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Julian of Norwich

The first woman to write a book in English

I have recently taken an interest in the many countries that still ban books, so still find it astonishing that one of the prominent women writers of the past expressed her personal experiences despite it conflicting with established Catholic doctrine.

Imagine living in England as a woman within holy orders during the 14th century when less than ten percent of the population was literate. This statistic was about the same for men and women as literacy related to position, authority, and privilege. You could describe her experience as either divine or what we would now call a 'near death experience.' But her conclusions about God clashed with established norms, possibly making her one of the earliest Protestants (although she wasn’t protesting anything).

One of my 16th century fictional characters, Elspeth, is obsessed with Julian. Caught up in the Pilgrimage of Grace (a rebellion against the new church during the reformation) Elspeth must hide her ecclesiastical identity and search for the truth of her faith.

There are many impressive and astonishing facts about Julian (including that we may not know her real name). For a woman living in the 14th century to write something quite radical without opposition was unusual. Following her experience, she became an Anchoress, which probably gave her a degree of authority and may explain this.

She lived the rest of her life in what would be described as a cell, but no doubt had some comforts. Revered, she had a small window through which passers-by could ask for prayers and blessings. Soon pilgrims would seek her out and, following her death, would travel great distances to get a copy of her work.

It won’t surprise you that I have had a copy since I was in my 20s. It is not an easy read I should add.

Elspeth was lucky. Her Prioress informed her that there was a copy secreted in York (who would have thought?)

Despite her legacy being frequently tampered with, including her book being falsely attributed to a man, she is now one of the world's most famous female authors.

Following a serious illness, her visions of Christ informed her that God was simply love. He was good, with no retribution or malice within him (all that came from humankind). She even addressed the maternal aspects of the divine. People witnessed her illness at 30 years old, as well as her ramblings as she faded. Julian never wavered on what she said she had experienced, but took years to express it in writing, possibly because of fear of opposition and punishment.

A similar notion (i.e. that you do not need priests, man-made rules, suffering or riches to access God) was part of what Martin Luther was protesting about in October 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses (proposed reforms) to Wittenburg Castle Church.

And would you believe she sells on Amazon (4.4 stars!). I wonder what she would think about that.

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Beautiful blog! Experiencing the love of God is wonderful because it leads us to love for our fellow humans and no amount of treats can prevent our sharing that truth.

The eye rolling is interesting.


It's wonderful how our research takes us into these kinds of stories on our writing journeys. Loving the eye roll!

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