Julian of Norwich, A.C. Spearing's "Introduction"

I asked you to read the introduction because Julian’s work arises from an important European mystical tradition which helps put her experience and text in context. I also wanted to enable you to read the Short Text (3-38) while still getting access to the two key metaphors (see #7 and 8 below) which Julian develops only later, in the Long Text (41-180), a reading which I found rather daunting myself and hesitated to assign to you for the course. You are, of course, free to read the Long Text if you wish.

Introduction (A.C. Spearing, xvii-xlii)—

1) On page ix, Spearing gives you one good reason why I put Julian on the syllabus following Marie. Also, however, it seemed important to the course not to lose track of the relationship between "inspiration" and the divine after so many of Marie’s tales turned on decidedly secular forms of creativity. In fact, "Eliduc" ends with the protagonists turning to God in a gesture that effectively ends their secular creative endeavors which have been the driving force of the story. How does the whole sacred-secular conflict affect your life? Are you aware of it at all, and if so, in what ways does it create challenges for you as a reader? If you are a devout believer in any religion, how does that affect your reading of texts describing devout belief in another? If you are a non-believer or just confused about your belief, how does that shape your reading of such a devout text?

2) After Julian, we will cross an interesting cultural division between a medieval world in which people tended to do things in large groups (including whole families sleeping in the same room) and the renaissance, which saw the invention of housing which emphasized an increasing number of private or semi-private rooms for things like sleeping, dressing, storing books and reading them, doing business, and talking (e.g., the "parlor"). How does Julian’s peculiar status as an "anchoress" affect her early entry into the world of authorship, and how did her experience of a near-fatal disease further shape that process of isolation? Look for this "space" problem in all the later works we’re reading when they involve women seeking an artistic identity.

3) On xii-xiii, Spearing summarizes Nicholas Watson’s research into the dating of the Short Text and the Long Text, speculating that Julian’s long re-examination of her initial experiences were influenced by the persecution of the Lollards. Those followers of John Wyclif taught that visual images representing God were idolatrous and should be destroyed so they did not get between the reader a competent reading of the Bible, which they thought the sole basis for salvation. What peculiar strains might this controversy place on Julian’s attempt to describe a series of psychological events that were primarily "visual" in nature?

4) How do the bodily experiences Julian reports affect her writing, and how might this relate to what we’ve seen in Sappho, Marie, and other women writers? Why might women tend to see body and spirit as connected instead of opposed, as many male philosophers taught?

5) Pay close attention to the anti-feminist tradition described on pp. xvii-xviii. Women who were learned risked trial for heresy if they revealed their literacy, and male clerics could find specific doctrinal support in New Testament writings (especially the apostle Paul) for the opinion that women were dangerously corrupt and should be silenced. How might this affect a devout woman writer’s work?

6) Spearing speculates further (using Carolyn Bynum’s research) that Julian’s metaphors to describe her "showings" draw upon her experience as a woman to help her readers understand the strange nature of her vision by linking them to familiar household scenes. Think about what medieval women were responsible for while their husbands were out plying their trades, fighting, sailing, riding and ruling the land. Could the two genders’ experience, given this social division of roles, grow far enough apart so that literature written by one gender could fail to connect with the lived experience of the other? If that were happening, how might we detect it?

7) On xxi-xxvii, Spearing summarizes an extremely important metaphor which Julian develops in the Long Text which is not yet apparent in the Short text: God as Mother. Please read this carefully and consider how the gender of the divine might affect one’s experience of one’s own creative relationship with the universe. Does the origin of the universe "look like you"?

8) On xxvii-xxxi, Spearing summarizes the second metaphor Julian works out in the Long Text which is not in the Short Text, "God and Soul as Master and Servant." It contains a nice discussion of the interpretive instructions Julian receives as part of her vision, and sets up a series of possible ways to know her experience of the source of all creativity. What would it be to realize that one had fallen, perhaps long ago, and only just now was aware that one could "get up"?

For a page which suggests some ways to approach Julian's claims of religious revelation, click here.

To read the English 211 web page that discusses the Norton Anthology's excerpts of Julian and Margery Kempe, as well as the relation of the mystical tradition to the literary canon, click here.

For a useful Fordham University bibliography of sources about medieval women writers, including Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, click here.

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