Veronica Mary ROLF. Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. pp. xi + 660. $38.00 cloth. ISBN 978-1-62698-036-5. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541

The author tells us that this substantial volume is the result of “spending four years immersed in Julian’s fourteenth century” (ix), but this period of research and writing was the climax of an acquaintance that had begun in high school more than forty years earlier and obviously developed and deepened in various ways through close acquaintance with and repeated reflection on the work of Julian of Norwich over the course the intervening decades. Though not intended primarily for a scholarly audience, it features numerous original hypotheses about the circumstances of the fourteenth-century English mystic’s life and background, along with the author’s own version of the long text of Julian’s Revelations. The book is divided into two unequal sections corresponding to the double focus indicated in the volume’s subtitle. Following a brief but substantial Introduction (1-12) summarizing the basic facts about Julian, the two versions of her text and her modern rediscovery after centuries of obscurity, and indicating the author’s own approach as intending both to relate the major events of the era to “Julian’s mental and emotional development” (3) and to highlight her distinctive woman’s voice and perspective on the Christian gospel, Part One (14-222) consists of ten chapters that provide detailed discussion of Julian’s life in the context of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in general and of medieval Norwich in particular, and Part Two (223-595) includes fifteen chapters on Julian’s Revelations that interweave text and reflective commentary on the 86 chapters of the long version. 

Part One provides extensive treatment of the geographical, social, political and religious matrix in which Julian lived, including the cycle of the liturgical year that would govern the religious lives of medieval Christians; the layout and main features of the city of Norwich, second most populous in England in the time of Julian; the traditional medieval social order and its evolution with the rise of towns and the growing importance of the merchant class; the impact of the recurrent waves of plague (the Black Death as it would later be called) from the mid-fourteenth century onward; the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453); the Avignon papacy (the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”); the threat and influence of the heretical teaching of John Wyclif and his Lollard followers, along with their vernacular translation of the Bible; the Peasants’ Revolt and the deposition and murder of Richard II and usurpation of Henry IV; the importance of vernacular sermons and other religious literature and of the dramatic cycles (the “Corpus Christi” plays) in forming the sensibilities and reinforcing the beliefs of English people generally and the Norwich native known as Julian (which may or may not have been her baptismal name) in particular.

Drawing on this background and on hints from her text, the author proposes that Julian would have been born into a middle-class merchant family, become literate in the vernacular but not in Latin in her early years, remained a laywoman rather than becoming a nun at nearby Carrow Priory as some scholars have theorized, have married in due course and probably have had two children, a boy and a girl, have lost her husband and son to the pestilence, have taken over the management of her husband’s cloth business, all before the serious illness of 1373 that brought her to the point of death and was the occasion of the sixteen “shewings” that she describes in the two versions of her Revelations, the earliest extant English vernacular writing by a woman. The extensive background material is in the main accurate (she does seem to think that the Romans had been “ousted” by the Germanic invaders rather than having left of their own accord earlier in the fifth century [22]) and thorough (at times perhaps too thorough – for example, an entire concluding chapter [194-222] devoted to the Corpus Christi plays, most of which is taken up with a summary of the so-called “N-Town” group on the basis that it might possibly have been the missing Norwich cycle and so would have contributed to Julian’s visualizing of the Passion and her reflections on divine judgment seems rather disproportionate).

The author presupposes no previous familiarity with the era on the part of her audience, and the information provided ranges from very basic (e.g. the three estates of the medieval social order) to the more specialized (e.g. the sermons and sermonizing instructions of the influential Dominican “abbot” [a misnomer] John of Bromyard [171-75]). The tone tends at times toward the didactic, with frequent italicizing for emphasis, as when the author summarizes her hypothesis that Julian’s immediate ancestors had recently advanced from the status of villein to that of middle-class urban merchant: “We cannot know for sure whether Julian’s grandfather bought her father’s freedom; whether her father became sufficiently educated to work his way up to earn his own freedom; or whether he escaped to freedom as a laborer/apprentice in the city of Norwich” (58) – in fact of course we cannot know that any of these scenarios are accurate, having no documentary evidence whatsoever of Julian’s family background (other than that she had a mother who was still alive at the time of her sickness).

This highlights a problematic aspect of the first part of the book: the author provides her own hypotheses, of varying degrees of plausibility, about Julian’s background and life experiences, and then goes on to construct vividly detailed circumstantial descriptions based on these hypotheses. For example, she writes of the plague: “For a six-year-old to be suddenly encircled by the stench of death must have been terrifying. Julian would have caught sight of a brother and/or a sister covered in buboes, oozing pus, even though at some point, she would have been told to leave the bedchamber. . . . Julian might have been the only child to survive” (75). All this may well have happened, but it is pure supposition. The technique becomes more unsettling when it is a question of the concrete circumstances of Julian’s particular life, as when she writes, “In the late spring of 1361, Julian was eighteen and very likely the mother of an eighteen-month-old toddler, not yet weaned. She may also have been pregnant with her second child . . . .” On the basis of a passage in chapter 64 of the Revelations in which Julian describes the soul leaving the body as “a full fair creature, a little child, perfectly shaped and formed,” the author speculates that this is a reminiscence of the death of her own son, “her firstborn, the darling of her heart. She must have spent the rest of her life mourning this baby” (136-37) – “must have spent” even though there is no evidence that Julian is referring to an actual child here or that she even had a child. Similarly the author suggests as a motive for becoming an anchoress that “in the early 1390s Julian must have realized that her position in the world was growing more and more untenable. She may have considered that becoming an anchoress (in essence, giving up her household, handing over the reins of the textile business, and removing herself from the world to go into hiding) was preferable to being vulnerable to scrutiny by the bishop. She may also have grown tired of the daily demands on her time and energies, as well as the burden of financial responsibilities she bore as a femme sole. Why should she continue to manage a home and servants and apprentices, being responsible day to day for running a business, if it was no longer necessary? Her daughter would have been in her early thirties by this time, long since married and raising her own children” (184-85). All of this, the date of her reclusion, her textile business and widow’s position running it, her daughter, and grandchildren (!), her desire to avoid the attention of the local bishop, is of course pure speculation, as are many similar details that run throughout the first part of the book. Some readers will surely find this sort of vivid imaginative reconstruction helpful in making Julian come alive for them, but for others such an approach, often based on the most tenuous of evidence or no evidence at all, may well be more than a little off-putting. It is most definitely a “popular” rather than a scholarly treatment of Julian’s life and times.                          

