An edited repost from the archives.

“Alle shalle be wele, alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thynge shalle be wele.”

Courtesy of Poliphilo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

To remind the world how much He loves His children, God gave these words of hope to the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (ca. 1343-1416) during a series of ecstatic visions. A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, Julian of Norwich wrote about these visions in a timeless and passionate way. The result,  A Revelation of Divine Love, became the first book written by a woman in the English language. Ever. 

Although Hildegard of Bingen, a nun and mystic visionary in Germany, published her visions ca. 1148, she’d written in Latin while Julian wrote in Middle English with an East Anglian Dialect. This departure from Latin, a language known only to nobles and members of the church, meant Julian’s work could be understood by the peasants. Not only did she write in the common language, she wrote about God with an optimism and hope unheard of during the Middle Ages. Unheard of during a time or war, poverty, hunger, and plague. Since illiteracy reigned, her works were read aloud and passed verbally, her message of love sought by peasants and nobles alike.

It’s not just her role as first female author of an English language book that makes her one of the most important writers of the Middle Ages. Julian of Norwich is important because she was an unlettered woman (meaning she knew no Latin or French) who penned two books in the midst of the violence and darkness of the Middle Ages. So important, in fact, that her book A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Divine Love is still being studied today, over eight hundred years after she wrote it. But the most important–and unusual–thing about Julian is that she was an Anchoress.

Derived from ancient Greek, the word anachoreo means “to withdraw from the world”. During the 12th and 13th centuries, an anchoress was a woman who chose to enclose herself in a small cell known as an anchorhold attached to a church to focus on prayer and to lead an ascetic life. In extreme circumstances, a bishop walled up the anchoress and attached a seal to the outside. With a hagioscope (a small shuttered window) looking into the church, a second opening with which to receive food and other necessities, and a third iron-gated window facing outside, the anchoress held within could hear mass, receive communion, and as she grew in wisdom born of solitude and prayer, listen to the cares and concerns of the townspeople she served.

Although an anchoress was hidden away from the world, people came to her, standing outside her iron-gated window, and offered her gifts of food and other necessities. In return, she offered prayers and spiritual comfort. This may sound extreme, even by the monastic traditions of the Middle Ages, but as I read Julian’s history I realized these women lived in a time of the black plague and peasant revolts. If, as laywomen, they had enough money to build their own anchorhold, or if a nun had been called to this ascetic life, they considered themselves lucky. All of their bodily concerns were taken care of and they could leave their violent, disease-ridden world behind.

Whether Julian of Norwich was a nun or a laywoman is still being debated. But what is known is that in her early thirties (before she entered the anchorhold) she became desperately ill and fell into a febrile coma. During her time in this state, Julian experienced powerful visions, what she called “showings”, of Jesus Christ during his Crucifixion. She woke up a changed woman and began to transcribe her visions. This book, A Revelation of Divine Love, is considered the first ever written in English (Middle English, to be precise) by a woman. Decades later, after many years of contemplation and reflection as an anchoress, she wrote about her experiences again in her second book A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman.

Although little is known about Julian, she is mentioned in another famous work by another first woman author, Margery Kempe. Margery, a renowned laywoman visionary, wrote the first female-penned autobiography in English in 1438. (Margery’s book is considered the best representation of what life was like for middle class women during the Middle Ages). Margery offers external evidence and a vivid depiction of Julian’s life in an anchorhold. And from the theology they discussed regarding God’s love affair with the world, consistent with Julian’s writings, it’s clear Julian mentored Margery in her own writing/visionary journey.

But what I find so fascinating about Julian is how important her message is to all of us today, in the middle of a pandemic with war drums beating overseas. While her message is a Christian one, it’s not only meant for those who follow a Christian faith. Her message that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well” is for all people, regardless of their spiritual practices. Because if you truly believe that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well”, your heart will be at peace. And if your heart is at peace, you’re in a better position to help others around you who are in need.

During my research, I found two wonderful sources which not only went into great depth about Julian’s life during the Middle Ages, but gave two distinct translations of her work. I’ve put the links below in case you’d like to read more about this amazing woman.

The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins, Pennsylvania State University, 2006.

The Complete Julian of Norwich by Father John-Julian, OJN. Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2009.

Note: I am not an Amazon affiliate and make no money from click throughs to the site. The links are for informational purposes only.

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