Julian of Norwich as a Writer

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The writings of Julian of Norwich were the paradigms of writings because it had influenced all the areas of life and time. At the same time, her works can be summated with theological, spiritual, historical, secular and women writings. This study has made an attempt to find out the influence of Norwich as a writer in the above areas.


The uniqueness of man is ever a matter of discussion. The people, who have occupied a place in History, are those who have witnessed it. In other words, they could swim against the natural flow of water. Julian of Norwich also reminds us the same that she is a person who could think, determine, and act with a different perspective. Norwich is the first female writer in English. She has captured the attention of the researcher for her influence in the various areas of history, spirituality, theology, and literature and women writings at the same time. Through close analysis, it may be understood that her writings had much relevance all throughout the times.

Historical influence

Great events occurred during Julian’s period 1343-1423 including the Black Plague, the Peasants Revolt 1381, suppression of the Lollards and the Great Schism in the Roman Catholic Church 1381-1417, all taking place before during and after her lifetime. Another significant influence would have been the Ancrene Wisse (also known as Riwle) setting out the life of an anchoress within the anchor hold which Julian enters during the end of the fourteenth century possibly about 1491. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were marked by political, cultural, religious, and social turmoil.  The crusades continued in one form or another, with Spain being the centre of the battle between Christian and Muslim forces.  The Byzantine Empire was crumbling, and the plague took a heavy toll in Europe. The Middle Ages encompass one of the most exciting periods in English History. The names of the famous medieval women scatter the History books - they were mostly queens and princesses.  Even though the literary atmosphere was not congenial to women writers, some of them came out with colours. Julian of Norwich was one among them, and her name was written in the golden letters in the annals of history.

During her early life, the Black Death hit the city of Norwich three times. It is estimated that the plague killed about a third of England’s population in one single epidemic. People died so quickly and in great number that the dead could not receive proper burial. (Pelphrey 65). Due to the then situation all the people were in pain and distress, and these circumstances influenced her writings. Although she does not speak of the struggles of the time directly, her book shows a deep sensitivity to suffering and dying so she could cater to the needs of the people. Her writings gave more strength, power and consolation to the readers.   

Theological influence

“Theological works were the dominant form of literature typically found in libraries during the Middle Ages. Catholic clerics were the intellectual centre of society in the Middle Ages, and it is their literature that was produced in the greatest quantity. Countless hymns survive from this period (both liturgical and para liturgical). The liturgy itself was not in fixed form, and numerous competing missals set out individual conceptions of the order of the mass. Religious scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Pierre Abélard wrote lengthy theological and philosophical treatises, often attempting to reconcile the teachings of the Greek and Roman pagan authors with the doctrines of the Church. Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", were also frequently written, as encouragement to the devout and a warning to others. Same way Revelations of Divine Love (or “Showings of Love”) is considered to be one of the most beautiful religious writings of the Middle Ages. Revelations, an expression of mystical vehemence, discuss many mysteries of the Christian faith—such as the problems of predestination, the foreknowledge of God, and the existence of evil. It is written in the form of 16 visions of Jesus, with high precision and sincerity. She had a different understanding and approach to the presentation of the Divine love of God. Contrary to the established dogma that spoke of law, duty, and punishing the wicked, her revolutionary theory preached that God’s love was pure joy, and she claimed that God saved us all, which was a very optimistic attitude of universal salvation at the time of the Black Death and series of Peasant Revolts. Also, she described the Trinity as a loving family, comparing Jesus with a wise, loving and merciful mother, and connecting God with motherhood regarding creation. The Revelations are one of the most original works of medieval mysticism and have had a lasting influence on Christian thought.

Julian’s spirituality has strong similarities with affective piety and devotion. An emotional and close bond with the humanity of Christ comes through Julian’s text similar to well-known writers from earlier periods such as Saint Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109 AD and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux 1090-1153 AD. In both of these earlier writers, the humanity of Christ had a central focus. (Dillon, Michael J. 2011) Norwich’s most famous work is Revelations of Divine Love. “This edition of the Revelations contains both the short text, which is mainly an account of the ‘showings’ themselves and her initial interpretation of their meaning and the long text, completed some twenty years later, which moves from vision to a daringly speculative theology. Elizabeth Spearing’s translation preserves Norwich’s directness of expression and the rich complexity of her thought” (Bauerschmidt 200).

Influence of Literature

Julian lived in a time of great writings by other English writers namely Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the Unknown author to The Cloud of Unknowing and Margery Kempe. It is not possible to discover what influences these writers and their texts would have impacted on Julian’s text. The growth of the Christian spiritual and mystical writers was very significant in England as well as continental Europe with Meister Eckhart and Saint Catherine of Siena. Secular literature in this period was not produced in equal quantity as religious literature, but much has survived and we possess today a rich corpus. The subject of "courtly love" became important in the 11th century. In addition to epic poems in the Germanic tradition (e.g. Beowulf and Nibelungenlied), epic poems in the tradition of the chanson de geste (e.g. The Song of Roland and Digenis Acritas which deal with the Matter of France and the Acritic songs respectively) and courtly romances in the tradition of the Roman courteous, which deal with the Matter of Britain and the Matter of Rome, achieved great and lasting popularity. The Roman courteous is distinguished from the chanson de geste not only by its subject matter but also by its emphasis on love and chivalry rather than acts of war. After fervently praying for a greater understanding of Christ’s passion, Norwich experienced a series of divine revelations. Through these ‘showings’, Christ’s sufferings were revealed to her with extraordinary intensity, but she also received the assurance of God’s unwavering love for man and his infinite capacity for forgiveness. Written in a vigorous English vernacular,   Revelations had a lasting influence in the secular literature too. A contemporary of Chaucer, Julian is believed to be the first woman to write a book in Middle English, Revelations of Divine Love.

