Julian of Norwich, The Short Text of the "Showings"

Genre:    Julian's Book of Showings is a spiritual autobiography which she revised once and reissued in the "Long Text."  She probably would reject the autobiographical element of this statement because she describes supernatural events which she claims come to her from God, and specifically disclaims authority for herself, though her interpretive poetics are everywhere apparent.   In effect, she is taking dictation from the deity, but she also exercises her interpretive abilities to make sense of these extraordinary experiences. 

Characters:   Julian's book focuses almost exclusively upon her consciousness and the visions which appear to it.  Because she was an anchoress, a woman who retreated to a life of spiritual contemplation in a tiny room attached to the outer wall of the Church of St. Julian, she had almost no contact with any member of the outside world, apparently for most of her adult life.  The watchers at her "deathbed" appear at the beginning and end of the Short Text, and important parts are played by the clergyman and the "Fiend" in the last sections.   Other than that, the text is populated by the personae she describes as Jesus, God, and her soul.

Plot Summary:

        Julian's text is almost exclusively taken up with recounting and explaining the mental events which began on May 8, 1373.  A sequence of sixteen events, which she describes as unmediated experiences of the divine, caused her to work, apparently for the rest of her life, to appreciate and understand them.  Other ordinary experiences hardly leave a trace on her experience, which is understandable given her way of life.  Anchorites (males) and anchoresses threw themselves entirely upon the charity of the community, rejecting all contact except food and water passed into the cell through a small opening, and the sacrements performed by a priest at necessary intervals.  Though this sounds like an imprisonment, pure and simple, the men and women who sought this state often appear to have had genuine personal reasons for seeking complete meditative seclusion from the culture of their times.

Issues and general research sources:

Note: in this section, I’ve put page numbers in parentheses and section numbers in ordinary text.

1) To help you navigate Julian’s struggle to reveal what she saw and what she understands about it, this edition contains an appendix which lists the 16 showings with some notes about those elements which are recorded only in the Long Text. I urge you to review them so you have some idea where Julian is taking us. Do you see any pattern in the visions which might explain them?

2) On 3-4, Julian describes her state of mind in the years preceding the sickness which brings on her "showings." You should remember that Anglo-European Christians were being taught to meditate upon the story of Jesus’ sufferings during his execution and to seek freedom from worldliness by deliberately avoiding pleasure and seeking forms of pain to "mortify the flesh," effectively turning the mind away from the world and inward upon itself. What kinds of situations might explain Julian’s eager embrace of this doctrine?

3) As her sickness grows upon her, she begins to read pain, itself, as a kind of message (5). How might this help us understand Julian’s subsequen experiences, and how might it relate to Sappho’s and Aeschylus’ somewhat ambiguous responses to pain re: desire and learning?

4) In section 3 (6-7), she moves rapidly from a kind of bodily metaphor (the blood flowing from beneath the crucifix’s crown) to a universal kind of perception that promises a cure for all souls. The introduction notes that this is considered a heresy by the Church at the time (xxvi). In the face of this fact, why might Julian, as a woman experiencing inspiration, find herself seeing such a universal sight?

5) In 4 (7-8), Julian is shown the Universe reduced in size to "a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand" (7). Readers of medieval literature (including perhaps Julian!), would have been familiar with a strange inverted form of this vision known as the "Somnium Scipionus," or "Scipio’s Dream." In it, a famous Roman general who has just conquered his enemies is visited in his sleep by the spirit of his grandfather, another great general who helped save Rome from Hannibal’s Carthaginian army. His grandfather takes his spirit out of his body and up into the stars, from which he can see the tiny Earth below and the Universe spinning about him. His grandfather’s spirit counsels him to put aside worldly things like the pursuit of fleeting fame, and to seek philosophical insight (it’s a pagan text). How does Julian’s vision differ from this one, even as it pursues a similar line of development? Could this difference have to do with the witness’s gender?

6) Still pursuing the meaning of the "hazel-nut" vision, Julian says God showed her the "three nothings" which are the core of contemplative pursuit of wisdom. How does "something" drive out this creative "nothingness," and how can creative understanding arise from "nothing"? What gets in the way of our attempts to master truly big, new ideas, or to do things we’ve never attempted before, and how can we get rid of that uncreative "something"?

