Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love”: Expanding the Language of Sensory Experience.


Oure gracious & goode lorde god shewed me in party the wisdom & the trewthe of the soule of oure blessed lady/ saynt mary. where in I vnderstood the reuerent beholdynge/ that she behelde her god that is her maker. maruelynge with grete reuerence that he wolde be borne of her that was a simple creature of his makyng.

Julian of Norwich (c. 8 November 1342 – c. 1416)



Julian of Norwich’s birth name is unknown. Her nom de plume was taken from the church where she lived as an anchoress. Julian was a well-educated woman from a wealthy family. Her admission at being “unlettered” reflects her lack of training in Latin, but her mastery of vernacular English is reflected in her exceptional written style.

Julian is known for her work “Revelations of Divine Love” describing the ‘showings’ (as she termed her mystical experiences) she experienced in the throes of a life-threatening illness on May 3rd, 1373 when she was 30 years old.[1]

“Revelations” exists in two texts. The first one, known as the Short Text was written soon after this experience.

The second work, known as the Long Text, was written when Julian was around fifty and was a more detailed commentary and analysis of her “Showings”.

Although she begins the Revelations by claiming to by “uneducated” (“that cowde no letter”)[2], this needs to be understood in the context of the times. In 14th century England, the language of literacy was Latin. This was the language used by the church for most written text, official documentation, diplomacy, the bible etc. Women, due to the injunctions of church fathers, were forbidden to participate in preaching or dissemination of church teachings and mass. Women were basically excluded from communication in the public sphere.[3] Moreover, medieval texts attributed to women (autobiographies, descriptions of mystical visons etc.) were often mediated through male authorities. Most works were dictated by women and had to be ‘written’ by male monks and scribes. [4] The opportunities for intellectual communication among women in medieval Christian Europe were tightly controlled. One area where women were allowed a degree of expression was in the recounting of visionary experience. This was a tradition begun by the Great medieval polymath Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard had achieved widespread fame for her writings of mystical visions that she had received, which were published as the Scivias in 1148. Crucially, Hildegard’s visionary experiences had received papal blessing and thus could be widely circulated. Hildegard used the reputation garnered by her writings to communicate with major figures across Europe. She set up a convent and prolifically produced treatises on medicine, philosophy and some of the most remarkable music composed in the middle ages.

In the wake of Hildegard’s example,  female visionaries appeared across Europe over the next few centuries. They were aided by the precedent set by Hildegard in creating a space within which they could communicate. They were also aided by the rise of vernacular languages as alternative to Latin as a language of communication. Unlike Latin, vernacular languages such as early German, English and Spanish dialects were thriving, protean entities, and lay beyond the pale of strict textual enforcement by church authorities. Julian’s Revelations is a masterpiece of medieval English as well as being a highly sophisticated undermining of dualistic thought that ran through catholic thinking.

Julian became an anchoress soon after experiencing her sickbed visions, and remained one for the rest of her long life. It was after some twenty years of solitary reflection, at around the age of fifty, that she produced the definitive Long Text of her Revelations.

Anchoresses were women who withdrew from completely public life in order to dedicate themselves to the contemplation and worship of God and religious practice. Unlike orders of nuns, anchoresses did not take full vows, and so were not subject to the same restrictions on behaviour that were imposed on formal religious congregations.[5]

The source text that describes regulations on the lifestyle of the medieval anchoress, the Ancrene Wiesse, or Ancrene Riwle, (AW) This work has been traditionally ascribed to an Augustinan or Dominican monk. This supports Spearing’s assertion regarding the male mediation of medieval texts ascribed to women. However, analysis of AW reveals evidence of a collaborative textual authorship; one that involved the contribution not only of monks but also the women for whom the text was intended to act as a guide[6] .

This ‘interactive’ kind of authorship often occurred with sources ascribed to women. For example, when looking at the works of another mystic, Bridget of Sweden, we learn that

She spoke the words in her native language in a kind of tense, ecstatic trance as if she were reading from a book; and then the confessor dictated these words in Latin to the scribe, and he wrote them down there in her presence. When the words had been written down she listened very carefully and attentively.[7]

The daily practices of the anchoress included a full schedule of reading, praying and singing.[8]   The AW also refers to women being employed as maids by the anchoress in order to tend to day to day needs.[9] It can be ascertained then that the anchoresses came from relatively wealthy and educated backgrounds. This also helps explain why anchoresses were freer in practice than in theory. Given their relatively high levels of wealth, social standing and education, it is unsurprising that Anchoresses tended to be drawn into prominent roles in their local communities.

