English, not alone that this was so the common people, her “even Christians” (fellow-Christians), could understand her writings as she was a “simple, unlettered creature” like them but also – in Frykholm’s view – for the dangerous and daring whiff of heresy (the struggles over translating the Bible into the vernacular, which led in later times to bans on such as Wycliffe’s translation, and the demands for vernacular versions associated with the movement known as the Lollards .  Frykholm imagines English as Julian’s main (or only?) language, despite the fact that she would certainly have been familiar with the liturgy of the Church in Latin and very probably the French used by the merchants – Norwich was an important and wealthy city, based on the wool trade with European cities.  Frykholm sees English as an earthier or more carnal language, better suited for Julian’s writings on “lowly and simple things”; a language for rule-breaking when it comes to writings that are put in opposition to the official positions of the Church on theology.

What Frykholm does not consider is that firstly, there were already European exemplars of writing in the vernacular – Dante’s great poem, the “Divine Comedy”, was written in the common Italian that would have been understood even by uneducated readers and listeners, not the Latin that an epic should rightly have been written in – and secondly, that English at this time was not a fixed language.  Part of the crackdown on unauthorized vernacular translations (and the unpopularity of vernacular translations from the view of the authorities) was that the various dialects of Middle English were not mutually intelligible.  The first English printer and introducer of the printing press to England, William Caxton, was born after Julian’s death and he was still able in the year 1490 to recount an anecdote where speakers of a Northern dialect and speakers of a Southern dialect couldn’t understand one another:

Some merchants were going down the Thames. There was no wind so they landed on the Kent side of the river to buy food.  ‘And specyally he axyed after eggys.  And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe.  And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not.  And thenne at laste another sayd that he wolde haue eyren.  Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’  (And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him.  And then at last another person said that he wanted ‘eyren’.  Then the good woman said that she understood him well).

I may be putting my own interpretation onto what Frykholm’s opinions are, but it seems to me she has a classical Protestant view of the church hierarchy as “standing between” God and the worshipper, something along the lines of the billboard messages I saw in my youth proclaiming 1 Timothy 2:5-6 “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”  She presents Julian as seeking a deeper understanding of God, a livelier relationship, a more fervent love – which is true – but almost in spite of, not with the support of, what she is hearing preached by the priests and the friars and the rest of the official church.

However, she does approach with sympathy this woman from a different age and endeavours to explain to us why she matters and what she has to say to us, today, in our circumstances.  That will be the next part of this review.



  1. What made church authorities at the time suspicious of Julian is that her Revelations seemed to soft-pedal the idea of original sin and to suggest that there is a kind of original innocence that persists in every human being, which serves as a point of contact between God and human beings. Also, the saying from the 27th chapter of the Revelations, “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” seems to suggest 1) that sin plays a necessary part in God’s creation and 2) that salvation is universal. Since her Revelations never pretend to be authoritative doctrine but only imperfect personal revelations, and she never claimed that anyone should prefer them above church doctrine where the two disagreed, she was never officially censured by the church. She also was never canonized by the Roman Catholic church, hence she is merely Dame, and not Saint or Blessed, Julian.

  2. Thank you Martha for your insight.

    Perhaps my greatest exposure to Julian has been through my reading of Capon where he uses her as a conversationist in his book The Fingerprints of God.


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