The Clear Light of Reason

It might seem odd to kick off a month dedicated to reason with a medieval mystic; however, much of Julian of Norwich’s mysticism is well-grounded in reason, particularly as it applies to her faith.

Julian of Norwich is a significant historical figure in the Catholic and Anglican churches, but also in English literature. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known text written in English by a woman. There are two reasons why this is unusual, and it’s not for the reasons one might think. The first is that it was very common for European medieval texts to be anonymous. These writers tended to see themselves writing within a tradition, or building upon the classical works, and so they seldom claimed ownership of the work, since the ideas were part of a larger storytelling world. It’s possible that we have works in English from women written before Julian of Norwich, but if so, there’s no way to tell.

Sir_Gawain_first_page
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
was written around the same time as Revelations…but this author was anonymous

In fact, the works that are most likely to not be anonymous in the middle ages were works of theology. It was seen as of utmost importance that these were signed, in case there were any theological discrepancies, heresies, or points of contention. Since Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is an autobiography and ultimately a work of theology, we have her name.

The second reason why her work is unusual is that it’s originally written in English, as opposed to a more official language, like Latin. At the time the text was written, at the end of the 14th century, English, long the vernacular language in England, was starting to become more accepted as more than just “street talk.” The first time the chancellor spoke English in parliament was in 1362,1 only a few years before Julian’s “revelations.” Julian claimed her revelations were given to one who “could not read a letter”2; however, the words are clearly those of an intelligent woman. Though she did have the help of a scribe3, it’s possible she did not know Latin, and thus wrote in English.

A work of theology in a vernacular language written by a woman all add up to something unique indeed.

Norwich_UK_city_skyline
By Martin Richards – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8022527

Little is known about Julian herself, other than what she tells us in her Revelations. We know that she was from around Norwich, and we also know that she was an anchoress–that is, a woman who has shut herself off from the world in order to live a life of solitary religious devotion.4 Before she became an anchoress, she fell ill. So ill that a priest was called in to conduct last rites. In her fever, she had sixteen visions which she later wrote in her book, all concerning the nature of Christ. This is, of course, what qualifies her as a “mystic.” The “mystics” of the European medieval era were somewhat on the fringe of mainstream Christianity. Though they were diverse in their beliefs and writings, many mystics believed in revelations and visions from God, something that was more supernatural than it was based in any scientific evidence. Julian of Norwich is regarded as one of the greatest English mystics of the medieval period.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does mysticism have to do with a theme concerning reason?

To which I suppose I could let Julian of Norwich, 14th century mystic, anchoress, and commoner, answer.

Despite Julian’s assertion that she is a “simple creature,”5 her work speaks for itself. The assertion was not uncommon for medieval monastic writings, as humility from the author would be expected. Julian’s work follows the logical pattern of many monastic writers at the time, as she walks her readers through her argument. Each chapter builds on the points preceding it, and all culminate in her final thoughts. Though some might scoff at her insistence that she received sixteen visions from God, no one can deny she uses reason in her interpretation of these visions.

Hans_Baldung_Grien_-_The_Trinity_and_Mystic_Pietà_-_Google_Art_Project
Hans Baldung Grien — The Trinity and Mystic Pietà 

 

Some of her arguments even seemed radical to mainstream theology at the time, including the assertion that the divine was feminine, as well as masculine (“For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father: for he made us and keepth us in him; and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are all enclosed”6). Other theologians of the time suggested this metaphorically; however, Julian’s assertion of the feminine in the divine is more overt and literal.

Ultimately, her premises lead to her conclusion that “Our Faith cometh of the kind Love of our soul, and of the clear light of our Reason, and of the steadfast Mind which we have of God in our first making.”7

And this is what I find so fascinating about Julian of Norwich: her ability to marry Faith and Reason, two things often seen as mutually exclusive. Here, Julian of Norwich argues that Faith comes through Reason and a “steadfast Mind.” For Julian, the two were inseparable and dependent upon one another. As she lays out her revelations and subsequent insights, one can clearly see how well thought-out her arguments were. I’ve read many monastic writings from England, France, and Germany in the Middle Ages. Most of them were men, but I’ve read a few women, as well. All have been well-reasoned, but of the ones I’ve read, none have been as fervent and infused with passion as Julian’s.

Statue_of_Dame_Julian
Statue of Dame Julian at Norwich Cathedral

Regardless of whether or not one accepts her revelations as facts, one cannot deny Julian of Norwich’s importance in history–either because she was the first know woman to write a work in English; or because of her contribution to mystical theology; or because of her ability to give us a rare insight into the life of a medieval anchoress.

Though we’re not overflowing with writings of medieval female intellectuals, they do exist. What makes Julian stand out to me is her focus on love, beauty, and faith, and her belief that the “clear light of Reason” illuminates them for us.

 

For more information on Julian of Norwich’s role as an anchoress, this is a good article: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-first-woman-to-publish-a-book-in-english-lived-in-a-room-attached-to-a-church-and-walled-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world

1 British Library: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126569.html

2 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 1.

3 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 169.

4 Dictionary.com “Anchorite”: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/anchorite?s=t

5 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 3.

6 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 110.

7 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 111.

 

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