Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Julian of Norwich (1343–1416)

Julian of Norwich (1343-1416)


Julian of Norwich (1343-1416) was an English anchoress, with many literary personas including Dame Julian and Mother Julian. Julian formed these personas for her novel Revelations of Divine Love in the middle ages in order to ensure people understood the emphasis in the development of female authors. Her novel Revelations of Divine Love was also the first book to be written in English by a woman.

Julian based her life in Norwich, in which she witnessed various devastating events, such as; black death (1348-1350), peasants' revolt (1381) and lollards suppression. In 1373 on her deathbed, Julian became aware of visions. These visions were by the Passion of Christ. These visions became a part of her writing as she wrote about them twice and wrote the book Long Text.

There is little or no information on Julian's real birth name, family, education or life prior to being an anchoress. Julian was anchoress to St Julian's Church in Norwich.



Julian of Norwich, (also known as Juliana of Norwich, Dame Julian or Mother Julian), was born in 1342. Julian was allegedly born in the English city of Norwich, where she spent her entire life and was a celebrated Mystic, anchoress, and theologian. Julian of Norwich is widely known for writing the first manuscript in English by a female author (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021). There is little information regarding Julian’s actual name, education or family history, nor is there much information before she started to live as an anchoress for the church. What is known of Julian of Norwich’s life is that around the age of 30 she became deathly ill, but was healed after experiencing what she determined as a series of visions of the Passion of Christ (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021). Julian of Norwich would go on to live a recluse life, where she wrote her texts while seeking isolation. For the latter part of her life, Julian lived almost in solidarity, as was contextualised by her role as an anchoress where she lived in her cell that was attached to the St. Julian’s Church in Norwich (Watson, & Jenkins, 2006). During that time, Julian also made connections with another famous female mystic; Margery Kempe, who wrote about their encounter and provided details into the counselling she received from Julian of Norwich (McAvoy, 2004).



Julian of Norwich’s work is seen as unique as there are no other written manuscripts from English anchoress. Her manuscripts and her story was largely unknown until her texts were published by Serenus De Cressy, a confessor for the English Nuns. The texts were published in 1670, under the title of XVI Revelations of Divine Love; shewed to a devout servant of Our Lord, called Mother Juliana, an Anchorete of Norwich: Who lived in the Dayes of King Edward the Third, and only makes mention of her Long Text (Salih & Baker, 2009). Contemporary critics found interest in Julian of Norwich’s work when it was later republished in 1877. One critical analysis of the text is that the texts translation from its original middle English to contemporary English has caused the text to lose meaning and some articles make the case that the middle English it was originally written in provides a context that makes for a more poetic and religious experience (Lezard, 2015).



Very little is known about Julian of Norwich’s personal life and how she was regarded at the time. She was regarded as a spiritual authority in her community and was also looked upon as a counsellor and advisor for spirituality (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021). During her years as an anchoress, she devoted herself to prayer and played the role of the protector of people's souls and lived a life as secluded as possible. However, at the time would have been able to partake in the making of clothes for the poor and servicing her community while she enjoyed the affection of the general population (Jantzen, 2000). Julian of Norwich is now recognised as one of England's most important mystics. She is honoured during an unofficial feast day on May 13th and a modern chapel in the church of St. Julian is dedicated to her memory. Her writings have gone on to influence literary scholars and religious sects all over the world and her writings have been translated into numerous languages (Turner, 2011). In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Julian of Norwich’s life and teachings saying, “Julian of Norwich understood the central message for spiritual life: God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love, totally and with total trust, and lets it become one's sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it,". And even today some compare her solitary life to the modern-day self-isolation that people are participating in around the world.

Further reading


McAvoy, L. H. (2004). Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (Vol. 5). Boydell & Brewer.

To learn more on Julian of Norwich and her writings it is suggested to read, Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe by Liz Herbert McAvoy. This book examines the two writer’s awareness of traditional and contemporary attitudes towards women especially the medieval attitudes towards the female body. This reading breaks down the writer's use of the three archetypal representations of women that was prevalent in the middle ages as the mother, the whore, and the wise woman. It examines the conflict of these female categories with society’s expectation of women and the writers own lived experiences as female writers.

Sheldrake, P. (2018). Julian of Norwich:" In God's Sight" Her Theology in Context. John Wiley & Sons. Another reading suggested to broaden knowledge is Julian of Norwich: “In God’s Sight” Her Theology in Context by Phillip Sheldrake. Sheldrake examines what is recorded about Julian of Norwich’s experiences and religious consciousness and breaks down her writings into a historical, cultural and spiritual context. This reading is based on the religious texts that Julian composed, specifically the Long Text as well as her own ideas and spirituals purposes were. This book presents context and further study to the key elements surrounding Julian’s theology, uses scholarly referencing and examines key points of Julian of Norwich’s texts. This reading was written with the purpose of supplying students of theology a scholarly review of Julian of Norwich’s most famous literature and literary meaning.