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Julian of Norwich, the Bible, and creative, orthodox theology: always novel, never new

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2016

Thomas Andrew Bennett*
Fuller Theological Seminary, 23854 Sycamore Drive, Mission Viejo, CA 92691,


Scholars have spent considerable time attempting to characterise Julian of Norwich's relationship to biblical texts. This article will first survey the state of scholarship with respect to Julian and the Bible, defending a minimalist thesis: that Julian thinks theologically in the rhythms of scripture, rendering suggestions that she haphazardly borrows from biblical language demonstrably false. Subsequently, literary-critical readings of biblical texts echoed in the parable of the lord and servant will be deployed to show how Julian echoes not only the language of the Bible, but also its themes, narratives and theology. By highlighting a particular kind of imaginative theology that is nevertheless deeply biblical, the article argues that Julian is at once creative and orthodox: always novel, but never new.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Compare our image to what Grotan, Anna (Reading in Medieval St. Gall, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, 13 (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), p. 15)CrossRefGoogle Scholar cites as the regnant distinctions held in traditional literacy studies in medieval German: ‘The general situation in the Germanic-speaking areas has in the past been summarized by means of three basic dichotomies: (1) the Latin “father script” vs. a vernacular “mother tongue” . . . ; (2) Christian vs. indigenous secular; and (3) clerics vs. laity.’ Grotan will go on – as will we with Julian's biblical knowledge – to complicate these poles, pushing against a view that sees orality being replaced or overtaken by literacy. Following Marco Mostert's argument for a ‘more or less’ rather than an ‘either/or’ system of classifying literacy (New Approaches to Medieval Communication, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999)), Grotan notes that ‘Latin texts were influenced by aspects of a substrate, vernacular “primal” orality, and vernacular oral poetry was influenced by classical rhetoric.’

2 Colledge, Edmund and Walsh, James, A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, 2 vols. (Toronto: Universa Press, 1978)Google Scholar.

3 Colledge, Edmund and Walsh, James, ‘Editing Julian of Norwich's Revelations: A Progress Report’, Mediaeval Studies 38 (1976), pp. 404–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Blamires, Alcuin argues ‘on the evidence of library data and wills’ that medieval nunneries would rarely have possessed a copy of the Vulgate: ‘The Limits of Bible Study for Medieval Women’, in Smith, Leslie and Taylor, Jane H. M. (eds), Women, the Book and the Godly (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992), p. 4 Google Scholar. Oliva, Marilyn is similarly sceptical about widespread Latin literacy, but does show that ‘there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that most nuns in the [diocese of Norwich] could read English and that some could read French and even a little Latin’: Convent and the Community in Late Medieval England: Female Monasteries in the Diocese of Norwich, 1350–1450, Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, 12 (Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1998), p. 74 Google Scholar. She shows that convents were in possession of a number of vernacular translations of parts of the Bible.

5 Colledge and Walsh, ‘Editing Julian’, p. 409.

6 Colledge and Walsh, Book of Showings, p. 46.

7 Colledge and Walsh solicit the opinion of Henry Hargreaves, reprinting a large portion of his response. He notes that ‘it is almost uncanny how she never, in any passage, uses exactly the same words for the crucial Latin words as the translations’. Colledge and Walsh, ‘Editing Julian’, p. 409.

8 Ibid., p. 410.

9 Ibid., p. 411.

10 Sutherland, Annie. ‘“Oure Feyth is Groundyd in Goddes Worde”: Julian of Norwich and the Bible’, in Jones, E. A. (ed.), The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Papers Read at Charney Manor, July 2004 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), p. 6 Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., p. 7.

12 Colledge and Walsh, Book of Showings, pp. 46–7.

13 McNamer, Sarah, ‘The Exploratory Image: God as Mother in Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love’, Mystics Quarterly 15 (1989), pp. 21–8Google Scholar.

14 Baker, Denise, Julian of Norwich's Showings: From Vision to Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 80 Google Scholar. Baker does admit that Julian retains a doctrine of hell, but describes this as ‘guarding’ her proposal; cf. Riddy, Felicity, ‘Women Talking about the Things of God: A Medieval Sub-culture’, in Meale, Carol (ed.), Women and Literature in Britain: 1150–1500 (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), p. 117 Google Scholar.

