Julian among the Books

Julian of Norwich's Theological Library

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Julia Bolton Holloway
  • Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , May
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Julian of Norwich, her mystical experiences, and her writing, have been the subject of ever-increasing interest and study over the course of the twentieth century, and now well into the twenty-first. This very recent study, Julian among the Books, includes ten chapters and several appendices, the latter presenting excerpts from various early volumes related to Julian and her writings. Though the chapters are, in effect, distinct studies, taken together they provide fascinating insight into Julian, her writings, and especially their literary, religious, historical, geographical, and artistic contexts. In bringing these varied contexts to the fore, Julia Bolton Holloway, in effect, confirms the interrelated character of the English and wider European milieus in which Julian wrote. At the same time, Holloway regularly stresses the importance of the contributions of women such as Brigitte of Sweden and Catherine of Siena to spiritual reflection around the time of Julian (c. late 1300s). This book is replete with reproductions of images from various manuscripts and works of art, including several pages of full-color plates. Of particular note is that Holloway works directly, and in discussion with, various themes in comparison among manuscripts of Julian’s writings rather than with reconstructed texts. While Holloway’s work with the manuscripts themselves makes it more difficult, at times, to follow her train of thought, it somehow seems to give the reader a sense of being closer to Julian herself.

Before going on to her various chapters, Holloway provides a lengthy initial listing of rather daring “controversial arguments” (xvii), which she develops at various points throughout the book. Among them, for example, is her suggestion “that Julian of Norwich and Cardinal Adam Easton, a Norwich Benedictine … would have known each other … [and] is the more likely author of the Cloud of Knowing,” and “that the Amherst Manuscript’s text [the Short Text] is not Julian’s first but her last version of the Showing of Love, written … in 1413, during her lifetime” (xvii).  Here it is worth noting that Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978) and Denise Nowakowski Baker (Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book, Princeton University Press, 1994) accept the more standard explanation that Julian produced both the Short and the Long Texts, with the former before the latter. Holloway’s great erudition and in-depth research, reflected in fifty-five densely presented pages of endnotes, surely justify her going out on a limb, so to speak, in making such arguments.

Holloway discusses a series of themes throughout the book’s ten chapters: the Westminster manuscript; various versions of Julian’s texts—with special reference to Julian’s famous treatments of “the hazelnut”; whether Julian may have had Jewish ancestry and the impact of Jewish thought on her writing; Julian’s intimate knowledge of Benedictine thought; a long discussion of the various possible relationships between Julian and Cardinal Adam Easton—whom Holloway suggests might have edited a version of her Long Text (130–31); Julian in relation to the Cloud of Unknowing; an essay focusing especially on Brigitte of Sweden and Catherine of Siena; the earliest extant Julian manuscript, the Amherst Manuscript; Julian as the more silent one and Margery Kempe—who sought spiritual guidance from Julian—as the more active contemplative; and a history of the production, protection, and transmission of various Julian manuscripts. This last discussion proves quite intriguing, especially the recall of great trials and suffering during the French Revolution. Holloway summarizes this last discussion: “At the risk of their lives and at the cost of exile women preserved down the centuries a continuum of contemplative writings of the greatest value, among them, Julian of Norwich’s Showing of Love” (277).

Holloway brings forth many suggestions of interest concerning possible readings of Julian’s theological and literary insights in Showing of Love. Among them, for example, is Julian’s famous phrase, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Holloway sees this phrase as a direct translation of the word shalom from the Hebrew text of 2 Kings 4, where it indicates “all,” “wholeness,” “all being well” (28–29, 51, 68–69).

A further suggestion by Holloway concerns interpretation of Julian’s famous parable of the Lord and the Servant. Holloway summarizes certain aspects of the parable: “[There is] the Parable of the Lord and the Servant, in which the Servant, who is both Adam and Christ, runs forth from the Lord, who is God sitting in a blue robe in the wilderness. But the Servant is merely dressed in a dirty white shirt, which is our humanity, and next falls into a deep ditch as fallen Adam. He then is able to return to his beloved Lord and to sit at his right hand, garbed in rainbow colours [sic], as Christ” (28). She reads this parable as allegorical, as “scriptural exegesis about God as Man, God creating Adam in his own image, in the Gospels; as Jesus, which means in Hebrew, ‘God saves’, to save Adam, which in Hebrew means Everyman, Everywoman, Jesus himself in the Gospels calling himself ‘Son of Man’, ‘Ben-Adam’, ‘Bar-Adam’” (126). Holloway also sees it as a political allegory, referring to the Pope and the loyal Cardinal Adam Easton—the servant—who was condemned by Urban VI and later reinstated by the succeeding Boniface XI (64).

A couple minor critical remarks: given that the chapters are, in effect, distinct studies, there is, at times, overlap and repetition—for example, in remarks concerning the Amherst Manuscript (21–24,199–201). Occasionally, the page references in the Index seem to be a bit off. But neither of these takes away from the fascinating story Holloway tells, generously maximizing her reading of Julian’s outstanding qualities and abilities. Julian among the Books is a celebration of Julian’s undeniable linguistic skills, creative literary sense, and theological acumen, and also becomes a celebration of Holloway’s own wide erudition in all things Julian.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dale M. Schlitt leads a Ph.D. seminar in spirituality of the trinity at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julia Bolton Holloway received her doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and taught at Quincy University, Princeton University, and the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has published books on pilgrimage, Dante and his teacher, Brunetto Latino, Langland, Chaucer, Birgitta of Sweden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence’s ‘English’ Cemetery, among others. She also edited, with Sr Anna Maria Reynolds CP, Showing of Love: Extant Manuscripts and Translation (2001), and authored Anchoress and Cardinal: Julian of Norwich and Adam Easton, OSB (2008). She took early retirement to enter her Anglican convent in Sussex, and now lives as a hermit and custodian of Florence’s ‘English’ Cemetery, teaching the ABC to Romanian Roma families in a graveyard.


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