Julian of Norwich’s current popularity is undeniable. As well as being the focus of a recent BBC documentary ‘The Search for the Lost Manuscript: Julian of Norwich’, she is also the subject of a steady stream of literature that can often be found inhabiting the shelves of well-known high street bookshops. The success of Julian as a ‘household name’ perhaps lies with Penguin, who published an edition of her work in 1966 as a ‘Penguin Classic‘. This has since been succeeded by a plethora of different editions, the most scholarly of which is undoubtedly an edition by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins published in 2005.
Yet the claim that Julian is the ‘mother of English prose’, to quote the recent BBC documentary, is simply the latest in a long tradition of re-imaginings of Julian and her text. The claim is made on the back of decades of research into women’s history, somewhat inspired by the advent of second-wave feminism, which has stressed the vitally important role Julian’s text plays in helping uncover the experiences of women in the medieval period. Previous generations, however, had understood Julian in radically different ways. In 1902 the Jesuit priest George Tyrrell saw Julian’s text as proof of the misplaced emphasis on eternal damnation within Catholicism, a problem he was grappling with personally at the time. Her writings about the loving and caring nature of God brought him great comfort on the issue. Before this, in 1877, the Catholic convert Henry Collins had believed Julian’s most important doctrine was her stress on love between Christians, which supported his own plea for toleration as a convert from Anglicanism. Even earlier in 1843 the Anglican George Hargreave Parker published an edition of Julian’s writings. Parker believed Julian was a ‘pre-Reformation Anglican’, an example of spiritual purity within a corrupt Catholicism in desperate need of reform. All of these contrast with Julian’s first interpreter, Margery Kempe, who believed her to be an expert in the discernment of spirits long ago in 1413.
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.
My article, now published in British Catholic History, argues that we can understand more about Julian’s editors than we can ever hope to know about Julian herself. We might ponder, for example, what scholars in fifty or one hundred years time will make of our current interpretation of Julian, which may seem to them to be heavily influenced by wider contemporary societal concerns over the role and visibility of women. Julian may well mean something very different to them dependent on the trappings and concerns of their time.
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.