Julian of Norwich (approx. 1342-1416) is thought to have been the first woman to write a book in the English language.
Very little is known about her, not even her real name. She was an anchoress (a kind of religious hermit, someone who retires from the world for spiritual reasons) and got her name from living in a cell at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. Some believe that she may have come from a rich family in the area and that she might have lost her family during a plague epidemic, but almost no definite information about her personal life still exists.What does remain relates to her religious work. She became very ill at the age of 30 and a priest was brought to her to perform the last rites, a Catholic ritual performed just before a person dies. As she looked at the priest’s crucifix, she had a vision of a bleeding Jesus Christ, followed by fifteen more visions as she managed to recover from her sickness. She wrote about the experience in her book Revelations of Divine Love, which is the earliest surviving book by a woman written in the English language. After she become an anchoress, people in the area travelled to see her for spiritual counsel. This part of her work was written about in the medieval text The Book of Margery Kempe.
Even though she spoke to many people during her lifetime, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the importance of her work was recognised, with Julian of Norwich now considered one of England’s most important mystics because of how precise her image of God was. Her writing is quite optimistic – “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” – and notably feminine in the way it talks about God’s love being like a mother’s love: “Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
Some of her views were quite controversial for the time but it is thought that she had some freedom as a writer because she was an anchoress and relatively unknown. Women writers in general were unusual in this period (and for a long time after) but her religious status gave her some protection to pursue her work and religion. She says as much in her writing, asking “But for I am a woman should I therefore live that I should not tell you the goodness of God?” To a modern reader, her writing might seem safe and conventional, but she was doing something very unusual for a woman at the time.
Now, although still not well known outside of religious circles, Julian of Norwich’s work has been mentioned by writers as famous as T.S. Eliot and Iris Murdoch. There is also an annual week of celebrations for her in Norwich, designed to raise awareness of her life and importance. We might never know who exactly she was but her religious significance remains, as well as her position as one of the first English female writers.
Written for Sheroes of History by Emma Millward
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You can read much of Revelations of Divine Love through Google Books. Click here.
Learn more about Julian of Norwich and how her work continues to inspire people today at The Julian Centre