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Revelations of Divine Love is a medieval book of Christian mystical devotions. It was written by an anchoress called Dame Julian, now known as Julian of Norwich, about whom almost nothing is known. The book is remarkable for being the earliest surviving example of a book in the English language to have been written by a woman.
Julian, who lived all her life in the English city of Norwich, wrote about the sixteen mystical visions or "shewings" she received in 1373, when she was thirty. Seriously ill, and on her deathbed, the visions appeared to her over a period of several hours in one night, with a final revelation occurring the following night. After making a full recovery she then wrote an account of each vision, in a manuscript now referred to as her Short Text. She developed her initial ideas over a period of decades, whilst living as a recluse in a cell attached to St Julian's Church, Norwich, producing a much larger version of her writings, now known as the Long Text. She wrote straightforwardly in Middle English, perhaps because she had no other language in which to express herself. Her original manuscripts are now lost, but her work was copied and preserved by others, although it is known that many copied manuscripts were destroyed over the centuries. Four manuscripts of her writings survived, which have been used to produce many editions of her book, the first of which was a translation of the Long Text in 1670 by Serenus de Cressy.
Although Julian refers to herself as a simple creature unlettered (Rev. chap. 2), it is possible that she was educated and that "unlettered" carries a more nuanced meaning. It might be an expression of real modesty or imposed modesty because she did not want to antagonize her readers, especially male readers in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, who would have been offended if she considered herself a teacher. Also, "unlettered" in the Middle Ages did not necessarily mean the inability to read or write. It might have just meant that she did not receive a formal education because, in the Middle Ages, formal education was rarely available to laywomen. Another interpretation of "unlettered" could be that Julian was illiterate in Latin, the official ecclesial and academic language of her time and place. That being said, it is possible that she had received some instruction and that she could read and write.:15–6 Throughout the mid-fourteenth century, Norwich was a flourishing centre for religious life. The city contained many convents and orders that recognized the importance of education. Many English convents in the Middle Ages had boarding schools for girls where they were expected to read and write.:16 While scholars are not sure whether Julian attended any of those boarding schools, it is at least a possibility. There were many schools in the late Middle Ages for young men to attend. The goal of these schools was to give men the basic training needed before entering colleges. Some of these schools were attached to a church or cathedral. Those schools taught reading, writing, religion, spoken and written Latin, and probably rhetoric and logic. It is a possibility that Julian had a brother who went to such a school, and she could have learned from her brother.:15–7 All these possibilities show that there were a number of religious resources which could have given Julian some kind of education. When Julian describes herself as "unlettered" she may have just meant that she lacked a "formal education."
Julian's writings are unique, as no other works by an English anchoress have survived, although it is possible that some anonymous works may have been written by women. In the 14th century women in England were generally barred from high status clerical positions or other authoritative roles, and their knowledge of Latin, the lingua franca of the day, would have been limited. It is more likely that women read and wrote in English, their vernacular language, as Julian did. Julian's life was contemporaneous with four other English mystics, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe, and the unknown author of the work known as The Cloude of Unknowyng, all of whom wrote in the vernacular. The historian Janina Ramirez has suggested that their use of English was a sensible choice, considering the inexplicable nature of what they were attempting to describe.
Julian's writings were not mentioned in any medieval bequests, as often happened for male authors at this time. Some Middle English spiritual texts were written for a specific readership, such as The Cloude of Unknowyng, which was intended by the author to be read by a young hermit, but Julian wrote as if for a general readership. There is no evidence that her writings influenced other medieval authors, or were read by anymore than a very few people until 1670, when her book was first published by Serenus de Cressy under the title 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. Since then the book been published under a variety of different titles,[note 1] and has become celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans because of the clarity and depth of Julian's visions of God. In recent decades a number of new editions and renderings of her book into modern English have appeared, as well as publications about her.
