A Sickness Unto Death: Julian of Norwich’s Visionary Feeling

Julian of Norwich, as depicted in the church of Ss Andrew and Mary, Langham, Norfolk. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Kenneth Chong, The University of Queensland

Sometime around 1370 a woman in Norwich, bedridden for six days and nights, lost all feeling in her body. Her curate could do little more than dangle a cross before her eyes until they, too, became closed to the world. Numb, incapacitated, she was as good as dead.

It was as she had wished. In earlier years she had asked God for a ‘sicknes … so hard as to death’, so hard that she ‘might in that sicknes undertake all rightes of holy church’.[1] The better to be purged and sped to God, she reasoned. But she also desired to know something else, namely Christ’s passion, or rather to know it better. She knew, of course, about Christ at Gethsemane, Christ pleading to his Father, Christ scourged, hung up to die. Yet she ‘desired to have more’, an inner or ‘sumdeele feeling’ akin to his followers, as if she had seen him crucified there. So God grants her more. Once her eyes are dark, she remembers her wish. And just as suddenly a bleeding Christ is shown to her:

And in this, sodenly I saw the red bloud trekile downe from under the garlande, hote and freshly, plentuosly and lively, right as it was in the time that the garland of thornes was pressed on his blessed head. Right so, both God and man, the same that sufferd for me. I conceived truly and mightly that it was himselfe that shewed it me, without any meane.[2]

 This is a bit more than Julian asked for, or so she insists (‘I desired never no bodily sight ne no maner shewing of God, but compassion’), but she gets her blessed passion anyway, a real close-up version, which serves to ward off any possible fiends and enemies. But notice that as soon as we are told, in sensuous and graphic detail, about the blood dripping under the thorns, she moves to an analysis, or conception (in her terms), of the vision. The one who suffers here is actually ‘both God and man’, the two divine natures of Christ. Julian goes on:

 And in the same shewing, sodeinly the trinity fulfilled my hart most of joy. And so I understode it shall be in heaven without end, to all that shall come ther. For the trinity is God, God is the trinity.[3]

Her heart is suddenly full of joy (‘sodeinly’ is a favourite word of Julian’s), sure evidence that by Christ we understand the trinity. And all of ‘this’, further statements about the trinitarian nature included, ‘was shewed in the first sight and in all’.[4]

Statue of Julian on the front of Norwich Cathedral, holding the book Revelations of Divine Love. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

These shifts are pretty typical of Julian, whose sentences move easily from description to analysis, image to meaning, example to commentary, sight to understanding. Sometimes the shift is of a second order, when she enumerates, in quasi-scholastic fashion, the specific kinds of perception at work. For instance, at the end of the first revelation (which itself comprises six successive shewings, or ‘sex thinges in mine understandinge’), Julian divides what was ‘shewde by thre partes: that is to sey, by bodily sight, and by worde formede in my understonding, and by gostely [spiritual] sight’, then quickly adds: ‘But the gostely sight I can not ne may not shew it as openly ne as fully as I would’.[5] She wishes to disclose more, but realises she is incapable of doing so. Later this becomes enshrined as a revelation itself, that there is always a hidden underside to any shewing. What Julian desired was a better look and feel of Christ’s passion; what she got was much more, a ‘revelation’ which unfolded at different levels of perception – ‘sight’, ‘understanding’, and occasionally ‘feeling’ – taken in its broadest sense.

Her first record of the shewings, which, according to her, occurred on ‘the yer of our lord 1373, the thirteenth day of May’, was made about a decade after the event.[6] It was not called a revelation then, though much of the material remained intact; and another decade or so passed before Julian put the finishing the touches on a longer text – almost five times longer, to be more precise. What had happened in the intervening years? There’s some speculation as to how an ‘unlettred’ woman could have produced such a sophisticated text, full of deft allusion, bold image, parable, philosophical and theological learning. Whatever the case, it is clear that Julian herself counted the initial work as a mere beginning and the so-called Long Text as closer to the real thing:

 And therefore me behoveth now to telle thre propertes in which I am somdele esed. The furst is the inwarde lerning that I understode therin in the same time. The secunde is the inwarde lerning that I have understonde therein sithen. The third is alle the hole revelation, fro the beginning to the ende, which oure lorde God of his goodnes bringeth oftimes frely to the sight of my understonding. And theyse thre be so oned, as to my understonding, that I can not nor may deperte them.[7]

In fact the three properties are one, and each ‘inwarde learning’ marks Julian’s progressive understanding of that single day as it was comprehended over the course of nearly 30 years. The revelation, then, is not what was shown on that day in 1373. Or rather, the revelation is not simply that vision, nor its record, but includes the whole process of composition – which results, finally, in the work that begins: ‘This is a revelation of love …’[8] From the vision of 13 May to A Vision of a Devout Woman to A Revelation of Love: that is the ‘[w]hole revelation, from the beginning to the ende’. And as a process, it is uncannily similar to the way that Scripture itself was received and understood, at least through its vast tradition of commentary and its formal treatment in theology (not to mention sermons, treatises, apologies, versifications, etc.). The implicit was made explicit, the narratives of Scripture explained and codified in more rational, logical terms. What Julian’s Revelation represents is, as it were, the accretions of tradition layered upon a holy book; except here source and commentary are compressed within a single lifetime, the vision and work and emotion, it seems, of a solitary woman.

Kenneth Chong is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. He has a PhD in English from Princeton University, and is working on a book about the inheritance of scholastic thought in Middle English religious literature.

[1] The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 2.18–19 All references, unless otherwise noted, are to A Revelation of Love.

[2] Ibid., 4.1–5; c.f. Vis. 3.10–14.

[3] Ibid., 4.6–8.

[4] Ibid., 4.10–11.

[5] Ibid., 9.24–6.

[6] Ibid., 2.2.

[7] Ibid., 55.63–70.

[8] Ibid., 1.1.

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