7) In section 6 (9-11), Julian commands her readers to ignore her own authority. Compare this with Homer’s or Hesiod’s relationship to the Muse, and to Sappho’s relationship to Aphrodite. Is Julian afraid of her own authority in composing this text, and if so, is she right to be afraid? Or is she telling us something about the nature of inspired composition that might otherwise lead us to misread her?

8) In section 7 (11-12), Julian clarifies her understanding of the means by which these showings appeared to her. Some are "bodily sight," others "words formed in my understanding," and finally others are "by spiritual sight" which she "neither can nor may show you . . . as openly or as fully as I would like to" (11). Try to explain these three modes of experience in your own words. Especially, what would it be like to experience the third, essentially unmediated vision or sight without seeing?

9) In 8 (12-13), Julian laughs and is thanked by the source of her visions for being the medium of their transmission. How might this extraordinary mode of communication between the divine and ourselves by observable in ordinary life?

10) In 10-13 (15-22), Julian discusses differing forms of pain. How does that relate to our long-running conversation on the functions of pain and its relationship to learning and creation? What is it to "look away from pain," and what does it cost us in the struggle to live and to create?

11) On 21-22, Julian is confronted with a vision of sin as "all that is not good" in the instruction that "Sin is befitting." Strangely, though, she then says that after this "insight" she "did not see sin; for I believe it has no sort of substance nor portion of being, nor could it be recognized were it not for the suffering it causes" (21). How does this event help us to distinguish between the various modes of "seeing" she experiences, and what does she mean about the insubstantiality of sin? How does sin operate in the Universe her visions are constructing for us, and what might that mean for the words she then hears: "But all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" (22)?

12) She describes (22-4) two aspects of the manner by which "all that is not good" will be transformed into good: one is visible (her experience of Jesus, etc.) and the other is invisible, "out Lord’s privy counsel . . . [which] should be undisturbed" (23). This seems to establish a kind of speed limit or boundary upon our quest for understanding of the sources of creativity and inspiration. Does it seem necessary, reasonable, inevitable (etc.) that such a limit should exist, or should we part company from Julian’s visions on this point?

13) In 16, Julian records a mistake she makes when she tries to steer the visions to give her an answer to the spiritual state of a man she knew. The vision reminds her that she would sin at this point and waits "very courteously" until she has redirected her attention to the vision (25). What kind of disruption was this, and how does it relate to the visionary principles Julian is trying to teach us?

14) As Julian tries to understand the new understanding of sin which the vision transmits, she is reminded of several biblical figures who were notorious sinners as well as important spiritual models. See the note (182) for background on their identities, especially the speculation regarding Mary Magdalene’s possible significance for a contemplative woman like Julian.

15) Re: 18 (page 27), see the note (182) on the Middle English usage of the word "payne," which can mean both the Modern English "suffering" and "punishment." How does that fit into her vision of sin and our thinking about suffering and creativity?

16) Section 19 specifically addresses prayer as a state of mental preparedness which opens one to receptivity. How might that relate to the "three nothings" lesson in #6 above, and what kinds of prayer-like mental states might be helpful to the creative process?

17) Sections 21-23, though they are near the end in the sequence of Short Text passages, appear to explain the genesis of the entire work. They record her first attempt to communicate her experiences when she took them for "delusions," and her rethinking of this interpretation when a clergyman takes her seriously. It also records her encounter with a "Fiend" which drives her to seek refuge in her memory of the showings. How might we understand these stages in Julian’s progress toward writing the book we read today?

18) In section 24 (36-7), Julian turns the tables on us and becomes our doctor, diagnosing our "two types of sickness": impatience and despair, which she defines as "doubtful fear" (36). How do those two forces work to stifle creative inspiration and how does she recommend we overcome them?

19) Section 25 (37-8) ends Julian’s diagnosis of our condition by discussing four types of fear, two of which can serve a good purpose if understood and discarded, a third (the "doubtful fear") which must be rejected, and "reverent fear," which she says is "sweet and gentle." How do these emotional states correspond to the mind’s struggle to ready itself for creative thought, and might the fearful writer (painter, dancer, etc.) implement Julian’s advice?

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 Margery Kemp, click here.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.

Back to English 222, Syllabus View.