Influence of women writings

Women in the medieval period were never accorded full equality with men; some women were able to use their skill with the written word to gain renown. The religious writing was the easiest avenue—women who would later be canonized as saints frequently published their reflections, revelations, and prayers. Thus, they contributed to the literature of the church. In the 14th century, this included women who had not spent their lives in enclosed orders. St Bridget of Sweden retired to a Cistercian monastery as a widow, having produced eight children. St Catherine of Siena was a Dominican tertiary, a later development of the order for people living virtuous lives in the typical community. Frequently, however, the religious perspectives of women were held to be unorthodox by those in power, and the mystical visions of such authors as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen provide insight into a part of the medieval experience less comfortable for the institutions that ruled Europe at the time.

Before the thirteenth-century women had played an active role in English society. Women in the twelfth century commonly acted as regents for their husbands and sons and even led armies. In the church at that time, nuns had apostolic authority: they preached, heard the confessions of other nuns, bestowed blessings, and managed monasteries. But these roles came to be denied to women; even the positive symbolism associated with women in the literature of the period declined. Thus, Julian lived in a culture that was newly male-dominated. While she outwardly admits her lowly status, she also implies her denial of that position through the very act of asserting her voice and by claiming to have received her knowledge from God: 

“But God forbid that you should say or assume that I

am a teacher for that is not and never was my inten-

tion; for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I

Know very well that what I am saying I have received

by the revelation of him who is the sovereign teacher” (Norwich).


Norwich’s long life spanned parts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time, the Black Death struck rich and poor alike. In Norwich, bad harvests followed one upon another quickly, and hunger and desperation invaded the town and surrounding countryside. Understanding the pulse of the people around, Norwich realised the purpose of her life, and wrote, “God is love.” She found her truth in that mystical being called God. She needed to share their relationship to the point that all the rest seemed unimportant. The writing was essential to her too. But if Norwich meditated, prayed and wrote, she also knew how to listen, not only to God but also to her neighbours.   Specifically she was known as a theologian and a spiritual writer. Her perception of God arrives at the realisation which many philosophers, theologians and seekers come to that the universe is, at worst, benign and not something to feel fear, disgust or angry about. Her message is one of hope for religious believers and one of considerable psychological interest to detached observers. Through her writings, she makes us forget momentarily the myriad concerns and problems that we all face by holding them up to something more universal than subjective human experience.  Her books never convert the secular, but which may aid the secular in their own spiritual, religious or philosophical thinking. For Christian readers, her writings are likely to be warmly received as confirmation that God loves all his creatures equally, for he made this lowly woman his mouthpiece. People with an interest in literature will make much of the content of her writings for the subject matter, and delivery were not the sort of thing which might be imagined as womankind's first contribution to writing as a whole. Those with an interest in mystical writing will find in her much to stroke their chins over a fascinating and significant book.

Thus, we can assume that Norwich’s writings were the paradigm of Mystical writings because it had influenced all the areas of life. At the same time, her works can be summated with Theological, spiritual, historical, secular, and women writings.


Army, Frykholm. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. New Delhi: Paraclete Press, 2010. Print.

Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian. "Seeing Jesus: Julian of Norwich and the Text of Christ's Body." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27.2 (1997):189-214. Print.

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Christian Origins, Egalitarianism and Utopia”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 23.2 (2007): 27-49. Print.

Michael, Cox. A Hand Book of Christian Mysticism.  Britain: Aquarian Press, 1986. Print.

Rose, Linda. “The voice of a Saintly Woman: The Feminine style of Julian of Norwich’s Showings”. Academic Journal article from Women and Language.Vol.16, No.2000. Print.

Spurgeon. Caroline F. E.  Mysticism and English Literature. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1913. Print.

The Cloud of Unknowing .ed. William Johnston. Newyork: Image Books, 1973. Print.

Watson, Jacqueline.ed. The Writings of Julian of Norwich, United States of America: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.Print.


Posted By: Joice Sebastian Category: Literature

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About Joice Sebastian

Research Scholar, Singhania University, Rajasthan

Joice Sebastian is currently doing her PhD  at the City Education Foundation, Kathmandu in Nepal under Singhania University Rajasthan. She did her Masters at St.Berchmans’ College in 2013 Changanacherry, Kottayam. She has a Diploma in Theology from Pontifical Institute of Philosophyand Theology, Aluwaye. She took her bachelors degree in Vocational English from Mahatma Gandhi University, in 2011 Kottayam in 2009.

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