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medieval

Good Things Coming: On Julian of Norwich and Living Through Pandemic

Hannah Lucas introduces us to the medieval anchorite Julian of Norwich and her divine visions. In this time of confinement, she considers the meditative qualities of isolation.

‘al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner of thing shal be wele’

– Julian of Norwich (1342/3–1416)

‘I believe in the good things comin’, comin’, comin’ comin’’

– Nahko and Medicine for the People (2013)

If you know nothing else about Julian of Norwich, you might know her above assurance that ‘al shal be wele’. It’s one of a few quotes from the fourteenth-century visionary currently doing the Twitter rounds, as we all reach for comfort amid the strange anticipatory weight of recent days and weeks.

The maxim is part of Julian’s longer text, A Revelation of Love, which remains to this day one of the most powerfully affective literary and theological statements about living through disease, and choosing love in the face of fear. As far as we know, A Revelation was written during Julian’s own isolation, or enclosure, as an anchorite—a kind of medieval hermit—in a cell attached to a church. Here, she would spend over forty years meditating on the events of a single week, which altered the course of her life and work irrevocably.

***

It is May 1373, and Julian—whose birth name remains unknown—is thirty years old. She has contracted a sickness so debilitating and so blindingly painful she is certain it will kill her. Later, Julian will write movingly of how she languished in her sickbed, losing movement in her lower body, then her eyesight. The rest of her body begins ‘to die’, and Julian becomes numb and breathless. Her pains come and go, fluctuating between ‘ese’ and ‘disese’. In her nightmares, she is visited by fiends.

In March 2020, I’m reading a Facebook post entitled ‘COVID-19 IN THE ATTIC’. It’s the account of a woman with a suspected case of Coronavirus, who writes of her self-relegation to an attic room to avoid infecting her household. She FaceTimes her family so they can be together; she watches her children playing chess. Her leg muscles feel as though she’d walked days through sand. ‘The headache comes and goes, the fever comes and goes’. Dreams turn nightmareish. Her chest is tight.

***

Julian was five years old when the Black Death arrived in England in June of 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London. By the following year, Julian was six, and the country was in the midst of a pandemic. The disease would kill at least a third of the population, causing tears in the social and political fabric of society that would last for decades to follow.

We don’t know how many people Julian lost to the Black Death, or the wars and other widespread hardships common to fourteenth-century living. Nor do we know whether Julian’s sickness was associated with the plague; from her description, it was likely not. We do, however, have Julian’s account of her own survival. More than this, we have an unparalleled series of meditations on the meaning of survival; that is, on finding meaning out of the disorder and dissemblance of the everyday which accompanies illness and trauma.

For Julian, her sickness suspends her out of space and time, in a liminal zone between presence and absence, positive and negative. She is at once in the room, and out of the room. She at once trusts in God’s mercy, and is also terribly afraid. The only light in the darkness is ‘in the image of the cross’, the crucifix held before her by a curate in attendance. The visual focus of the cross brings to Julian’s mind compassion for Christ’s own pains; she wants to feel as he felt, to join him in his own, superlative and paradoxical act of healing pain. With this, the figure of Christ begins to bleed.

What follows is a series of sixteen ‘showings’ or visions: visual, verbal and mental apparitions, which together constitute Julian’s ‘revelation of love’. Among these, Julian witnesses all of creation contained within a little thing, round and the size of a hazelnut, held in God’s wise care. She sees the scourging of Christ’s body; his blood, which spreads like the scales of a herring; his woundedness, and his broken heart for love of the world. She understands that the oscillations of ‘wele and wo’ with which she is afflicted are part of this revelation: a reminder that it is ‘spedeful’ to some souls to be sometimes in comfort, and sometimes ‘to faile and to be left to hemselfe’.

This idea that pain is inevitable, and maybe even beneficial, is a difficult pill to swallow, and Julian deals with this more fully in her theology of sin. But for Julian herself, the sickness does indeed function as a radically transformative experience. Her illness, and the accompanying revelation, calls Julian out of her everyday existence and into a profound new perspective on the world. She is reminded of the love which connects ‘al thing’, and of the opportunity in each moment to reconnect with an inner state of wholeness or ‘hele’, even in the face of disease or pain.

In Julian’s account, the crucifix is the entry point for this transformation: it is, Denys Turner writes, ‘the embodiment of her theological epistemology’.[1] A symbol for the possibility of salvation—of being saved from pain—the cross is a way into the Christian narrative of redemption. Contemporary material from the rich literary and visual culture of the Middle Ages evidences the ubiquitous function of the crucifix as a tool, or access point, for remembering Christ’s history. The hanging body of Christ on the cross becomes a visual shorthand for the all-encompassing and sacrificial love of God.

The image of the cross thus pulls Julian’s focus away from the darkness and distraction of the sickroom—an anchoring of her attention which becomes a neat analogy for a broader way of living, which she calls the ‘wey of Christ’. It strips away the busyness of the world around her, cluttered and disturbing, ‘as though it were occupied by fiends’, and draws her awareness to a single point. Out of the darkness and into light, Julian’s understanding is led towards Christ, to his pain, and to the love that grounds it.

***

Julian’s revelation is that this ‘homely love’ is always available to us—homely because of its familiarity, its closeness. We find it in the little things: in the domestic, a game of chess, the scales of a fish. These are the ‘#TinyJoys’ which make themselves known when we are compelled to slow down, to be truly and fixedly present. In Julian’s case, this is effected by sickness, though she advocates the more intentional method of contemplation.

I wonder if the threat of pandemic functions in a similar way: calling us out of the everyday and into isolation, we are asked to ‘stay at home’ in every sense. Though we can’t make plans for the days and weeks to come, we can seek out homely love even among the chaos and anxiety of present times. By focusing our attention in this way, we can find a home within the self, a place of safety and security, which promises good things to come; a place of light in the darkness, where ‘al shal be wele’.


[1] Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 22.

Further readings:

  • Gillespie, Vincent. ‘Seek, Suffer, and Trust: “Ese” and “Disese” in Julian of Norwich.’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39 (2017): 129–58.
  • McAvoy, Liz Herbert. A Companion to Julian of Norwich. Cambridge: Brewer, 2008.
  • Watson, Nicholas and Jacqueline Jenkins, eds. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Hannah Lucas is writing her D.Phil on Julian of Norwich at the University of Oxford.