Church History Minute: Julian of Norwich
Who was She?
Julian of Norwich was a female anchorite attached to a small church in Norwich, England, during the Middle Ages. She appears to have witnessed the horrors of the Black Plague firsthand, though it is unclear whether any of her relatives died. Her exact birth and death dates (or years) are unknown.
Why was she important?
She wrote a major theological work (the first book in English known to have been written by a woman) that is titled either Showings of a Divine Love (spelled Shewings, because, you know, Middle Ages), or Revelations of a Divine Love. Unsurprisingly given the title, the theme is God’s love. This was significant in her time because the Black Plague and the Peasant’s Revolt were taken by many as symbols of God’s wrath, something Julian contradicted. She received a vision while deathly ill, which revealed to her that God loves the world fundamentally. She wonders what this concept will mean for understanding the end of the world. Specifically, she is very concerned about the idea of hell. Although she is often called an early universalist, this is not present in the text of her work that explicitly. Instead she declares that at the end of the world “All shall be well. All shall be well. All must be and has been well.” This actually fits better in the medieval tradition of declaring that hell is, despite appearances to those in hell, the full measure of God’s love. While this seems odd, we might think of it as a child being kept from what they want, even though what they want will do serious harm to them. In a small way that child believes they are being deprived and “suffer” from it. If we amplify that on the infinite scale of God, we might have an idea of hell, at least as I take Julian of Norwich to mean it. Also, her declaration that “all must be and has been well” seems to indicate a belief that history will ultimately be shown to be positive. Not in the sense of a greater good accomplished by evil events, but in the sense that we will actually see how these things we thought were terrible are in actuality quite good, our perspective is merely limited. Of course, I may be speculating a bit much and possibly imposing my own views on her, because Julian of Norwich only has the one major work.
Fun Fact: The major work (often referred to as simply The Showings or The Revelations) is actually two different accounts of the same vision. One, called The Short Version, was written almost immediately after Julian recovered from her illness. The other, called The Long Version, was written some 20-30 years later.
Where might I have heard of her?
Julian of Norwich has had a recent revival of interest in the last 20 or so years, likely related to her being one of the earliest English mystics, and the first known published woman author.