Part Two is a interweaving of the author’s own semi-modernized version of most of Julian’s long text with her own commentary that incorporates paraphrase, explication, meditation, speculation and the occasional excursus on topics of greater (e.g. the substitution theory of atonement [304-306]) or lesser (e.g. medieval medical practice [243-50] or clothing [273-74]) relevance to the text. The primary source material is generally presented in small discrete segments of paragraph length, but sometimes integrated into or simply summarized in the commentary. The original Middle English terminology and spelling are occasionally retained to convey the flavor of Julian’s prose, a usually effective but sometimes inconsistent and distracting procedure (as for example when “sinne” and “sin” are found on the same page [535]). The arrangement of the commentary into fifteen thematic chapters highlighting the major developments in Julian’s teaching is in the main cogent, but it deemphasizes both the chapter arrangement of the text itself and the pattern of the sixteen “showings” – a preliminary overview correlating the specific revelations with their corresponding chapters would have been helpful to see the work as a whole, not just piecemeal as it is presented in the short passages and longer comments. A significant omission is any sustained attention to the original version of the work, the short text, which is mentioned only in passing (though at one point early in Part Two [252-57] the author switches without explanation to this version for her discussion) until a summary of what is missing in the earlier text is finally provided after the discussion of all this material (538); some attention to the significant alterations Julian made to her text along the way would have aided in recognizing the maturing of her own spiritual and theological perspective during the two-decade-long period separating the two versions.

The author’s tendency to speculate far beyond the available evidence continues throughout this second part of the book, particularly in connection with the motherhood motif, as when she writes, “Having labored painfully to bring her own children into the world, and then having endured the agony of losing at least one, and perhaps two, of them during separate cycles of the plague, she was well aware of her total helplessness to save them” (521), or when she declares, “Julian herself must have been a devoted mother. Her knowledge of how a mother nurtures, teaches, and disciplines her child for its own good does not come from a prymer on child rearing. It could only proceed from her own life experience” (530). A more tentative presentation of this theory would have been more effective. Likewise her attributing to Julian “terrible guilt feelings still festering from her childhood: Why didn’t I die of plague like all the others?” (420), or her reference to Julian’s “family members, both living and deceased (some without benefit of the last rites of the church)” (461), or her suggestion that Julian’s declaration that Christ as spouse is “‘never displeased’ . . . is an especially revealing comment, given the strong possibility that Julian may have felt her own husband’s displeasure” (516), or even her depiction of Julian “Writing as an elderly woman, alone in her anchorage, increasingly frail and infirm, perhaps going blind and deaf” (589), depends more on the imagination than on scholarship.

Nonetheless, despite its limitations and idiosyncrasies, the commentary is clearly the product of long, careful and intelligent study and reflection, and is filled with insightful and often wise observations. The author is particularly helpful in explicating the meaning of the Middle English “seker,” one of Julian’s most frequently used terms (307-308 and passim); in discussing Julian’s basically Augustinian understanding of evil as privation and sin as “no deed” (311); in situating the ninth revelation, the showing of the three heavens, in the context of  contemplative ecstasy (364); in her explanation of the “five words” that develop the various dimensions of Christ’s locution about making all things well (397); in noting Julian’s originality for her era in envisioning prayer as needing no intermediaries or intercessors (434-35); in pointing out the centrality of the parable of the Lord and the servant for Julian’s own realization of the meaning of the entire series of showings (467); in explaining Julian’s distinction between substantial and sensual levels of the soul (502); in connecting this distinction to her teaching on the godly will that can never fully assent to sin (509-10); in explicating the various levels and dimensions of the motherhood theme as it relates to the entire Trinity and to Christ as divine and human and as savior (514 ff.); in distinguishing Julian’s approach, stressing the cultivation of joy, from that of many other female mystics of the period who emphasize self-inflicted deprivations (543). Discussion of these and many other points exemplify the author’s deep engagement with the text and her ability to communicate key aspects of Julian’s often unusual but always balanced and penetrating interpretations of her own unique experience as it serves as a bridge linking the paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, resurrection and glorification to the spiritual journey of her “evencristens,” of all who are called to salvation (who are the only ones about whom Julian has anything to say). By the end of the book readers have a clearer appreciation of why Thomas Merton could call Julian, along with Newman, “the greatest English theologian” as well as “one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices” (10).

While not among the very best of the ever-increasing number of secondary works on Julian, and while of such a length as to require a determined commitment on the part of the reader to continue to the very end of its 595 pages, Julian’s Gospel is definitely worth the effort. Writing it was clearly a labor of love on the author’s part, and as Julian’s final chapter quite simply declares that “love is our lord’s meaning” throughout the entire course of the revelations (590), so the book becomes an extended invitation to the audience to participate not only in the author’s clearly evident love for Julian but in the divine love that Julian herself receives and reciprocates and conveys by her revelations “to a people who needed them most” – because, as the author suggests in her closing words, “we are that people” (595).