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Part 2 – Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

Camaraderie in the military is necessary for the smooth function of operations. It tends to develop easily because military life is a series of routine hardships. This sentiment intensifies as the experiences intensify, particularly in combat. Current politics have made quite a spectacle over the concept of transgender military service. I don’t necessarily believe Mulan was transgender, or at least is depicted as transgender. However for my analysis here, whether she was or was not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the implicit commentary of her story that demonstrates the importance of military camaraderie over gender concerns.

The story depicted in the ballad reveal an important sentiment that is applicable to the presence of transgender people in the military. Given the quality of the individuals, who like Mulan, serve in a capacity that is revealing of their character and capability, the identity that is formed from respect, admiration, and deep non-romantic love that is so often framed by combat veterans, is outside of the realm of gender, but within the realm of the greater human experience. Mulan’s story and blurred gender identity shows the mulan-montagereader that she is greater than the sum of her private parts, that she’s a whole person, that her actions have been the most important part of her existence. The reaction of her fellow soldiers, is initial surprise, but without change in their demeanor or respect for Mulan.

If we examine the ballad in a feminist lens, that looks at her female specific experience, we can find further interesting commentary. In modern society, we are aware of studies devoted to understanding the occurrence of under promoted women. Whether it be women who are more qualified, yet are surpassed by less qualified men on the ladder to success, or women who are paid less than their male counterparts, there is a sense that to be successful as woman, it requires at least twice the effort and qualifications.

This idea isn’t lost on the world of Mulan. In the ballad, Mulan serves faithfully for twelve years, earning the great respect of her comrades-in-arms. It took twelve years for her to develop a respect that would lead to unquestionable respect of her person, without social considerations of gender.

However, she is also upheld as an example of honor and grace for her lack of interest in power. Her motivations remain pure till the end. She can be compared to the Khan, the ultimate symbol of male power. Notice the play on words, the focus on the title “daughter,” throughout the poem, “they ask Daughter who’s in her heart, they ask Daughter who’s on her mind.”[1]

Mulan’s status as the definitively female, “daughter” does not change at the end when she returns home, “When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming, they go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.”[2]

hua-mulan (1)Who is the other prominent figure in the story? Well, oddly enough it is, “the Son of Heaven,” a reference to the Khan. It is him she meets at the end of her service and he asks her what she wants so she can be rewarded for her service and the only thing she asks is for a horse to return home. She does not seek a post as a minister or other high rank. With her lack of desire for power and only desire to return home, reflect on the idea that she never really changed, that she had always been “daughter,” despite leaving home. Along with the simultaneous existence of gender identity, Mulan also embodies opposing ideas: fierce warrior, loyal daughter; male power, rejection of male authority, soft and hard power.

With all this considered, when I take a look at the costume of Disney Mulan in the toy store, I’m baffled. It’s not the dress itself, but that the very thing Mulan is defined by, the determination to pick up a weapon, to break gender conformity and demonstrate her own power is completely lacking in the doll. It is the same as taking the ice away from Elsa and painting her with motifs of fire. I love that Mulan exists in popular culture and that has been brought to Western society through the Disney films. In fact, as a part Asian woman in a Western culture, I greatly appreciate it. As I dig further into Mulan herself, there remains, quite a bit about her, said in only 31 couplets that is strangely loud, profound and relevant to our times. She was a woman who decided to go to war. But really, what did she fight for and against? What did her battlefield look like?

[1] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[2] Ibid.

Part 1- Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

p21118_p_v8_acIt’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.

But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.

Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.[1]

Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.

Gathering-Gems-of-BeautyNonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army.[2] There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.

Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,”[3] Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.

The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’”[4] If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male.[5] Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”[6]

The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.

In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.

[1] Klimczak, Natalia. “The Ballad of Hua Mulan: The Legendary Warrior Woman Who Brought Hope to China.” Ancient Origins. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ballad-hua-mulan-legendary-warrior-woman-who-brought-hope-china-005084.

[2] Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.

