Making a Place: Imitatio Mariae in Julian of Norwich’s Self-Construction

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The long version of Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love merges Julian’s goals of reaching God and reaching others by acting as an intermediary device to help others reach God.1 Negotiating between her desire to annihilate the self and the personal attention that her textual practice and role as an anchoress garnered, Julian’s self-characterization offers her audience a way to think of her that deflects admiration and gratitude for her teaching to its proper recipient—God—but that also positions the anchoress and her message for continued popular appeal. Julian constructs herself as an intermediary for the community she addresses, a tool authorized to guide and participate in her audience’s devotional practice and conception of divinity. In A Revelation of Love, the visionary contemplative is unworthy of adoration in herself, yet she remains integral to the religious climate of Norwich.


Christian Community Intermediary Function Divine Revelation Textual Practice Gender Voice 
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  1. 1.
    All quotations from A Revelation of Love come from Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich: “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman” and “A Revelation of Love,” ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), and are cited by chapter and line number. Watson and Jenkins’s edition uses the Paris manuscript as its base (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fonds Anglais 40), emending for “texture” and nuance from the Sloane and Amherst manuscripts (British Library MS Sloane 2499 and British Library MS Additional 37790). Their detailed and convincing rationale for this “hybrid” text appears on pp. 24–43. Quotations from Julian’s short text, A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman, come from the same volume and are cited by chapter and line number. Exactly when Julian began and finished writing her long version remains contested. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh hypothesize that she began it in 1388 and completed it by 1393. Ju lian of Norwich, A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. Colledge and Walsh, 2 vols., Studies and Texts 35 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978), 1:19. Nicholas Watson argues for 1393 as the start date, placing the text’s completion between 1413 and 1415, in “The Composition of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love,” Speculum 68, no. 3 (1993): 678 [637–83]. Lynn Staley sets the completion date at 1399 in “Julian of Norwich and the Crisis of Authority,” in The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture, ed. David Aers and Lynn Staley (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 126 [107–78].Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed., Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 183. Scholarship thus far has treated the Marian visions as tangential to Julian’s central message of God’s love in various forms, especially her representation of God as mother. Liz Herbert McAvoy reads Julian’s Marian visions as an exploration of motherhood that leads naturally into her development of Christ as mother: “As a mirror image of his own mother’s suffering and transcendence of it, Christ’s salvific labouring on the cross becomes the process by which he gives birth to redemption for humanity. Thus, Christ is already being absorbed into a hermeneutic of divine motherhood” (Authority and the Female Body in the Writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004], 79). This analysis upholds the hierarchy that Elizabeth Ann Robertson has recognized in devotional writing for women, which sees female experience as a stepping stone to a higher, masculine, rational way of knowing while eliding the anchorite’s identification with Mary herself (Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience [Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990], 193). Nicholas Watson and Carmel Davis have both contended that Julian’s description of a multifaceted God rehabilitates women as members of the Christian community and sets up a synecdoche in which the feminine can stand for humanity as a whole. For Watson’s argument, see “‘Yf Wommen Be Double Naturelly’: Remaking ‘Woman’ in Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love,” Exemplaria 8, no. 1 (1996): 1–34. Carmel Bendon Davis also briefly ties Julian’s Marian visions into her imagery of God as mother. She argues that the “motherhood allusion” speaks to “the enclosure of humanity in God, of God in our souls, and of Christ in our humanity” (Mysticism and Space: Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, “The Cloud of Unknowing” Author, and Julian of Norwich [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2008], 243). Mary, having physically borne Christ, reinforces this chiasmus of enclosure— God in humanity and humanity in God—by appearing as “a creature of God’s making who would be instrumental in the making of God” (244). I attempt here not to divorce the Marian imagery from the context of Julian’s meditation on God’s love, which unquestionably inflects it, but rather to foreground some implications for Julian’s self-perception and presentation that the anchorite’s recurring identification with Mary suggests.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    A vast literature exists on this topic. See, for example, Laurelle LeVert, “‘Crucifye hem, Crucifye hem’: The Subject and Affective Response in Middle English Passion Narratives,” Essays in Medieval Studies 14 (1997): 73–90;Google Scholar