The Long Text, written and developed by Julian over a number of years, does not seem to have been widely circulated in late medieval England. The one surviving medieval manuscript, the mid- to late-15th century Westminster Manuscript, contains a portion of the Long Text, refashioned as a didactic treatise on contemplation. The known manuscripts of the complete Long Text fall into two groups, with slightly different readings. One is the late 16th century Brigittine Long Text manuscript, produced by exiled nuns in the Antwerp region. Now often referred to as the Paris Manuscript, it now resides in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The other two surviving manuscripts now form part of the British Library's Sloane Collection. It is believed there was once an original holograph manuscript of the Long Text, written in Julian's Norwich dialect, copied by exiled English Benedictine nuns during the mid-17th century, and preserved in their Cambrai and Paris houses.
Serenus de Cressy was a confessor for the English nuns at Cambrai. He published a translation of the Paris Manuscript in 1670. Cressy's book was reprinted in 1843, 1864 and again in 1902. Modern interest in the text increased with the 1877 publication of a new edition of the Long Text by Henry Collins, and still further with the publication of Grace Warrack's 1901 version of the book, which included modernised language, as well as, according to the author Georgia Ronan Crampton, a "sympathetic informed introduction". The book introduced most early 20th century readers to Julian's writings. Following the publication of the Warrack edition, Julian's name spread rapidly and she became a topic in many lectures and writings. The book has been translated into French, German, Italian, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Catalan, Greek and Russian.
It is thought unlikely that the Short Text, thought to have been completed shortly after Julian's recovery from her illness in 1373, was ever read by others whilst she was still alive, but was instead copied after her death, and then largely forgotten. It remained hidden following the English Reformation, as ownership of any copies of her work would have been considered heretical by the authorities.
A copy was made by a scribe in the 1470s, who acknowledged Julian as the author of the work. Centuries later it was seen by the antiquarian Francis Blomefield, who referred to it in his An essay towards a topographical history of the county of Norfolk, written in 1745. Once thought lost since that time, the manuscript was found in a collection of contemplative medieval texts. Dating from c.1450, they appeared in the 1910 sale of Lord Amherst's library and were purchased by the British Museum. Formerly referred to as the Amherst Manuscript from its last owner, Lord Amherst, the texts, now known as MS Additional 37790, are held in the British Library in London.
The Long Text of Revelations of Divine Love is divided into eighty-six chapters.
The first chapter begins with a single sentence introduction: This is a Revelation of Love that Jesus Christ, our endless bliss, made in Sixteen Shewings, or Revelations particular. This is followed by a sentence or two describing each of the sixteen visions in turn. The second chapter is partly autobiographical. Julian mentions her illness, but in a spiritual manner. She reflects on three 'gifts' from God: meditation on the Passion of Christ, meditation on her own suffering and the gift of greater piety (which she calls 'wounds'). In the third chapter, which concludes the introduction, Julian writes more concretely about the events of her illness and her preparation for death by receiving the last rites. The introduction ends with Julian's recounting of her sudden recovery as she lay on her deathbed gazing at a shining image of the cross.
The individual revelations are:
"And in þis he shewed me a lytil thyng þe quantite of a hasyl nott. lyeng in þe pawme of my hand as it had semed. and it was as rownde as eny ball. I loked þer upon wt þe eye of my vnderstondyng. and I þought what may þis be. and it was answered generally thus. It is all þat is made. I merueled howe it myght laste. for me þought it myght sodenly haue fall to nought for lytyllhed. & I was answered in my vnderstondyng. It lastyth & euer shall for god louyth it. and so hath all thyng his begynning by þe loue of god. In this lytyll thyng I sawe thre propertees. The fyrst is. þt god made it. þe secunde is þet god louyth it. & þe þrid is. þat god kepith it."
[And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus: 'It is all that is made.' I wondered how it could last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing for little cause. And I was answered in my understanding: 'It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God.' In this little thing I saw three properties; the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God keeps it.]— ch.V, Westminster MS.
Complete versions of the Long Text exist in three manuscripts, dating from the sixteenth century:
The earlier Short Text exists in the form of a single manuscript dating from the mid-fifteenth century:
A copy of the manuscript used by Cressy in the 1670s is kept in the British Library:
A lost manuscript, Upholland MS, was copied in the mid- to late seventeenth century by the exiled English Benedictine nun Barbara Constable in Cambrai, France. A copy of the manuscript was at one time kept at Stanbrook Abbey.
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