Julian of Norwich

A Very Brief History

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Janina Ramirez
Very Brief Histories
  • London, England: 
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
    , March
     96 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History, Janina Ramirez offers a brisk and lively introduction to the historical context of the author of Revelations of Divine Love as well as a short treatment of the “afterlife” of her book in the centuries after her death. Ramirez, who is an art historian by profession, excels in using striking turns of phrase and bold images when writing about Julian. Unfortunately, some of her historical suggestions are overly speculative and occasionally her claims about the text are misleading or wrong. Moreover, her desire to position Julian as a writer “expressing an idea of enlightenment that underlies all world religions, and is the goal of so many spiritual seekers today” (x), in whose book “people of all religions and backgrounds can find solace” (7), often leads to some questionable judgments regarding Julian’s theology.

In some ways, Julian is an ideal subject for a “very brief history” because there is so little evidence concerning the facts of her life. As Ramirez notes, “Julian is remarkably absent from her text” (3), giving us neither information about her background nor much concerning the context of her visions themselves. Ramirez makes some confident claims regarding facts that are not in evidence—such as Julian becoming an anchoress “around the age of 43” (5) when, in fact, we do not know when Julian became an anchoress, or that “Julian declared she had her revelation many years before she entered the anchoress’s cell” (12), when she in fact makes no such declaration. Some claims are made with more caution, though one wonders if they should have been made at all. For example, she spends several paragraphs on the possibility that Julian was in fact a noblewoman from Norwich named Julian of Erpingham, before concluding “it is impossible to state with certainty that Julian of Norwich was Julian of Erpingham” (15). I think we can state with a fair amount of certainty that she was almost certainly not Julian of Erpingham, since the name “Julian” was taken from St. Julian’s church, the site of her anchorhold, and was likely not her given name. Such fabulous conjectures should not be even tentatively proposed.

Ramirez is a better guide to Julian’s times than she is to her life, but even here there are questionable claims made and irrelevant facts introduced. For example, it is a serious distortion of John Wycliff’s thought to say that his notion of an invisible church of the elect is a “universal church with greater inclusion” (29), when in fact he envisioned this as considerably smaller than the visible church. There are also several paragraphs devoted to the impact of printing on the modes of human thought, even though Julian lived before the invention of the printing press. The only explanation that is given for how this event was connected with Julian is that it shows that she was, very broadly speaking, living during an “exciting moment of change” (31).

When it comes to treating Julian’s text itself, Ramirez says some things that are misleading or simply false. It is misleading to say that Julian “receives her visions because she already loves God” (49) when Julian states quite clearly that her reception of the visions is not occasioned by any goodness in herself (chap. 9). Ramirez says that the theme of the motherhood of God is developed “more fully in the Long Text than in the Short Text” (52), when in fact it is entirely absent from the Short Text, and her claim that Julian develops this notion of Christ as mother by “conflating” Jesus and Mary (52) is simply not borne out by the text. Ramirez also seems to want to distance Julian from her theological context so as to give a more universal appeal to her writings. But this leads to further questionable claims. For example, the idea that “God wants to give all his loved ones the gift of freedom through love” is not, as Ramirez claims, an “almost unique aspect of Julian’s spiritual view” (62); it is the central claim of Christianity, whether ancient, medieval, or modern. Likewise, while it is true that Julian is not engaged in biblical exegesis, it is wrong to say that there is in her text “no mention of the multitude of biblical characters, from Adam and Eve to the Apostles.” Adam is a central character in the Parable of the Lord and Servant (chap. 51), and the Apostles Peter and Paul are not only mentioned, but actually quoted (chap. 15). Most significant, of course, is the pervasive presence of Jesus throughout the text, in all his biblical particularity. Indeed, we might even think of Julian’s text, rather than being “ahistorical, in that it passes beyond earthly things” (85), as a wide-ranging meditation of the biblical, earthly event of the cross.

No one of these is a fatal error, but their cumulative effect is to inspire a lack of confidence in Ramirez’s depiction of Julian. There is much useful information and many genuine insights in this book but, particularly for the beginners in Julian for whom it seems to be intended, it is difficult to distinguish these from the dubious, misleading, and inaccurate claims that it also contains.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Frederick Christian Bauerschmmidt is Professor in the Department of Theology at Loyola University Maryland.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Janina Ramirez is the Course Director in the Department of the History of Art at Oxford University.

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