[3] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology.” The Art Institute of Chicago. http://www.artic.edu/taoism/tradition/b14.php

[6] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

Marguerite de Navarre, Renaissance (Wo)man

By Michael K. Ingram

The daughter of a king, the sister of a king, the wife of a king, Marguerite de Navarre was by virtue of her parentage and offspring, one of the most notable women of the 16th century, but in character and accomplishments, she was far more than the inheritor and ancestor of great European dynasties. A queen, author, intellectual, diplomat, polyglot, patron of the arts, and humanist, Marguerite’s abilities challenged and transcended the social expectations of a noble woman of her time, and in so doing presaged the changing roles of women in the realm of intellectual pursuits.

One might say that, gender pronounsclipart-inkwell-8 notwithstanding, Marguerite de Navarre was the archetypal “Renaissance Man.” Though born at a time when even the most talented women were unlikely to be recognized for their artistic and intellectual contributions, history remembers her not only for her hereditary place in the history of European royalty, but for her art, and for the support and protection that she provided for some of the great other great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance.

Born to the heir to the French throne (and the sister to the future King Francis I), Marguerite was connected to some of the most important people and events of the 16th century. Though she was given an excellent education, as a member of the famous and prestigious House of Valois, she began her adult life just as many noble women of her time–as a diplomatic chip to be bartered in marriage.

536px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Marguerite_of_Angouleme,_Queen_Consort_of_Navarre.svgHistorically speaking, she dodged a bullet when negotiations failed that would have her marry England’s Prince of Wales, who would go on to rule as King (and serial wife-decapitator) Henry VIII. Instead, she was married to the Duke of Alençon, who was captured (along with her brother Francis I, and future husband Henry II of Navarre) during the French debacle at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and died not long after. According to accounts Marguerite, a notable diplomat in her own right, rode day and night into Spanish territory to secure her brother’s release.

After being widowed, Marguerite, still a young woman, was married to Henry II of Navarre. Henry was in many ways a king in name only, as most of his kingdom had been absorbed by Ferdinand II of Aragon over twenty years prior. Still, her marriage to a wealthy and well-connected nobleman afforded an opportunity to devote herself to her passions of art and learning. Her renowned salon, dubbed “New Parnassus” was famous across Europe, and Marguerite hosted and corresponded with some of the most notable thinkers of her day, including Leonardo da Vinci and Desiderius Erasmus.

Marguerite was a devoted humanist, and was the patron to many Renaissance artists and figures of the reformation, providing protection for artists and thinkers that might otherwise have been suppressed or persecuted in other, less tolerant realms. Notably, under Marguerite’s protection, François Rabelais wrote the controversial Gargantua and Pantagruel, the third book of which is dedicated to the Queen of Navarre.

800px-Hinchliff_-_Marguerite_Queen_of_Navarre_cropThough her first marriage was childless, Marguerite’s lone surviving child would go on to cement important place in history. Her daughter Jeanne III was an important figure in the Huguenot movement, and the mother of Henry IV of France, the first of the Bourbon line of French kings. The loss of her only son as an infant is often suggested to be the inspiration for her controversial poem Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (“The Mirror of the Sinful Soul”), a devotional and personal work that caused outrage in some religious circles.

Ironically, for all Marguerite accomplished as a patron and artist in her lifetime, the unfinished Heptaméron is often considered the best, and certainly the most well-known, of her work. Written in the style of Bocaccio’s Decameron (whom Marguerite greatly admired), the book is a collection of short stories linked with a framing narrative. Originally planned to be a collection of ten stories per day over ten days (in the style of Bocaccio), Marguerite’s death in 1549 left the book unfinished with only 73 entries.

For a modern observer, what Marguerite de Navarre accomplished was nothing short of stunning. Not only did she create an artistic and intellectual legacy for herself, and foster clipart-inkwell-8the development of countless Renaissance artists, she did so while somehow maintaining her own reputation in her own era. History is littered with woman of talent and drive who succeeded only in retrospect, who are appreciated only posthumously for their contributions, and in their own time ignored or even scored for the audacity to aspire to “men’s work.” Marguerite was a unique artifact of history; she was the personal embodiment of arts and intellectual endeavors, who perfectly reflected the changing face of Western society. Her direct and indirect contributions to the arts, religious discourse, and humanist thought earn her a well-deserved reputation as the first “modern woman,” and heralded the rise of women authors and scholars that came after her.

Works Cited

“Biography of Marguerite de Navarre, author of the Heptameron.” Heptameron.info, 30 July, 2017. http://www.heptameron.info/navarre.html.

