Sunday, March 01, 2020

Fortnightly Book, March 1

In 1373 in Norwich, a woman about thirty years of age came down so sick that she had good reason to think that she was going to die. After the priest performed the last rites, she began to have a series of visions -- fifteen distinguishable ones over the course of a few hours, and then another the next day. Within a few days, she was completely recovered. And the result was (in two different versions) one of the most remarkable English texts of the day.

We do not know if it was her original name, but she is known to the world as Julian of Norwich. She was an anchorite -- we don't know if she was already an anchorite when she had her visions, or if she become one in response to them. An anchorite lives a particular kind of religious life which can be thought of as half-way between a cenobitic life and an eremitic life; that is, an anchorite is something like a monk or nun and something like a hermit. Standardly, an anchorite would live permanently in a small cell adjoined to a church or chapel, able to participate in the sacraments of the church and talk with those who came by to do so, but otherwise completely cut off from the world; in fact, standardly, the beginning of the anchoritic life was a funeral service in which the anchorite was 'buried' in their anchorhold, and from then on they could never leave it. In Julian's day it was a very popular form of religous life in England, both to join and to support; anchorites were often the spiritual center of their local community, available at all times to give advice or to pray for you. Julian's anchorhold is usually thought to be that of St. Julian's Church, which was named either after St. Julian the Hospitaller or St. Julian of Le Mans; she may have chosen the church because she shared its name, or she may have taken the name by which we know her from the church. We don't know. While Norwich by the end of the Middle Ages had a lot of anchoritic cells, Julian seems to be the first anchorite in Norwich of which we have any knowledge. Not counting her own works, she is mentioned in several wills and was visited by Margery Kempe.

Sometime shortly after her discovery she wrote down her visions in a book known as the Shewings (or later, as the Revelations of Divine Love), which is often called today the Short Text. Later, having had extensive time to reflect on the visions and come to understand things she might not have originally considered significant, she rewrote the work into the from known as the Long Text. The Short Text largely languished in libraries until it was published in 1911; the Long Text was copied and preserved, largely by Benedictine nuns, and was translated into French in the seventeenth century, where it stayed popular enough eventually to lead to republication of the English version in the nineteenth century. Wikipedia has a really nice graphic of the manuscript history of both versions. The book is often considered one of the great works of fourteenth-century English literature.

So Julian's Revelations is the next fortnightly book. I'll be reading it in the Norton Critical Edition, The Showings of Julian of Norwich, edited by Denise Baker; it is a Long Text version, derived from the Paris Manuscript, the scribe of which modernized some of the vocabulary and grammar into sixteenth century English, without making any massive changes to the main text.