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  • Revelation and the Apocalypse in Late Medieval Literature: The Writings of Julian of Norwich and William Langland by Justin M. Byron-Davies
  • Hope Doherty
Revelation and the Apocalypse in Late Medieval Literature: The Writings of Julian of Norwich and William Langland. By Justin M. Byron-Davies. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2020.

This study of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love seeks to draw out these texts’ previously unexplored references to the Apocalypse of John (the Book of Revelation). Byron-Davies not only analyzes the imagery in Apocalypse that is mirrored and adapted by Julian and Langland but also considers what these images and traditions imply for how these authors viewed soteriological time: that is, whether or not Christ’s reign over the church had already begun or was something to be anticipated. Revelation and the Apocalypse is at its strongest when the author uses this exegetical approach to elucidate previously undiscovered and unexplored significances behind Langland’s allegorical personifications, as in the final chapter of the book, which deals with Holy Church, Lady Meed, Antichrist, and Piers. The discussion of the five biblical covenants and the suggestion that the Davidic covenant is invoked in Passus I as a foreshadowing of the Christ-knight because “the Davidic, uniquely, has both temporary (pre-parousia) as well as post-parousia relevance in [Apocalypse] 22:16” (140) is, I believe, a new understanding of how the poem’s own “recapitulations” (A. V. C. Schmidt’s term) help to construct Langland’s perception of time, articulating the problem that while Satan has been bound in the Harrowing of Hell, Antichrist remains active (141). Byron-Davies concludes that these questions “are explained by the immutable presence of original sin in human beings which outlasts the binding of Satan” (159).

Discussing Piers Plowman in terms that allow a detailed theological consideration of time—in both biblical and medieval scholastic contexts—crystallizes some of the long-standing issues with the ending of the text that Langlandian scholars have grappled with for decades (see especially 151, 159, 164, 166). Meed’s comparison to the Whore of Babylon in Apocalypse 17:15–18 is followed by the compelling and subtle argument that Langland’s Meed corresponds to those medieval interpretations of the Whore as more vulnerable, feminine, and morally ambiguous, “a corrupting influence, a temptress, but simultaneously in need of protection, which the king, as her guardian, is keen to provide, [End Page 235] whether motivated by duty, benevolence or opportunism,” which “encourages the dreamer and reader to guard against avarice” (145, see also 151). These points are compellingly linked to historical instances of wealth and sexual controversy, as in the case of Alice Perrers, Edward III’s mistress (152).

The eschatological interrogation of the ending of Piers Plowman seems more persuasive than the comparisons between Julian’s writing and the Apocalypse in the first half of the study, mainly because the latter often relies on intriguing but questionable links between the two, such as the argument that Julian and John both assert the authority of their visions by stating that they were given directly by Christ (34–36). While this is true, the same can be said for many other medieval (and earlier) visionary texts and thus does not tie Julian’s writing to the Apocalypse as strongly as the author suggests. Similarly, the argument that Julian refers to the diabolical river in Apocalypse, which is prevented by the earth from carrying away the Virgin Mary/Woman of the Apocalypse, is persuasive (48), as is the point that Julian portrays “the second Adam” as a “literal gardener” and “gardener of souls” (49) to corroborate the earth’s salvific purpose. However, I am not sure that this verifies the antecedent claim that “Julian’s omission of Eve’s guilt— as stressed in contemporary teaching— exonerates Eve implicitly” (47). Adam and Christ, typologically twinned, often appear independently of their Eva-Ave counterparts, the analysis about the river and earth works independently, and Eve is not referred to again as the section concludes.

Some readers may have been excited by the prospect of a comparative study of Julian and Langland, a...


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