In the early fifteenth century, a woman called Margery Kempe visited a church in Norwich. She had come to seek spiritual advice from an ‘anchoress’ – a holy woman who had committed her life to prayer and contemplation, enclosed in a cell attached to the church building.
We know of this conversation because it is recorded in The Book Of Margery Kempe, a document of this Norfolk woman’s life and religious experiences. But the anchoress she met that day, who was around seventy years old, also left an important written legacy. In fact, she is the earliest identifiable woman who wrote a book in English, and is now one of our best-known medieval mystics.
Julian of Norwich was born in 1342, making her an almost exact contemporary of Chaucer. There is evidence she lived as an anchoress from at least 1393 to 1416, but we don’t know when she began that life, nor when she died. What we do have are two texts – one short, one long – both of which recount and interpret a series of religious visions she experienced during a sickness in May 1373, at age thirty.
Julian is celebrated today for her message of divine consolation, summed up in her most quotable line ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ But there is a stranger, darker side to her writing. Here we encounter the distant outlook of medieval Christianity, but with an individual voice; a woman pronouncing striking theological ideas.
It may be difficult to cross the imaginative gap into Julian’s world. But in the introduction to Barry Windeatt’s translation of her Revelations Of Divine Love, he describes the enclosure ceremony for an anchoress, based on a twelfth-century guide. It makes for disturbing reading:
The life of an anchoress was regarded as the living death of one who was as if dead to the world. Parts of the rite of enclosure were excerpted from the office for the burial of the dead, and the anchoress entered her cell singing the antiphon from the burial service, ‘Here shall be my rest forever.’ The anchoress was then prayed for as if over a corpse, dust was sprinkled as at a burial, and the door to the cell was shut and sealed up from the outside.
Basic provisions had to be provided for of course, so there would have been access to a servant, via some kind of portal. Julian may have had a window into the church to observe services, and Kempe’s account suggests some allowance for communication.
But nonetheless, this ‘living death’ was a self-imposed imprisonment. Secular eyes might view such a notion with horror, or pity. But to Julian, the walls of the anchorhold would have been as nothing to the promise of eternity with God.
Her otherworldly fixation also gave rise to a kind of worldly masochism. At the start of her short text, Julian describes the events that precipitated her visions. She had asked God that she might ‘relive Christ’s Passion in my mind’, and also receive a ‘bodily sickness’:
I wanted this sickness to be severe enough as to seem mortal […] for I wanted to have no hopes of any fleshly or earthly life […] I wanted to have every kind of suffering in body and spirit that I would have if I were to die, with all the terrors and tumults caused by devils, and every other kind of pain, short of the soul’s leaving the body.
Troubling though it may be, her wish was granted. Julian fell seriously ill, and was seemingly on the verge of death. As was customary for the dying, she was brought a crucifix to contemplate. Then, soon after, she saw blood beginning to run from under its crown of thorns – ‘hot and fresh, plentiful and lifelike’. And so her visions began, both in this ‘bodily’ way, but also ‘spiritually’, through inner insight.
Despite this morbid beginning, Julian’s Revelations develop into an optimistic account of divine benevolence. Particularly notable are her descriptions of God as both a father and a mother figure. She states that God has loved us ‘from without beginning’, and – perhaps surprisingly – he never angers at our sins. The existence of sin is ‘befitting’; it serves a purpose we cannot yet understand. More surprising still, she reveals that in heaven ‘sin shall be no shame to man, but his glory […] God’s goodness never allows any soul to sin which is to come there, unless the sin is rewarded’.
Various composers have been drawn to Julian’s message of hope and consolation, and often her most famous line itself. An obvious response to these words would be music of serene assurance; the challenge that then arises is how to create interest and contrast.
The Canadian composer Stephanie Martin set a passage for choir that describes ‘the glorious city of the Soul […] in which the Trinity rejoices everlastingly’. The opening bars seem to recall the grand Dresden Amen figure, and the first section maintains a lovely ease with flowing diatonic lines. But when the central section turns to a 7/8 time signature, it breaks into bustling joyfulness.
On a similar scale is Philip Wilby’s choral anthem Vox Dei – ‘Voice Of God’ – in which Julian relates a divine message.
