Revelations of Divine Love
‘This is a Revelation of love that Jesus Christ, our endless blisse, made in sixteen Sheweings or Revelations particular.’
Revelations of Divine Love by Dame Julian of Norwich is a remarkable book; probably the first in English by a woman. Some of its themes ran counter to the church’s teaching – dangerous in the troubled century in which she lived. Her calm and compassionate writing, visionary and mystical, came from sixteen visions or ‘shewings’ in 1373 during a severe, paralysing illness, so severe that she received the last rites.
In Middle-English language, she called them shewings (showings) and revelations. Others have called them visions but they were sometimes visual, and other times intellectual, auditory or spiritual. I use showings to keep the sound and intent of the original.
She describes them as personal revelations to herself by God that she was to pass on to her fellow Christians. She reviewed the first 14 showings with twenty in-depth chapters of comment, preparing the way for the dangerous ground in her 15th and 16th showings.
Her Middle-English is hard to read today. Most translations are readable but use much original wording and phrasing to keep the mediaeval colour. I have tried to avoid this. Words then can have different meanings to the same words today. In my modern renderings of Julian’s visions I have used Georgia Ronan Crampton’s excellent version of her later, longer book here. This is probably the closest to the original Middle-English but uses our modern alphabet. Another more comfortably modernised version is in the Christian Classics Ethereal library here.
Beware: you may find yourself on a beautiful but long road. Sometimes the meanings of words have changed, sometimes it is our understanding of what underlies those words. For instance, fear in Julian’s day carried far more sense of awe than it does today. Now it has been simplified to mean fright. We use the same word but a sense of wondering caution has given way to one of cowering. To fear God has lost something in the process. Dread carried a combined sense of respect and awe rather than horror.
14th Century Background
The fourteenth Century was an unprecedented period of disease, famine and death. Since Christ’s time world population has risen from about 300 million to some seven billion. In only one century did it fall. At the start of the 14th century best estimates set it at 450 million; by its end there were 350 million. Births in that century mask the full toll.
The Black Death killed at least as many people as the combined twentieth century 1st & 2nd World Wars and the influenza epidemic between them.
Not all the deaths were directly from the flea-borne Black Death. The weakened population faced severe famine from the break-down in agricultural production; probably aided by the survivors’ weakened state, an influenza epidemic carried away many more. More than any other time, living in the thirteen hundreds was living with death and fear, desperation and blame, with religious doctrinal dispute and dread of heresy. It was a century in which doctrines of predestination and damnation hardened and evolved.
In the fertile Southeast of England, East Anglia’s population density, though low by today’s numbers, caused an exceptional increase in disease transmission. Sixty-percent of the population died. Norwich was struck three times.
On May 8th 1373, at the age of thirty, Dame Julian of Norwich was struck with serious illness. Paralysed from the waist down and receiving the last rites, she saw Christ’s face bleeding on a crucifix held by the priest, and sixteen visions of Christ’s Passion.
But she recovered.
She dedicated her life to solitary prayer and contemplation of these visions, writing a short account of them. More than twenty years later, she wrote them down as fully as she understood them, a devotional book of mystical contemplations of the love between God and mankind. Entitled Revelations of Divine Love, in 1395 they were probably the first English language book written by a woman.
Educated people in Julian’s day spoke Latin but she wrote in the Mediaeval English of ordinary folk of her time, calling herself a simple unlettered creature. The depth and insight of her writing belies this and still strikes home today. “Unlettered” in the Middle Ages did not necessarily mean an inability to read or write. She may simply have lacked formal education which was rarely available to women, or she was illiterate in Latin. The 14th Century was one of fear, suspicion and religious intolerance. Men and women had accepted roles in society and the church. If a woman did understand Latin it may have been wise not to advertise the fact.
Male readers, especially the ecclesiastical hierarchy, would have been offended if she considered herself a teacher. A fourteenth century man writing on religious matters had to be very careful. Orthodox Church doctrines were often strictly, indeed harshly, enforced. Heresy was severely punished. A woman had to be even more careful. This was the time of the Lollards, Wycliff, and the Bible printed illicitly in the peoples’ language. There were severe penalties for those stepping out of line.
In a time of fear and blame Julian trod a compassionate, gentle line, acknowledging the teaching of Holy Church as true and inviolate. Where she seemed to go beyond the church’s teaching she did so convincingly, lovingly and wonderingly – in the English of her time.
In her early life, the Black Death hit Norwich three times. People died so quickly and in such numbers that, ‘the dead could not receive proper burial and in the worst of times, lay stacked in carts like so much cordwood, or in hastily dug pits on the edge of town, or simply where they fell, in the streets’. The plague first hit Norwich when Julian was six. These images must have affected her deeply. Although she does not speak of the plague, her book shows deep sensitivity to suffering and dying. Her wisdom and careful acceptance of the doctrines of ‘Holy Church’ implies more than a simple, unlettered creature.
Many have found underlying themes in her writing, but there is one that shines through: Love – the love of God for all humanity and His desire for our love; the love that we see in Jesus prepared to suffer for us; the greatest thing that a man has done for mankind, that a man has done for God, that God has done for mankind – in the Trinity on the cross.
We are God’s loved children.