The fourteenth Century was an unprecedented period of disease, famine and death.
Since the time of Christ world population has risen from about 300 million to its present level of 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 major cause came to be known as the Black Death, killing at least as many people as the combined twentieth century World Wars and the influenza epidemic between them.
Not all the deaths arose directly from the rat-flea borne Black Death itself. The depleted and weakened population faced a breakdown in agricultural production and a resultant severe famine. Later in the century an influenza epidemic carried away many more. To live in the thirteen hundreds was, perhaps more than any other time, to live with death. It was a century of desperation, religious doctrinal dispute among fears of heresy; a century in which doctrines of predestination and damnation hardened and evolved.
In the fertile Southeast of England, the population density of East Anglia, though low by todays numbers, caused an exceptional increase in disease transmission. Sixty-percent of the population died. Norwich was struck three times.
At the age of thirty, Dame Julian of Norwich was struck with serious illness. On May 8th 1373, while paralysed from the waist down and receiving the last rites, she saw Christ’s face bleeding on a crucifix held by the priest and received a series of sixteen visions of Christ’s Passion. She recovered and dedicated her life to solitary prayer and contemplation of these visions, writing a short account of them. About twenty or thirty years later, she wrote them down as fully as she understood them, a devotional book of sixteen visions, mystical contemplations of the love between God and mankind. Entitled Revelations of Divine Love, they became in 1395 what is probably the first published English language book written by a woman.
The language of educated people in Julian’s day was Latin but she wrote in the Mediaeval English of ordinary folk of her time, calling herself a simple creature unlettered. The depth and insight of her writing belies this and still strikes home today. “Unlettered” in the Middle Ages did not necessarily mean the inability to read or write. It may have meant that she did not receive a formal education which in the Middle Ages was rarely available to lay-women, or that she was illiterate in Latin.
The 14th Century, the century of the Black Death, was a century of fear, suspicion and religious intolerance. Men and women had accepted roles in society and the church. If a woman did understand Latin it might have been prudent not to advertise the fact.
Male readers, especially in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, would have been offended if she considered herself a teacher. A fourteenth century man writing on religious matters had to be extremely careful. Orthodox Church doctrines were often strictly, indeed harshly, enforced, and heresy severely punished. A woman had to be even more careful. This was the century of the Lollards, of Wycliff, and the Bible printed illicitly in the language of the people. The Black Death itself gave rise to a hunt for scapegoats. A blame culture arose in which there were severe penalties for those stepping out of line, with persecution and execution of heretics and Jews, and heightening the extremes of the Inquisition.
Julian trod a compassionate and 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 the city of 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 directly, her book shows a deep sensitivity to suffering and dying. Her evident wisdom and careful adherence and acceptance of the doctrines of ‘Holy Church’ implies something more than a simple creature unlettered.
There have been attempts to find many underlying themes in her writing, but there is just one that shines through: Love – the love of God for all humanity and His desire for us to love Him; 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.