The Visions of Julian of Norwich

Joe Nickell

Since the fourteenth century, a manuscript called the Revelations of Divine Love—also known as The Shewings of Julian of Norwich—has inspired the religious faithful and intrigued the curious. Its author was a woman, a Christian mystic, about whom little is known, not even her real name. She apparently took her masculine appellation from St. Julian, whose name is given to the parish of Norwich, England.1

The text of Revelations of Divine Love is remarkable in at least two ways. First, the “shewings” (showings, revelations, or visions) are said to have come to Julian during an intense illness that took her to the edge of death. Second, she was self-described as “a simple creature that cowed [knew] no letter,” that is, could not read—remarkable if true.

Who Was ‘Julian’?

Julian’s experiences spanned several days and nights beginning on May 8, 1373, in Norwich. She states that she was then “thirty years old and a half.” We can therefore calculate her birth as having occurred some time in late 1342. By 1394, a will refers to her as an anchoress, and it would not be surprising if she had become such a well-known figure years before, even prior to the visions.

Anchoress is the term for a female anchorite, a person who has retired into a secluded life for devout contemplation. Because religious options for women were limited, there were more anchoresses than anchorites. By the twelfth century, such a role was officially recognized, and its support and regulations began to be codified. Typically, the hermit was assigned restricted quarters (say a cell of twelve square feet), perhaps alongside a churchyard wall. Anchoritism flourished most in the fourteenth century, and Julian was one of 214 anchorites in England in that time.

As to Julian being unable to read, the idiom that she “cowed no letter” may have been used as a form of modesty. Saying she was unlettered may have only meant she was not a very learned person; perhaps she was taught by nuns and could read and write in the vernacular but was untutored in Latin. Only those given to great leaps of faith and legend-making would suggest that Julian became literate at the moment the visions began.

Certainly she was capable of writing both a short account of her experiences and a much longer text penned two decades later. The long text—indeed, six times longer—shows her as more self-consciously an author and gives a more fully developed theology. She states that, during the intervening twenty years, “I had techyng inwardly.”

Julian was still living in 1413, at the age of about seventy-one, as noted in the heading of the shorter manuscript, which reads in part, “There is a visioun schewed by the goodenes of god to a devoute woman, and hir name es Julyan that is recluse atte Norwich and yitt ys onn lyfe” (i.e., is still alive). In 1416, the Countess of Suffolk made a bequest in support of Julian, which is the last known reference to her, although an unnamed anchoress—conceivably her—received bequests at St. Julian’s until 1429).

Some early critics simply dismissed Julian’s visions. Bishop Edward Stillingfleet (1655–1699), for example, called them “fopperies” like the “Fanatick Revelations of distempered brains.” From her writings, as we shall see, Julian would today be recognized as having a fantasy-prone personality. According to an important 1983 study by Wilson and Barber, such a person is sane and normal but has an exceptional ability to fantasize. Among the identifying characteristics are susceptibility to hypnosis (suggestion and role-playing), adopting a fantasy identity, experiencing imagined sensations as real, receiving messages from higher beings, and other such traits.

The Illness

It is often repeated that Julian was struck by an illness, “a bodily sekeness,” she said, that took her to the brink of death—so that her curate held a crucifix to her gaze to comfort her, and her mother, believing her dead, reached to close her eyes. During this illness, she experienced sixteen showings.

However, I have analyzed her entire statement of 3,431 lines of Middle English text (the language of Chaucer) and concluded that she was not actually ill. Neither, to be sure, was she deliberately feigning such. She did unconsciously will the experience, saying that in her youth she had “desired” of God three gifts: knowledge of his Passion (the sufferings of Jesus from after the Last Supper through his crucifixion); the experience of personal bodily sickness, including such torments “that I should have if I should die . . . except the outpassing of the soull”; and finally, “three wounds” (namely, of “very [true] contrition,” “kinde compassion,” and of “willful longing to God”).

By herself having wished for such a bodily affliction, Julian—a classic fantasizer—no doubt induced her own “sekenesse.” The process has the earmarks of so-called self-hypnosis—that is, of auto suggestion and role-playing. She felt herself becoming increasingly ill during three days and, taking holy rites, thought she would not live. When the curate came and set a crucifix before her to comfort her, she fixed her eyes upon it. Soon her sight began to fail and her bedchamber became dark as night except for the cross, “wherein I beheld a comon [sic] light.” Thereupon, all her pain was suddenly alleviated. The power of suggestion could scarcely be more clearly described.

The Visions

At this point, Julian has her first vision. Suddenly, she says, she observed Jesus being crowned with thorns, witnessing “the rede blode trekelyn down fro under the garlande hote [hot] and freisly [fresh] and ryth [right] plenteously, as it was in the time of His passion that the garlande of thornys was pressid on His blessid hede.” Keep in mind that at this time she was actually staring at“the face of the Crucifix,” which simply came alive in her intense imagination.

