- A Companion to Julian of Norwich
This Companion’s aims are those of a good academic companion; according to the blurb, it intends to offer ‘comprehensive, accessible coverage of key aspects of debate surrounding Julian … building on the work of many of the most active and influential researchers within Julian studies, and including the fruits of the most recent, ground-breaking findings’ (p. i). These aims are realized in the most part, with a collection of lively, accessible essays intelligently focused around the salient points of recent non-theological scholarship on Julian of Norwich.
As Liz Herbert McAvoy explains in her introductory chapter, ‘“God forbade that I am a techere”: Who, or What, Was Julian?’, the essays are chosen because they explore some aspect of what McAvoy describes as Julian’s ‘extraordinary longevity of attraction and interest’ (p. 1), even among non-medievalists and non-academics. The introduction neatly summarizes the recent scholarly debates around Julian, such as her status before her enclosure as an anchorite (was she a nun, or a widow with children?) and the conditions surrounding her enclosure, and the scattered, contested textual details on which these debates are based. McAvoy’s discussion of the manuscript tradition of Julian’s Revelations lays stress on its ambiguity; no autograph survives, only one of the extant manuscripts is medieval, and we do not even know if Julian’s works were circulated or disseminated in the medieval period. Her [End Page 181] conclusion is that this paucity of detail leaves the question of ‘who, or what’ Julian really was a mystery. So, she argues, the most fruitful approach to Julian is to focus on the one undeniable fact we do know about her, namely her choice to embrace the life of an anchorite, mystic, theologian and author. This becomes the guiding principle of the collection.
The Companion’s approach, in McAvoy’s words, is thus ‘self-evidently – and self-consciously – literary and historical’ (p. 8). This mixed historical and literary approach is both the Companion’s strength and its failing. By honestly summarizing what we do know about Julian, and then providing a range of interesting interpretations of this, the volume is definitely a stimulating introduction to contemporary debates around Julian. However, the breadth of approaches attempted will be most accessible to readers with some experience in things medieval.
This is perhaps most obvious in the essays of Part I: ‘Julian in Context’. These essays place Julian at the centre of a series of expanding contexts. The contexts can be social and physical, as in Kim M. Phillips’ ‘Femininities and the Gentry in Late Medieval East Anglia: Ways of Being’, Cate Gunn’s ‘“A recluse atte Norwyche”: Images of Medieval Norwich and Julian’s Revelations’, and E. A. Jones’ ‘Anchoritic Aspects of Julian of Norwich’. Or the contexts can be literary and devotional, as in Alexandra Barratt’s ‘“No such sitting”: Julian Tropes the Trinity’, Denise N. Baker’s ‘Julian of Norwich and the Varieties of Middle English Mystical Discourse’, Annie Sutherland’s ‘Julian of Norwich and the Liturgy’, and Diane Watt’s ‘Saint Julian of the Apocalypse’. Though these essays are wide-ranging and adventurous, they are also brief, often leaving a faint sense of sketchiness. An experienced medievalist will be able to flesh out these sketches but a reader encountering the medieval world for the first time might struggle.
Part II, ‘Manuscript tradition and interpretation’, is decidedly stronger. The nature of the discussions requires a closer focus on the texts and manuscripts themselves, which anchors the essays and requires less prior knowledge from readers. Barry Windeatt’s essay is a fascinating close comparison of the Short and Long versions of Julian’s Revelation. Marleen Cré in ‘“This blessed beholding”: Reading the Fragments from Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love in London, Westminster Cathedral Treasury, MS 4’, and Elisabeth Dutton in ‘The Seventeenth-century Manuscript Tradition and the Influence of Augustine Baker’ focus on the manuscript tradition. Elisabeth Robertson...