Monday, September 6, 2010

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Book Review)

My knowledge of Julian, a 14th-15th century anchorite,* was scant.  Although a friend of mine did her doctoral work some forty years ago on Julian, I have not read her material nor discussed it with her.  My information was limited to those couple of quotes from Julian's mystical visions which people like to bandy about:

"And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand .  . .  In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it"


"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Some time ago, I began to wonder about Julian, mostly because I was aware that she had  lived during a time of plagues, and yet the most famous Julian quote is the second.  What might that mean, I wondered?  Much of the time I feel as if I am living my own small version of the plague, but she lived through the real thing, the bodies of those she loved stacked and burned all around her, and yet she retained her confidence in her vision of God's love in all things and in God's words to her that "all shall be well."

So when I discovered the existence of this new little book, I delved into it as if I were an investigative scientist, searching for sometime to bolster my strength for the rest of my life.

In writing a "contemplative biography," Amy Frykholm has made use of what very little is known about the times and life of the historical Julian to imagine her story. We do know something of Norwich, England of the 14th and 15th centuries ~ its vibrant life of commerce and trade, its experience of the political chaos in both England and in the papacy, and the havoc wreaked upon it by the plague. We know almost nothing of Julian's biography ~ not her name (the one by which we know her comes from the parish church to which her cell was attached), her marital or mothering experience, her education, or her life and work before she became an anchorite at about the age of fifty.  Her visions when she became deathly ill at thirty formed the basis of a lifetime of contemplation and study and, ultimately, the first book written in English by a woman, a book which remains in existence thanks to only a few copies which surfaced in the early 17th century.  Frykholm puts all of this together to create a possible version of a life which is remarkable in its reach across the centuries to the contemporary reader.

It's difficult to condense into a few sentences all that has held my attention in this evocative and beautifully written little book.  Let me aim for three:

The emphasis on Julian as the first woman to have written a book in English is fascinating to this English major who began her college career at a Seven Sisters school that to this day remains a proud celebrant of women's education. Having the required semester course in Chaucer under my belt means that I have read a great deal of that contemporary of Julian's in its original middle English, and have studied the cultural and literary context in which he wrote.  I am, as my readers know, fascinated by cathedral architecture.  I've been to England. And yet not until maybe ten years ago did I even hear of Julian of Norwich, medieval writer in a cathedral city in England.  (Norwich is now on my list, thanks to some of the cathedral carvings depicted ~ not well, unfortunately ~  in the book.)

Amy Frykholm's imaginative portrayal of a response to the horrors of the plague is extremely well done. Not extensive, it is nevertheless effective in conveying the experience of hopelessness and listless despair that follows devastating loss.  For someone whose own life has certain parallels to Julian's, this rendition of the path through and out which God offered her is deeply moving.

Julian's theology is grounded in God's deep love for all of God's creation.   Her focus on the suffering of Christ is not surprising, given her context of the theology and practice of the medieval church and the social effects of the plague and, as Frykholm points out, can be distancing to the contemporary reader who lives in a largely secular world in which we seek to diminish the long term effects of pain and sorrow as quickly as possible.  Her initial confusion about God's revelations and what she was to do with them is also unsurprising, as she lived in a time in which questions about and suggestions for reform of the church tended to lead to the stake and in which women in particular were vehemently discouraged from learning and writing.  Nevertheless, she found in God a deep presence in and love for all things.  She came to know, with a clarity that I'm not sure emerges again until Ignatius of Loyola discovers and articulates quite similar principles of discernment some 150 years later, how to distinguish God's understood voice from that of the enemy who seeks to contradict it.  And she found in that love of God and in that clarity of discernment the gifts of courage and skill which enabled her to write down her visions and reflections upon them and send them out into the world with no way of knowing how (or even if) they would be received.

This woman who lived a quiet life which affected many in her city and which was then forgotten is the subject of much commentary today. Here's a page with more context and detail if, like me, you find that an introduction is often followed by deep thirst and obsessive research. But before you head for Norwich, read Amy Frykholm's little book.  If I were an official book reviewer, it would have my highest recommendation.

*The life of an anchorite was one of the few choices available to women in medieval Europe.  It entailed the removal of oneself to a small residence attached to a church or cathedral for the purpose of living an isolated contemplative life.   Julian's contacts with the "outside world" after her enclosure consisted of her daily attendance at Mass, her relationship with the woman who served as her intermediary for provision of food and care for her bodily needs, and her interactions with those who wrote to her or came to speak with her through her small outside window, seeking prayer and counsel.

And . . . (later) just found this brand new interview with the author!


  1. Robin, thanks for this. I've long loved Julian of Norwich and will seriously consider buying another book. I'm off to read the link now. You're wonderful to put so much time and thought into this!

  2. A book I think I want to read as well....I'm giving a talk in November which will pull in the anchorites. There was a waiting list for some churches!

  3. I read Julian's writings and another book on her writings, many years ago...Now I want to read this one too! Thanks for the review.

  4. She sounds like the patron saint of grieving mothers, if the interview is correct. It gives hope that we can one day see the love of God in spite of the pain of it all. Thanks, Robin. Hope it's a great comfort to you.

  5. Thanks from me, too. A few years ago I presented in a medieval class on Julian and Margery Kempe. When I was putting together my bibliography, I was surprised to see how much more was written about Margery's book than Julian's shewings in my discipline of English. She always makes an appearance, but there wasn't heavy disciplinary work going on. My first thought is it has to do with how much more autobiographical Margery is. I wondered if Julian had found more of a home with theologians. I might have pursued that thought and tried to reclaim Julian for literature folks, but I had kind of moved forward to the Renaissance by then. Some day I'll get back to her... Anyway, it sounds as if this book is doing some of what I was hoping to find. I look forward to reading it when I have some free time.

    1. I'm finally coming back to this and remembered the book because you had written on it. I'll order my copy today and I'm linking this review at my place.