15 Baker, Julian of Norwich's Showings, pp. 80–1.

16 O'Keefe, Katherine O'Brien, ‘Orality and Literacy: The Case of Anglo-Saxon England’, in Karl, Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), pp. 121–40Google Scholar.

17 Ibid., p. 121.

18 Ad Putter shows how written romances were dependent on orality and performance for composition and transmission. Since Julian's use of scripture bears little resemblance to contemporaneous surviving vernacular translations, we should think that, if she is translating from the Latin, she is doing so at a discrete interactive moment with her ‘mother tongue’. In the unlikely case that she has no access to written biblical texts whatsoever, she is still swimming in a linguistic pool whose water has been, in large part, the Latin Vulgate and its various renderings in the vernacular. Putter's manuscript evidence indicates that even many written texts bear testimony of memorial transmission. In Julian's case, this might mean hearing the words of scripture in a multitude of contexts and ‘carrying’ them until they are deployed in the Showings. Real-world interaction between orality and literacy guarantees that her world is shaped by the echoes of scripture. Ad Putter, ‘Middle English Romances and the Oral Tradition’, in Reichl, Medieval Oral Literature, pp. 335–52.

19 Riddy, ‘Women Talking’, p. 109.

20 Reynolds, Anna Marie, ‘Some Literary Influences in the Revelations of Julian of Norwich (ca. 1342–post-1416)’, Leeds Studies in English 7–8 (1952), p. 22 Google Scholar.

21 Demers, Patricia, Women as Interpreters of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), p. 70 Google Scholar.

22 Sutherland, ‘Our Feythe’, p. 18.

23 An outstanding example: in ch. 12 of the Long Text, Julian writes, ‘The precious plenty of his precious blood ascended into heaven in the blessed body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is flowing there in him, praying to the Father for us, and this is and will be so long as we have need’ (344.26–9). The language here echoes a number of passages in Hebrews, e.g. 7:25, 9:14, 12:24, and shows Julian comprehending Christ's blood as interceding on our behalf.

24 Rytting, Jenny Rebecca, ‘Parallel Parables: Julian of Norwich's Lord and Servant and the Biblical Good Samaritan’, in Jenkins, J. and Bertrand, O. (eds), The Medieval Translator (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 95107 Google Scholar, and Annie Sutherland, ‘Our Feythe’, pp. 17–19, provide a number of these similarities.

25 Sutherland, ‘Our Feythe’, p. 18.

26 So e.g. in Ps 58:7, 15 (LXX), where the Masoretic Text has keleb (‘yelp’, ‘howl’), we find limōxousin (‘they will hunger’). The Latin Vulgate follows the Septuagint with famem patientur. As we will see shortly, there are other differences as well.

27 Colledge and Walsh, Showings, p. 542, n. 300.

28 Davis, Carmel Bendon makes similar comments on this section of the parable, suggesting that the image of Christ's sacred blood flowing down from heaven, into hell, and back up to heaven attests to the ‘metaphorical vastness’ of Christ's saving power: Mysticism and Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing Author, and Julian of Norwich (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), pp. 230–1Google Scholar. Davis’ point, I take it, is that Julian is expanding the salvific possibility of the incarnation and passion to include all of creation.

29 Traditional scholarship relies heavily on redaction criticism to identify the story's source material. See the classical studies by Stade, B., ‘Miscellen 16 Ammerkungen zu 2 Ko 15-21 Zu 18,13-19,37’, ZAW 4 (1886), pp. 172–86Google Scholar, and Childs, Brevard, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (London: SCM Press, 1967), pp. 69103 Google Scholar. Evans, Paul’ recent monograph, The Invasion of Sennacherib in the Book of Kings: A Source-Critical and Rhetorical Study of 2 Kings 18–19, VTSupp 125 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 127 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, begins with a superlative summary of the research. The following section owes much to canonical final form studies, especially Evans, Paul, ‘The Hezekiah-Sennacherib Narrative as Polyphonic Text’, JSOT 33 (2009), pp. 335–58Google Scholar; Rudman, Dominic, ‘Is the Rabshakeh Also among the Prophets? A Rhetorical Study of 2 Kings XIII 17–35’, VT 50 (2000), pp. 100–10Google Scholar; the canonical-literary interpretation offered by Fewell, Donna Nolan, ‘Sennacherib's Defeat: Words at War in 2 Kings 18:13–19:37’, JSOT 34 (1986), pp. 7990 Google Scholar; and Brueggemann's, Walter ideological reading, ‘II Kings 18–19: The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic’, HBT 7 (1985), pp. 142 Google Scholar.