The visions continued, sixteen in all, related in eighty-six chapters. While most of the visual showings feature Jesus, there are secular images, too, such as the often-quoted one called the “hazel-nut cosmos”: “Also in this,” she writes, “He showed a littil thing, the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand; and it was round as a ball. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made.” This is a deep insight—but of a kind a poet or philosopher might recognize—that has simply welled up from the depths of her own thoughts.

Julian discusses God, the holy Trinity, and—most of all—Jesus. She explores such topics as the nature of sin, contrition, and redemption, “the ghostly [spiritual] shewing” of Jesus’s mother Mary, the Church and its sacraments, the necessity of prayer and the manner of praying, the properties of mercy and grace, how the soul relates to God, and so on.

There is nothing to suggest that Julian’s visions are anything more than imaginative meditations. They contain mostly the dogmas and iconography of the period. For example, I was especially struck by how, in the second revelation, Julian discusses the “holy vernicle” as it relates to Jesus during his Passion. This was an image known as “Veronica’s Veil.” It is not mentioned in the Bible, but according to much later legends there was a miraculous self-portrait of Jesus, of which there were many alleged originals, called the “Edessan Image” or “Mandylion.” The term for these, vera iconica (Latin for “true images”), became corrupted to Veronica. Hence, there sprang up a pious medieval tale of how a woman of that name gave Jesus her veil or kerchief with which to wipe the blood and sweat from his face as he struggled with his cross toward crucifixion. The term for such an image, a veronica, was in turn corrupted to vernicle in Middle English (as in Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” for another example).

Julian specifically mentions that the “vernicle of Rome” exhibits various changings of “colour and chere” (as was imagined by pilgrims) and she “saw” just such changings of Jesus’s face in the eighth revelation. That her alleged vision should so tally with a bogus, medieval “relic” demonstrates that the source of her revelations is herself.

Her other showings are based either on biblical text, teachings of the church, or both. She speaks of “Adams synne,” “the blissid Trinite,” “Domys Day,” “Helle and Purgatory, “the Techyng of werkyng of miracles,” “our Lord Jesus uprysen,” and so on and on. She even says, dutifully, that all will be shown by “the prechyng and techyng of Holy Church.” Again, her revelations are simply about those things she has learned or that she applied her own thinking to.

Conclusions

Julian was a remarkable figure of her time. Her manuscript, published in 1395, became a small part of the reemergence of the vernacular for literary purposes (helping set us on a modern course). It was also, and more important, the first published book in English known to have been written by a woman—and a woman of importance as a medieval Christian humanist. (In arguing this, Justin Jackson observes in an essay in A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism [Brill, 2016] that Julian effectively replaces the old God of vengeance with one who became man, offering [in Revelation 14] her signature concept: the human person is “knitted” to Christ who is a nurturing and sustaining “Mother” guiding by divine love. Julian’s “understonding” is the faculty of reason elevated to see this.) Modern secular humanists can find her interesting to study in a variety of ways.

Julian’s writing is rather straightforward, and she is careful to distinguish between modes of expression, saying, “All this was shewid by thre, that is to say, be bodily sight, by word formyd in my understonding, and be ghostly [that is, spiritual] sight.” I would emphasize that she was so sincere in what she attempted to relate that we have been able to see what actually happened to yield her “shewings”: that she did not suffer from an illness that took her to the brink of death, as is commonly said of her, but that she instead unconsciously directed herself into a semblance of that. She entered an altered state of consciousness wherein she tapped the wellsprings of her imagination and insight. Her profound experience tells us more about herself than even she knew.

 


Notes

  1. “Julian” could have been a form of “Gillian” (a common woman’s name of the Middle Ages), but that would be quite a coincidence given the name of the parish church.

References

  • Bequette, John P., ed. A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism. Boston: Brill, 2016.
  • Crampton, Georgia Ronan, ed. The Shewings of Julian of Norwich. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 1994. (Unless otherwise noted, information about Julian is taken from Crampton’s introduction.)
  • Nickell, Joe. Relics of the Christ. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
  • ———. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013.
  • Revelations of Divine Love. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Revelations_of_Divine_Love, October 26, 2016.
  • Wilson, Sheryl C., and T. X. Barber. “The Fantasy-Prone Personality: Implications for Understanding Imagery, Hypnosis, and Parapsychological Phenomena.” In Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application, edited by Anees A. Sheikh. New York: Wiley, 1983.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, PhD, is a former investigator with a world-famous detective agency who has been consulted in homicide and questioned-document cases. Among his numerous books are Relics of the Christ and The Science of Miracles.


“There is nothing to suggest that Julian’s visions are anything more than imaginative meditations. They contain mostly the dogmas and iconography of the period.”

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.