Julian of Norwich (1342c.1416), anchoress and mystic, may have taken her name from the parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich, where she had her cell; however, the name Julian (also spelt Ielyan or Latinized to Juliana) was not uncommon at the time and might have been hers from birth. No other information concerning her identity or origins has come to light, although the partly northern dialect of one manuscript of her work, combined with an affectionate reference to St John of Beverley, has suggested a connection with Yorkshire; but the mixed dialect may owe more to the northern associations of the scribe.
Julian is known through her one work, usually referred to by its modern title of Revelations of Divine Love, which she composed in both a short and a long version. This work contains her profound reflections on a series of sixteen visions of the crucified Christ, which she received in 1373 as she lay apparently dying, on either 8 or 13 May (according to different manuscripts), when, she relates, she was thirty and a half years old. This would place her date of birth late in 1342.
Julian reveals nothing of her life up to that point, and there is much debate as to whether she was then already an anchoress, or perhaps a nun of the nearby Benedictine priory of Carrow (who held the advowson of St Julian's), or still a laywoman. The circumstances of her near death experience, as given in the short text, suggest that she was in her own home. In that case, Julian was either unmarried or possibly a widow, who might have lost a husband and even children, perhaps in the plague epidemics of 1362 or 1369.
Such speculations seek to clarify the origin of Julian's distinctive blend of orthodoxy and startling originality. For example, her important discussion of Christ as Mother might flow naturally from her own experience of motherhood, rather than from reading Latin authors, such as Anselm of Canterbury, who also touch on this idea. In her parable of The Lord and the Servant she also appears to offer a new interpretation of the fall, in which Adam sins more through zeal than through disobedience, while her assertion that finally alle maner of thyng shalle be wele depends on a grett deed which the Trinity will accomplish at the end of time (Julian of Norwich, Book of Shewings, 422, 424). Even her visions of the crucified Christ, where she is on more traditional ground, have an unusual emphasis on the dehydration of Christ's body, and a unique emotional stress on the pure joy and self-abandonment with which Christ poured himself out for mankind on the cross.
The quality of her thought has prompted some critics to dismiss as rhetorical her claim that she was a symple creature vnlettyred (Book of Shewings, 285), and argue that she must have been exceptionally learned, this being perhaps more likely if she were a nun. However, there is little evidence of learning among nuns in England at this time, and among the nuns of Carrow there is no Julian who fits her dates. Furthermore, the near disappearance of her work after her death argues against connection with any religious order: there seems to have been no community behind her with the wherewithal to preserve and publicize her works.
At some point before 1394, when a bequest was made to Julian anakorite, she became a solitary, and also recorded her visions in the two texts of her work. The short text is generally assumed to have been written soon after the event, but could have been produced at any time before the completion of the long text. It might even represent an edited version of the latter, in which some of her more unusual ideas, such as the parable of the lord and the servant, are omitted. However, its general tenor is that of an initial record, whereas, at the end of the long text Julian states that not until twenty yere saue thre monthys (Book of Shewings, 520) had passed did she understand the full meaning of what she had received. This gives 1393 as the earliest date for the long text.
Two references to Julian reveal something of her reputation in her lifetime. In 1413 the scribe of the short text asserts that Julian is a devoute womann, that is recluse atte Norwyche and 3itt is onn lyfe, anno domino millesimo CCCC xiij (Book of Shewings, 201). And in this same year she was visited by the visionary Margery Kempe of Bishop's Lynn, because þe ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd 3euyn (Meech, introduction, 42). An annotator of Margery's Book writing c.1500, has noted Dame Ielyan in the margin, suggesting that her reputation outlived her for some time.
Further small bequests to Julian in 1404, 1415, and 1416, some including her maids Sarah and Alice, imply that she was still alive at seventy-three. References then cease, unless a bequest to an anchoress at St Julian's in 1428 was to her rather than to a successor in her cellseveral such are known. The unlikely dating of Julian's death to 1443 which is occasionally made derives from an apparent misreading of the short text; nor, probably, should she be confused with the later Juliana Lampett, anchoress at Carrow from 1428 to 1478. In fact, the exceptional number of solitaries in Norwich, after a gap of fifty years before Julian, might itself reflect her influence.
Since then, in contrast, the long text (her major work) has been handed down principally through three seventeenth-century manuscripts, copied by the English nuns of Paris and Cambrai, without whom knowledge of her would have been lost. Through them the text was also printed by Serenus Cressy in 1670, almost certainly in England. It is only now, however, that the range of her thought is widely appreciated. Her cell at Norwich has been rebuilt on its putative medieval foundations, and the Anglican calendar commemorates her on 8 May.
Julian of Norwich, A book of shewings, ed. E. Colledge and J. Walsh, 2 vols. (1978) [Short text; long text: Paris MS; Introduction 1198] · N. P. Tanner, Popular religion in Norwich with special reference to the evidence of wills, 13701532, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1973 · S. B. Meech, introduction, in The book of Margery Kempe, ed. S. B. Meech and H. E. Allen, EETS, 212 (1940), 423 · Julian of Norwich, A revelation of love, ed. M. Glasscoe (1976) [Long text: MS Sloane 2499] · B. Ward, Julian the solitary, Signs and wonders (1992) · B. Ward, Mine even-Christian, The English religious tradition and the genius of Anglicanism, ed. G. Rowell (1992), 4763 · S. Upjohn, In search of Julian of Norwich (1989) · Julian of Norwich, Shewings, trans. E. Colledge and J. Walsh (1978), 17119 · F. Blomefield and C. Parkin, An essay towards a topographical history of the county of Norfolk [2nd edn], 11 vols. (180510), vol. 4, pp. 81, 52430 · VCH Norfolk, 2.352 · W. Rye, Carrow Abbey, otherwise Carrow Priory (1889)
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS fonds anglais 40
BL, Sloane MS 2499
BL, Sloane MS 3705
Westminster Cathedral, selections from long text | BL, Amherst MS, Add. 37790
St Joseph's College, Upholland, near Skelmersdale, Upholland MS, selections from long text
Wealth at death
several small bequests: Book of shewings, ed., Colledge and Walsh; Tanner, Popular religion