Wednesday 14 February 2024


 I ordered two copies of the Penguin Classics edition (1966) of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love earlier this week in the light of the attention and interest at our Meeting House in Marazion. Referenced in vocal ministry this month, it is clear that Mother Julian's mystic insights have touched the lives of some Quakers in our community and there are others who want to know more. 

Detail from David Holgate's modern statue of Julian of Norwich, depicted holding a copy of Revelations of Divine Love. It was added to the west front of Norwich Cathedral in 2000.

My own copy of the Revelations has been with me for over forty years, even before I became a part-time post-graduate student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich between 1995 and 2003. The city of Norwich is dear both to my heart and Louise my wife who worked there as an Open University advisor; my doctoral thesis (2003) is titled: 'Drink in Victorian Norwich' and serves as a contribution to the history of the working-class and its connections with other social groups within Norwich; there would be occasions as I traversed the city as a researcher when I passed close by the site of Mother Julian's church to which her cell as an anchorite had been attached. Below is a piece written by Simon Knott in 2023 about this church. It tells you much about both St Julian church and Mother Julian - the video is a portal into her life if you imagine hard enough. In the second part of this blogpost I will expand more about her life and her spiritual insights as a mystic. 

 St Julian Church, Norwich

This crisp little church sits on one of the alleys that ran from Ber Street to King Street below. Its neighbours are mostly new apartments and houses, but for centuries this was Conesford, an industrial quarter and a port, with the tenements, inns and brothels you might expect. In the late Middle Ages, much of East Anglia's stained glass and memorial brasses were made in these narrow lanes. In the 18th and 19th Centuries this was an area of factories and warehouses, tanneries and slaughterhouses, along with the crowded slums of the workers. These days, King Street, the main road that ran through Conesford, is being gentrified, but still the urban decay of centuries clings to some of the old buildings.

St Julian's dedication is an interesting one.... he resolved to pay penance by establishing a riverside inn for travellers, and a hospital for the poor. So, he was an entirely appropriate choice of patron for the medieval priory established here in the medieval suburb of Conesford on the banks of the Wensum. It seems likely therefore that he was also the St Julian to whom this little church is dedicated.

The Priory has long gone. But although this church is a small and rebuilt building, tucked away in what is still the anonymous and relatively run down inner city, St Julian is one of the

most famous of Norwich's churches because it is associated with the mystical visions of the Blessed Mother Julian of Norwich.... When she fell ill in the 1370s, probably in one of the outbreaks of plague which carried off perhaps half Norfolk's population between the late 1340s and the end of the century. In her deathbed delirium she claimed she received mystical visions or showings, which she termed Revelations of Divine Love. On her unexpected recovery, she became an anchoress here, taking the name Julian, the dedication of the church.

An anchoress was a kind of female hermit, walled up in a room on the side of a church with a view of the altar. Meals would be passed to her, ablutions passed out, and she would offer advice to visitors, but her existence was largely a contemplative one. Her male equivalent was an anchorite. There is surviving evidence of anchorite or anchoress cells at half a dozen East Anglian churches, although of course there must have been many more. There was a fashion for anchorites and anchoresses in the late 14th Century, mainly as a result of the way in which the Black Death had concentrated our minds and made us all serious. Dame Julian devoted her time to prayer and contemplation of her visions, which she wrote down in English.

The manuscripts fell into obscurity after the Reformation, and it was really only in the 20th Century that the importance of her work in both literary and spiritual terms was recognised. The most striking thing about the Revelations is quite simply that, at a time when an obsession with death, doom and gloom would have been entirely reasonable, they are optimistic and uplifting, an affirmation of our relationship with God. They suggest that our ultimate destiny is intended by God to be beautiful and glorious, and that life is not a test which sends its failures to hell.

Roger Clarke, a friend of this site, wrote to me to point out that as this has always been a rundown and poor part of Norwich, even in medieval days, I have always felt that this adds to the specialness of the place. Mother Julian's Revelations are highly incarnational and stress the reality of Christ sharing in the messes and confusion of human existence - grace is very much earthed and earthy for her. What better place for the Revelations than a church in a run-down, slightly seedy, decayed, red-light district ? The holy is glimpsed, not in the purity of isolation, but in the ordinary - or, as Mother Julian, would call it "the homely". The Revelations are at the forefront of medieval northern European spiritual writing. Although she has never been officially recognised as a saint, Dame Julian is often treated as one, and her patronal day of May 8th is included in the Ordo of both the Church of England and of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

During the 1942 Nazi German air raids on Norwich, St Julian was one of five city churches destroyed by the bombing. 
St Julian was the only one of the five lost churches to be rebuilt, and this seems largely down to the fact that the foundations of what appeared to be Dame Julian's cell were uncovered in the rubble. The rebuilding in the 1950s was largely along its original plan, except that the presumed site of Mother Julian's cell was added as a transept, accessed through a massive Norman doorway brought here from the bombed out church of St Michael at Thorn up the road. The steeply pitched roof gives it an attractively rustic feel, and the Saxon windows exposed by the bombing have been left as features on the north side....

Simon Knott, February 2023

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