It is I who am the strength and goodness of Fatherhood,
It is I who am the wisdom of Motherhood,
It is I who am the Light and grace and blessed Love […]
Unlike Martin, Wilby focusses on visionary immediacy. Long-held notes combine with moving inner parts to create a mesmerising texture and rich sonority. At the end, this sonic cloud is pierced by a high soprano solo, repeating ‘It is I’. But there is no resolution as such – the music simply stops, vanishing as mysteriously as the epiphany it describes.
William Mathias’s anthem As Truly As God Is The Father also explores the paternal-maternal duality, but puts the choir in dialogue with an organ. The latter starts the piece alone – an ethereal, probing harmonic sequence sets a mood of quiet contemplation. There is a lovely unhurried pacing to this piece, and the music slowly blossoms in its fervour to very beautiful effect, as if embodying Julian’s devout patience.
Various other composers – Libby Larsen, Nigel Butterley, Stephen Hough and Joel Matthys – have set Julian alongside other writers, both sacred and secular. When Roxanna Panufnik was commissioned to compose a choral piece for a concert marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she decided to combine Julian’s ‘All shall be well’ passage with words from eastern Europe – the Polish battle hymn Bogurodzica.
Panufnik’s choir is also split in two, separated by a solo cello. In her words, these two fourteenth-century texts are put into conversation: ‘the knights’ plea for safety in victory’ is answered by Julian’s ‘comforting assurance’. Meanwhile the highly expressive cello part wanders freely, suggesting a universal spirit between them, one beyond any language.
There is plenty of darkness here, with the Polish hymn set with some plangent, even bluesy harmonies. After a rhapsodic cello solo, Julian is first heard in her original Middle English – ‘All Shal be wel’ is repeated like a mantra. But later on, both texts are finally heard in modern English, uniting ecstatically at Julian’s words:
Have faith, and have trust, and at the last day you shall see it all transformed into great joy.
Amidst the destruction of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot quoted Julian’s famous line several times in his mystical poem Little Gidding – with its soothing rhythm and lulling ‘-ll’ sounds, it’s not hard to see why. Eliot’s poem is named after the site of a small seventeenth-century religious community, hidden away in the English countryside. A place where:
[…] while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Eliot’s quotations also inspired the title of Thomas Adès’s early orchestral work …but all shall be well. It was composed in his early twenties, but doesn’t really suggest youthful energy – as Matías Tarnopolsky describes, this work unfolds to a plan based on a scale system:
[…] it does not have any massive dramatic gestures but develops the line of a melody at a steady pace, and when the climax occurs (about two-thirds of the way through) it is the result of the musical processes running their natural course and, effectively, starting over again.
Beginnings and endings permeate Little Gidding too, in which we ‘arrive where we started /And know the place for the first time’. F.C. Happold has described two common urges in mystical thought: the ‘escape from a sense of separation’, and the will to grasp the universe ‘not in parts but in its wholeness’. And so we often find the unification of opposites – whether they are beginnings and endings, history and now, fatherhood and motherhood, or sin and glory.
As Windeatt describes in his introduction, the lack of censure in Julian’s writings means she has found favour with some of Christianity’s less traditional believers, even if her anchorhold is ‘hard to reconcile with social concern as they understand it’. But to others, she simply remains too distant. When Sam Jordison visited Julian’s church, now heavily restored after wartime bombing, he found it ‘unsettling’. Likewise, her Revelations left him alienated. ‘Sometimes writers […] push us away: reminding us just how foreign a country the past is’.
Julian may not be for everyone, but I am always fascinated by those who are motivated by extreme devotion to a belief. My personal aversion to the idea of the anchorhold does not detract from my appreciation of her notions of infinite consolation – in their own ways they are both indicative of another time, yet both also spring from recognisably human impulses.
Mystics will always appeal to those who are interested in alternative ways of perceiving the world. In one memorable passage, Julian is shown a small ball in the palm of her hand, ‘the size of a hazelnut’. She wonders what it could mean, and is answered: it is ‘all that is made’. The largest idea can be contained in the smallest space – perhaps there lies a leap to better comprehend Julian of Norwich. A woman who could enter the confines of a cell, and find that which T.S. Eliot alluded to, just before he quoted her for the final time:
A condition of complete simplicity
(costing not less than everything).
Barry Windeatt’s translation of Julian of Norwich is available from Oxford World Classics.
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