Evidence of this is found in the prescriptions that the writer of AW feels compelled to mention. He warns prospective anchoresses against many activities that placed them at the heart of the community, such as teaching and running schools, along with being overly generous with their wealth.[10] These prohibitions give glimpse into some of the social functions of the typical anchoress in her village setting. At least some anchorholds, it seems, became the center of town life, acting as sort of bank, post office, school house, shop, and newspaper – services which today are provided mainly by public and quasi-public institutions. The AW author, of course, advises against these activities mainly because they draw the heart of the anchoress outside her anchorhold, but that they must be prohibited points to the fact that many anchorites became something like spiritual celebrities – they became the focus for the communal religious life of the village. [11]

We know that Julian herself had become  well known figure in her own lifetime, providing advice and succor for those who visited her at her anchorage in Norwich. The English mystic Margery Kempe, in the first autobiography written in English, records visting Julian for advice on the visions she recieved.

The mid fourteenth to the mid fifteenth centuries was a golden age for literature written in vernacular English language. John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, the poet of the “Gawain” cycle along with mystic writing of Walter Hilton and the authorship of “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the great classic work on mystical practices, all were written around this time. Often writers in English of the period would apply Latin compositional devices to their writings, and Julian employed devices such as rhetoric and complex composition in Revelations. One device that Julian uses is that of complexion, which uses repetition of the first and final words in successive clauses: As in the most famous passage of her Revelations:

“I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well, and I can make all things well.”[12]

We can also glean influences of mystic texts, such as the Cloud of Unknowing, in the imagery and explanations of her visions. The metaphor of understanding the working of the universe via God’s love, in the minutiae of the world occurs in both Julian’s visions and The Cloud.

For example, compare the explanation of the unfathomable limits of God’s creation as explained in The Cloud:

“This work asketh no long time or it be once truly done, as some men ween; for it is the shortest work of all that man may imagine. It is never longer, nor shorter, than is an atom: the which atom, by the definition of true philosophers in the science of astronomy, is the least part of time. And it is so little that for the littleness of it, it is indivisible and nearly incomprehensible.”

Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 4

Compare this to Julian’s explanation of her revelation of God’s mystery:

“…He (The Godhead/Jesus) showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand and it was as round as a ball. I looked on it with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall last for that God loves it. And so everything has the Being by the love of God.”

Julian of Norwich, Revelations, chapter 5

The influence of neo Platonist philosophy was paramount shaping  Julian’s understanding of her mystical revelations. One example lies in use of ratio that occurs in the two quotes above. Ratio is explanation of  the very large via a example of  the very small. This is a core belief that colours medieval cosmology. Ratio picked up agian in the writings of the romatics in the nineteenth century (Such as Blake’s ‘ To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour‘) and can be traced back to neo-Platonic ideas which had influenced  medieval Christian thought via the writings to the Irish monk John Duns Scotus Eurigena.[13] This contrasted to the hitherto dominant cosmology in Christian thinking, one influenced by the Church fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian. These theologians had been influenced by the Manichean cosmology, which held that evil was an actively existing thing in the universe. Following this view, the material world, and more pointedly the body, was a source of evil that contaminated the pure, or godlike soul. Hence the view of the body, procreation and women in general as being “the gateway to the devil”. The cosmology outlined by Plotinus, in contrast, was much more benign.

The “one” is perfect and unknowable, so that the universe is an emanation of his infinite fecundity., like a fountain or heat radiated from the sun. That which is furthers away from the “one is least perfectly good. Sin then, for Plotinus, is not a positive creation, it is merely an indication of lack of the Good. This view has consequences for the view of the material world. For Plotinus, the world, and the body is not inherently sinful or bad. It is merely less “purely” good. Indeed, he emphasises this difference from other Platonist and religious sects that view the “world”/body as hopelessly irredeemably corrupt

(Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, p.146)

Plotinus explained creation as a sort of interconnected trinity:  1) A pure and perfect ONE that gave off a 2) intellectual good that in turn created 3) the human soul/the material universe. The important thing to note is that for Plotinus, because all was an emanation of the perfect ONE, then all was, in principle, potentially good. Nothing in the world was inherently evil or sinful. We see in Julian’s visions a parallel Trinitarian description of God, Jesus and humanity.  In the vision of the Lord and Servant in the Long Text, Julian describes God/The Lord as “perfectly good, needing to do nothing in himself”. Humanity’s function, as the servant, is to toil in the material world (referred to by Julian as “The Garden”) in order to make God aware of its own creation.