30 For a concise rundown of the various arguments, see the remarkable footnote in Evans, Invasion of Sennacherib, pp. 13–14, n. 62. Evans himself demurs, identifying four discrete authors in what the Stade-Childs hypothesis deems the B1 section (Invasion of Sennacherib, p. 78).

31 So e.g. Na'aman, Nadav, Ancient Israel and its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction: Collected Essays, vol. 1 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), p. 184 Google Scholar, following Cogan, Mordechai and Tadmor, Hayim, II Kings (New York: Doubleday, 1988)Google Scholar, suggests that the B2 section (2 Kings 19:9b–35) must have been penned late, since the author is unfamiliar with Assyrian conquering practices and the list of conquered cities occurs closer to the 560s than the 600s bce.

32 Fewell, ‘Sennacherib's Defeat’, p. 80.

33 For anthropological work regarding the temple as imago mundi, see Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 3647 Google Scholar; cf. Levenson, Jon D., ‘The Temple and the World’, JR 64 (1984), pp. 275–98Google Scholar. Eliade shows how Josephus (Ant. 3.7) conceives of the sections of the temple representing the various portions of the cosmos. For our purposes it is worth noting that sacking the temple would involve symbolically possessing the depths (the temple courts), the earth (the outer sanctuary) and the heavens (the inner sanctuary).

34 Rudman, ‘Is the Rabshakeh’, pp. 100–10.

35 Ibid., p. 108.

36 Denys Turner reads the Showings as a theodicy that accounts for the existence of sin. See his Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

37 Julian, Book of Showings, 404.4.

38 Ibid., 405.13. With the publication of Aers's, David Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, there has been a renewed interest in Julian's hamartiology. Aers, bucking recent trends, accuses Julian of all but dropping the fault from felix culpa (166), challenging her orthodoxy. Turner's response, that this reading fails to account for the scope of Julian's concern, namely an eschatological account of the world's history with God, is right on the mark.

39 Many leave the language unpacked. See e.g. Prichard, Rebecca, Sensing the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Feminist Perspective (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999), p. 42 Google Scholar; Heath, Elaine A., The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 44 Google Scholar; cf. Heath's article ‘Judgment without Wrath: Christus Victor in “The Servant Parable”’, ATJ 30 (1998), pp. 37–50, 41. From context however, we gather that something like ‘human nature’ is meant.

40 Hide, Kerrie, Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfillment: The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), p. 125 Google Scholar; cf. Davis, Mysticism and Space, p. 230, and Nuth, Joan M., Wisdom's Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 199 Google Scholar.

41 Colledge and Walsh translate ‘groundyd’ with ‘founded’ (Book of Showings, p. 274). This choice may reflect the allusion to Eph 3:17, where the Vulgate reads fundati. If so, it is unfortunate, since in both middle and contemporary English, ‘to found’ carries a strong association with ‘start’ or ‘begin’. My sense is that the text supports something more along the lines of ‘sourced’, ‘established’, or groundyd’s etymological daughter, ‘grounded’. The treasure in the earth shares something of the lord's being in that it issues out of endless love. Moreover, Julian is not using gardening language by happenstance.

42 Hide, Gifted Origins, p. 125.

43 Despite the evidence of the earliest printed texts, Colledge and Walsh's critical edition (Book of Showings, p. 684) emends the text to read ‘helles synne’ (‘sin of hell’). They justify the move based on the omission in the later S1 and S2 printed editions and the supposition that ‘but hell is sin’ is ‘nonsensical in this context’. Showings, p. 328, n. 375. On the contrary, ‘but hell is sin’ is thematically appropriate. Julian is considering how the Christian regards sin in light of the Holy Spirit's teaching. Sin is to be hated more than hell – by which Julian indicates ontological hell – because Christ's compassion instructs us not to hate those who suffer there. By ‘hell is sin’, Julian recalls the state of soul death that she has many times predicated of Adam and, by extension, all humanity. We hate sin because within its grasp we share in the privation of ontological hell, except we are ‘blinded’ to our true state. In this regard sin is worse than hell because, unlike hell's pain, sin camouflages its own ‘vileness’ and ‘hideousness’ (684.5–6).

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