Fabbri, Kimberly. Marguerite, Queen of Navarre. Kings College, Dec. 2005, http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/margueritN.html.

“Marguerite de Navarre.” Poetry Foundation, 30 July, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/marguerite-de-navarre.

Featured: Rejected Princesses

As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.26.04 PMThe project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.

I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.

Cleopatra the Alchemist: Sketch of a Philanthropist

By: Victor Cypert

Among the philosophers and scientists of antiquity, the name of Hypatia comes readily to mind when we consider the women in that category. Yet other contributors left their mark on our understanding of the world and one of them, Cleopatra the Alchemist, selflessly gave the Western world a beneficial apparatus that can still be found in laboratories today.

Exactly when Cleopatra lived, we can’t be certain. Estimates place the time of her birth somewhere between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era. We do know that she lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and that she was regarded as a master of the alchemist’s art. Yet her history is suffused with mythology, and the popularity of her name leads to confusion with the famed last queen of the Ptolemies and other similarly named women who made their own contributions to the world (among these, most notably, is Cleopatra the Physician.)

For the ancient alchemist, the greatest of transmutations didn’t involve base metals becoming silver and gold. Rather, the alchemist sought the means of turning plants and minerals into useful medicines. Then, as today, the alleviation of suffering was big business and alchemists who won fame and glory did so not because of their mystic mutterings, but through the efficacy of their cures.

In The Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers, a meeting between the great woman sage and a group of her male peers occurs. In this meeting, prompted by the men assembled around her, she “casts light” on a number of natural mysteries. Her understanding of the material world amazes and slightly terrifies her audience, among them mythic Ostanes who taught Egyptian magic to the rest of the Hellenistic world. Here she makes an analogy between the goal of the alchemist (the transmutation of base matter into something useful) and natural growth in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Her erudition clear, no trace of chauvinism exists in her audience who listen attentively and recognize her wisdom.

The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a single scroll of vellum containing mystical diagrams with precious little explanation, reveals an understanding of the trade secrecy that surrounded alchemy and the other early sciences. The image of a serpent devouring its tail, a cypher wheel, and an astronomical event captivate the reader with their obscure meanings. Yet among the enigmatic doodles, one image truly stands out.

codex_marcianus_main_venetia_Xth

The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra

            Among the pure symbols of the “Royal Art” a single image seems to offer some connection to material reality. Two circles connected by a long neck, topped with triangular protrusions, appears to depict an early distillery called an alembic, and it’s this piece of equipment that solidifies Cleopatra as one of the great humanitarian scientists of all time.

cleopatragold

The Alembic of Cleopatra

            To the alchemist, distillation lay at the heart of the science. Producing spirits for the tincturing of herbs required special equipment, and the alembic provided a way to obtain the solvent needed for the manufacture of beneficial elixirs and medicinal stones.

The mystic treatise known as The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, being the central instruction for all alchemical endeavors, describes the process of environmental evaporation and condensation, though it does so through a thick veil of symbolism. In offering a diagram of her alembic, Cleopatra sought to make the alchemical art easier for the practitioner without revealing the true meaning of the Tablet. It’s a coup of epic proportions, the equivalent of large pharmaceutical company today giving away a valuable patented medicine for the sake of the betterment of humanity.

While Hypatia will continue to be considered the paragon of the ancient woman of science, Cleopatra the Alchemist should be regarded as one of the first philanthropists to make her name and fortune in the tech sector. Retaining the alembic’s design for herself and her students would have given her an edge in the manufacture of reliable medicines, placing her in a position to travel, teach, and heal a wide variety of ailments. But rather, she opted to transmit her thought, sow her seeds broadly, reveal her design, and let her peers make their own discoveries.

20130916retort

A modern-day alembic

 

REFERENCES

Day, Kat. “Women Who Ignored the Limits.” The Chronicle Flask. 26 March 2013. https://chronicleflask.com/2013/03/26/women-who-ignored-the-limits-five-famous-female-chemists/, Retrieved: 8 July 2017.

Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. Print.