“…for I saw that the Lord {God} has within himself eternal life and every kind of goodness, except for the treasure that was in the earth” [i.e. that which exists in the material world. However, this material world would not exist without God’s creative impulse-]“…and that had its origin in the Lord in wonderful depths of endless love-… and without the Lord there was nothing but a wilderness.”

 Revelations. Long text, Ch. 51 p 121.


In Julian’s vision of the lord and servant, the servant/ (or “intellectual principle” as it is referred to by Plotinus), carries out the lords will in order for the lord to experience the fruit of his perfection. But in their eagerness to carry out the work of the Lord, the servant falls, and loses sight and memory of their true nature.

“All this time the lord would sit in the same place waiting for the servant whom he had sent out.”

Revelations. Long text, Ch. 51 p 121.

The servant then serves as two functions for Julian: As the divine principle, clothed in human form (symbolised for Julian by the wearing of a poor tunic) the servant is the incarnation of Christ in human form. In its eagerness to do the lord’s bidding, leading the servant to trip and fall, thus becoming “fallen man” the servant becomes fallible humanity: Adam. Sin, as it applies to humanity, for Julian then is not an active evil. It is a forgetting, a fall from grace, as opposed to an active carrying out of an evil act. This is further explicated by Eurigena, who emphasised the unitary principle of  God (Here we see the influence of The “One” of Plotinus), and the need for humanity to reintegrate their male and female halves (Influenced from the works to the Philosopher known as Pseudo Dionysius) in order to reunite with the perfection of god[14].

Julian refers to this interrelation of the male and female halves as aspects of the divine one a number of times in her Revelations, for example:

“Here I saw part of the compassion of our Lady Saint Mary, for Christ and she were so united in Love that the greatness of her love for him caused the intensity of her pain…. [Jesus] now showed [Mary] to me high, noble and glorious, more pleasing to him than any other creature.”

Revelations. Long Text, ch.251 p 77.


The fact that Julian could couch her visions into such a sophisticated philosophical framework suggests access to high level educated Latin scholarship. Moreover, her use of sophisticated literary devices strongly suggest that Julian was well versed in  scholasticism. However, Julian radically departed from conventional medieval scholasticism, in her conception of a God thatis experienced via the senses; bodily experience shapes  thought. Julian managed to marry abstraction with direct mystical experience. Julian’s writing is couched in a  view that is uniquely hers, a freedom borne from her astonishing command of a protean, unruled language .


Further Reading:


  1. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, translation by Elizabeth Spearing, introduction by A.C Spearing, (Penguin Classics, London, 1998).
  2. The Cloud of Unknowing, Translated by Clifton Wolters (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1977)
  3. Jannelle Dickens, The Female Mystic (I.B. Tauris, New York, 2009)
  4. Abrams, M.H, Natural Supernaturalism (W.W Norton, New York, 1973)



[1] Revelations of Divine Love, translation by Elizabeth Spearing, introduction by A.C Spearing, (Penguin Classics, London, 1998) p. vii

[2] Revelations, p. viii

[3] Revelations, pp. vii-viii

[4] Elizabeth Spearing, Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality, (Penguin Classics, London, 2002) p. ix

[5] Jennifer Ward, p.223

[6] Robert Hasenfratz (Editor), ‘Introduction to Ancrene Wisse’ in TEAMS Middle English Texts,

<http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hasenfratzancrenewisseintroduction > [Accessed November 10th, 2017]


[7] Spearing, Elizabeth, Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality (2002, London, Penguin Classics), p.x

[8] http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hasenfratzancrenewisseintroduction Daily Life of Anchoresses.”

[9] Amt, p. 255

[10] Amt, p. 254

[11] http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hasenfratzancrenewisseintroduction 12 Amt. p.255

[12] Jannelle Dickens, The Female Mystic (I.B. Tauris, New York, 2009) p. 137

[13] Abrams, M.H, Natural Supernaturalism (W.W Norton, New York, 1973) pp. 146-154

[14] Abrams, M.H, Natural Supernaturalism (W.W Norton, New York, 1973) pp. 154-163

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