May 13 is the feast day of the Blessed Julian of Norwich.
The girl later to be known as "Dame Julian of Norwich" was born in 1342 somewhere in England. Her real name may, or may not, have been "Julian". Little is known of the first 30 years of her life. She writes enough detail of a mother's caring for her children, and of the life of a nurse whose only duty is the spiritual guidance of a child (e.g., Chapter 61, Long Text), that she may have been a mother or a nurse early in life, although she almost certainly later became an anchoress. The role of an anchoress, too, might have been associated with the care of a child, as in the case of the anchoress Jutta who took the eight year old Hildegard of Bingen into her anchorage in the twelfth century. Julia wrote of spending time meditating on her visions, which suggests that she was either in the religious life or was from a somewhat prosperous family, affording her leisure time to pray and write. Norwich, where she eventually resided, was one of the more prosperous cities of East Anglia in her day.
Julian may have learned to read and write English, as her writings make no mention of a scribe assisting her in her work. However, her lack of knowledge of Latin is indicated by the absence of Scripture quotations or references to theological writings, in even her most analytical discussions. Only a minority of English men at that time, and virtually no English women, studied Latin. However, the four mendicant orders then had schools in Norwich to teach philosophy and theology to men who were preparing for further study at Oxford or Cambridge. The sermons and catechesis accessible to the laity were probably better than in much of fourteenth century England.
Julian was a devout Catholic who wrote of her devotion to the Catholic Church and of longing for God. Julian's writing conveys a knowledge of catechetical teaching, including an understanding of the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, and the crucifixion and resurrection. She is thought possibly to have been familiar with the earlier work of Walter Hilton. Her books also reflect a familiarity with the theological ideas of her day, in which Christ began to be seen as closer and more familiar to each individual Christian. However, she seems to derive her knowledge of God primarily from meditating on her visions. When she says "God said" something, it is usually a quote of something God said during one of her visions, and not something God said in Scripture.
In 1373, when she said she was 30-1/2 years old, Julian suffered a severe illness, which she thought was in answer to her prayer that she might know the suffering of Christ. As she lay near death on May 8, 1373, and after she was given last rites, she had a series of visions lasting from about 4:00 A.M. to mid-afternoon. At the time, she did not think she was going to live. A total of 16 visions took place over 7 days. She believed that the visions had been given to her for the use of all Christians, rather than for herself.
This motivated her to write in an era in which a woman's writing was uncommon. However she was not unique, and she was not really breaking new ground in writing. Bl. Hildegard of Bingen had been a widely read author in the twelfth century, whose writings also include her own visions as well as her interpretations of the spiritual meanings of her visions. Bl. Angela of Foligno also preceded Julian, her teachings having been placed in writing by others and widely read after her death. St. Catherine of Siena was roughly Julian's contemporary. In contrast with Julian, those women writers show much awareness of Scripture gathered from homilies and discussions with clergy, through familiarity with the Latin in the daily offices, and through spiritual books available in the vernacular.
Julian's initial "book" was a short account of the visions, and continued to meditate on them extensively for the next 20 years. She then wrote a longer version of the same unnamed book. Both books are now known by the title Revelations of Divine Love ("short text" and "long text"). Some of her ideas are difficult to reconcile with Catholic doctrine, such as her belief in the eternal security of Christians, such that none will go to hell (Chapter 65, Long Text) and her discussions of Christ as "our mother, brother and saviour" (Chapter 58, Long Text).
However, she must be understood in the context of a fourteenth century Church in which the plague, recent Crusades, and the Inquisition's refutation of heresies such as those of the Wycliffites, were all part of the world she would have known. Her concept of "God our Mother" has implications related to the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist, as mentioned by Elizabeth Melillo, Ph.D. It contrasts with a view of Christ as warrior king in the earlier medieval world, as suggested by A.C. Spearing. Her optimism about grace must be read in the context of her understanding of the Church as the source of revelation and her view of God as Truth, of Christ as both the teaching and the teacher, in a way reminiscent of the concept of God as Truth in the treatise of John Duns Scotus, whose writings in the early fourteenth century may have influenced the theology and philosophy that she heard from the priests and monks of her day.
Later in life, Julian almost surely became an anchoress under the direction of the Benedictine order, living in a one-room cell attached to St. Julian's Church in Norwich, as suggested by a notation on a 1413 manuscript of the short text of her book. She may have chosen the name "Julian of Norwich" after the name of the church. She is sometimes called "Juliana", which seems a more fitting name for a woman whose writings suggest that she was a very feminine, motherly character. She probably lived until at least 1415, when Margery Kempe wrote of receiving the advice of an anchoress named "Dame Julian," although it is possible that this "Julian" was not the same person. The date of Julian's death is unknown.
She was never formally beatified, but she is considered "The Blessed Julian of Norwich" out of popular devotion and respect for her writings.
Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, short text and long text
Crampton, Georgia Ronan, The Shewings of Julian of Norwich: Introduction
Melillo, Elizabether G., Ph.D., Julian of Norwich
Spearing, A.C., "Introduction: Julian of Norwich and Her Book", in the Penguin edition of Revelations of Divine Love