Goodricke-Clarke, Nicholas. The Western Esoteric Traditions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Tower of Moon and Stars: Queen Seondeok of Silla

I am writing this not as an academic but because I was once a little girl, one who learned about a magnificent queen of history and was inspired. There isn’t a lot available in English about Queen Seondeok (also written as Sondok, Sonduk) who ruled the ancient Korean Silla Dynasty from 632-647 CE, particularly when it comes to primary source material. This renders Seondeok as a quasi-mythological figure, and while we know she was real and existed. It seems the fate of English speakers to know her mostly through stories. While problematic for the historian, the solid edges of her personage and reign can be less important than what she represents for women.

How can a little girl hear the dramatic story of a princess who was chosen to inherit the throne because of her exceeding intelligence and not feel that there is something more The_Great_Queen_Seondeok-p1important than their physical appearance? For those of us who love to read, are enraptured with knowledge and the quest to obtain it, Queen Seondeok and the respect she garners is a rare example of a woman who was most well renown for her substance. It is no surprise that the K-Drama of Queen Seondeok is wildly popular among both Korean and American fans. Further, stories of Seondeok also relay her compassion and concern for those she ruled, all characteristics that are not traditionally celebrated in monarchs who are more often known for their military conquests than civil-mindedness. It was Seondeok’s intelligence, diligence and compassion that cemented the Silla Kingdom but further developed Korean culture. This was a turbulent part of Korean history and the peninsula was split between competing kingdoms, Silla, Goguryeo and Baekche. Diplomacy was valued as well as military strength. Understandably, Seondeok’s abilities greatly contributed to maintaining Silla despite rebellions and upheavals during her fourteen-year reign. In fact, it was through both soft and hard power—an alliance with Tang China, that the Silla dynasty would be able to militarily unify Korea.

Seondeok’s intelligence is depicted in three main ways: curiosity, observation and prophetic. Most stories originate from Seondeok’s childhood and focus on her extraordinary abilities that led to her designation as heir.

Curiosity is the first step in the path of knowledge, without it there is no will to seek or obtain knowledge. During the time of Seondeok, Buddhism flourished in the Silla Kingdom. It is from Seondeok desire to expand on both personal knowledge as well as her kingdom’s, she sent students to China. These students returned with Buddhist manuscripts that greatly influenced the Queen and led to the construction of several Buddhist temples and shrines.

Probably the most famous story of Queen Seondeok emerges from her childhood. It is possible that the story is meant to cement her creditability as a ruler when she was chosen from other contenders for the position. It is said that her father received a gift of peony seeds along with a painting of the plant. She remarked that it was a shame that the flowers had no scent. Surprised at how she would know such a thing without having ever smelled a peony, she responded that the painting did not depict insects, which would be drawn normally to a flower by scent.[1]

According to legend, she was so observant, knowledgeable and thoughtful that she was able to read signs from the natural world that indicated the future. In one instance, she predicted an attack from the rival Baekche kingdom by observing the sound of frogs at a gate.[2]

Intelligence and the gathering of knowledge is rarely comparable to the stories of military and physical might. Usually those stories, which are equally exciting, depict a hero whose physical prowess and training has led them to great victories. Often these victories have a supernatural element, where the hero taps into powers greater than humanity. Sometimes this is from deities, or magic. Stories of Seondeok are much the same, except her special power lies within the realm of knowledge and the power of the mind. Even more, there is no external gift from higher powers, instead it is the power she has created within herself from the gathering of knowledge and use of her honed mental capacity.

It is believed that Seondeok constructed the Cheomseongdae Obeservatory, the first known Observatoryof its kind dedicated to the study of astronomy in East Asia. Not only does the study of the heavens indicate a sense possibility and intellectual advancement, but greatly increases the accuracy of agricultural practices for the society who has access to the information.[3]

Being presented with heroes that deviate from the model we are used to – male, physical, warlike, allows us to celebrate the value of multiple strengths. It acknowledges the many skills, abilities and pursuits in the world that enrich it and are required to overcome challenges. Further, untraditional heroines like Seondeok are such important vessels of inspiration for our daughters, sisters and mothers.

ENDNOTES

[1] “Queen Seondeok,” New World Encyclopedia, Accessed 02 JUL 2017. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Queen_Seondeok_of_Silla

[2] Ibid

[3] “ Cheomseongdae Observatory,” UNESCO World Heritage, Accessed 08 JUL 2017. http://www2.astronomicalheritage.net/index.php/show-entity?identity=19&idsubentity=1

Header Image Credit: takebackhalloween.org

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.