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    The appellation mediatrix appears, for example, in Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin in his sermon De verbis Isaiae ad Achaz : “Domina nostra, mediatrix nostra, advocata nostra, tuo Filio nos reconcilia, tuo Filio nos commenda, tuo nos Filio repraesenta” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De adventu Domine, in Patrologia latina, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 183 [Paris: Migne, 1844–45], 723 [703–17] [hereafter PL]; all Latin translations are my own). In his sermon De aquaeductu, Bernard writes that Christ “descendit per aquaeductum vena illa coelestis.” He asks, “Quid nos alia concupiscimus, fratres? Quaeramus gratiam, et per Mariam quaeramus” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, In navitate B. V. Mariae, in PL 183:1013, 1015 [1012–19]). Christ, to Bernard, is also a mediator but one who might seem inaccessible and intimidating to believers (Catherine M. Mooney, “Imitatio Christi or Imitatio Mariae? Clare of Assisi and Her Interpreters,” in Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, ed. Catherine M. Mooney [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999], 69 [52–77]).Google Scholar
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    In Revelation 8.1, p. 24, for example, Julian expresses her wish to communicate her vision to “mine evenchristen, that they might alle see and know the same that I sawe, for I wolde that it were comfort to them. For alle this sight was shewde in generalle ” (my emphasis). See also Revelation 79.2, pp. 1–8. For an analysis of Mary’s function as a model not specifically for Julian but for every Christian, see Marion Glassoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London: Longman, 1993), 221. Glassoe asserts, “Mary projects the pattern of transfiguration possible for all men to ‘worshippe and ioye’ in Christ whose glory is ineffably the completion of all partiality” (221).Google Scholar
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    Henry Suso’s Horologium Sapientiae, for example, describes Mary’s sorrow at the Cross in the final chapter of book one, entitled “A singular commendation of the Blessed Virgin and of her inestimable grief, which she had at the passion of the Son” (Commendatio singularis beatae virginis et de dolore eius inaestimabili, quem habuit in passione Filii”). See Henry Suso, Heinrich Seuses Horologium Sapientiae: Erste Kritische Ausgabe unter Benützung der Vorarbeiten von Dominikus Planzer OP, ed. Pius Künzle (Freiburg, Germany: Universitätsverlag, 1977), 1.16.Google Scholar
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    The anchorhold itself also recalls the womb, where Julian’s interpretations of the revelations gestate and from which her writings issue. Living in such a space may have given Julian greater affinity for Mary after her initial revelations, during which she does not seem to have been enclosed, and contributed to her imitatio Mariae. For a helpful Freudian and Kristevan analysis of this idea, see Nancy Coiner, “The ‘Homely’ and the Heimliche: The Hidden, Doubled Self in Julian of Norwich’s Showings,” Exemplaria 5, no. 2 (1993): 305–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 199.Google Scholar
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  23. 90.
    Julian’s imitatio Mariae may also have encouraged subsequent efforts to construct devotional texts for women by using women as models. The early fifteenth-century meditative handbook Speculum devotorum, for example, reworks Henry Suso’s “male-centered text” Horologium sapientiae for a specifically “female spirituality,” largely through its emphasis on Mary as “a model whose behaviour the reader is encouraged to emulate” (Rebecca Selman, “Spirituality and Sex Change: Horologium sapientiae and Speculum devotorum,” in Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practice in Late Medieval England, ed. Denis Renevey and Christiana Whitehead (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 65 [63–80]). Crucially, though, Julian interprets her own revelations; for this practice’s implications for authority, see Staley, “Crisis of Authority.”Google Scholar
  24. 91.
    Analysis of Birgitta’s Marian tropes is constrained, however, by the textual mediation of her male confessors. Whereas Julian’s writings are the product of her own musings on her experiences (though inescapably inflected by her surroundings), Birgitta’s Revelations represent “a collaborative effort to convey what they [Birgitta and her confessors] believed to be the divine word—the word of God—conveyed through Birgitta.” Claire L. Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy (Rochester, NY: Bogdell, 2002), 33.Google Scholar
  25. 95.
    For this appellation, popular in modern Catholicism, see, for example, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., s.v. “Juliana of Norwich,” accessed May 5, 2008,, and Geoffrey Curtis, “Mother Julian of Norwich: Two Kinds of Marriage,” Mystics Quarterly 8 (1982): 62–71.Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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