Julian of Norwich
1342 - c. 1416
In 14th century Norwich a young woman fell under a life-threatening illness, during which she experienced a series of extraordinary visions. These revelations transformed her life, and after a miraculous recovery she took vows to live as an Anchoress, locking herself away in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich.
Her only interaction with the outside world was through a little window to which others would come seeking her wise counsel. While in this cell, she wrote down her account of the revelations she had been given and in so doing became the first woman to write a book in English. The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich are as relevant to us today as they were 650 years ago, and her writings continue to have an impact on people across the globe.
Julian's Revelations continues to inspire and enchant people from every walk of life, whether for its spiritual insight into God's unconditional love or for Julian's historic significance as one of England's most well-regarded medieval women.
We know almost nothing for certain about the biographical details of Julian's life. She writes very little about herself in her Revelations, apart from the date of her visions and the year she was born. Remarkably, we know that in 1413 fellow Norfolk writer and pilgrim Margery Kempe came to seek Julian’s spiritual advice because she recorded their conversation in The Book of Margery Kempe, one of the earliest autobiographies written in the English language, and from this encounter we understand that she must have been highly regarded not only in Norwich but beyond and that her reputation for spiritual wisdom had spread at least to the furthest end of the county if not beyond.
Who she was and what she did before becoming an anchoress and writer is unknown, though many attempts have been made by authors and historians to speculate. But perhaps it is the enigma of Julian, of whose spiritual insights we have so much while so little remains of her personal life, that attracts so many to her, and the freedom her anonymity allows to make her who we want her to be.
Was Julian a saint?
Who was Julian and what do we call her? Dame? Lady? Mother? Saint? Julian of Norwich is known by several titles, depending on the context in which she is encountered.
Though Julian was never formally made a saint in the Catholic Church, many people assume that St Julian's is named after her. In fact, St Julian's is one of the oldest churches in Norwich and took its name from a male Saint Julian hundreds of years before Julian's birth. However, the Anglican church has given Julian a day in the official church calendar, 8 May, considered by most to be the day her revelations were received in 1373.
Amongst the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic traditions she is often known as Mother Julian as a term of respect for her wisdom and legacy. Perhaps most widely she is known as Dame or Lady Julian, in part to distinguish her from any men with the same name, and a reflection of her legacy as a pioneering female writer.