Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, edited and translated by Barry Windeatt, Oxford University Press, 214 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0199641185
The following admonishment comes from the prologue to a fourteenth-century English mystical work:
I charge thee and I beseech thee […] whatsoever thou be that this book shalt have in possession […] neither thou read it, nor write it, nor speak it, nor yet suffer it be read, written, or spoken, of any or to any but if it be […] a perfect follower of Christ […] Fleshly janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book.
Is it right to read on? Today we are used to books produced for the open market, which invite any and all comers to thumb their pages, snap their spines and consume their content. One may not tend to think of oneself as a fleshly jangler or any manner of pincher, but one is certainly at times a teller of trifles – not to mention an imperfect follower of Christ, or no sort of follower at all.
Nonetheless, in this age when “authorial intent” has been rejected as an irrelevance by the courts of literary criticism, we are free to plough on through The Cloud of Unknowing, one of the two most widely read mystical texts of the English later Middle Ages. The other is the work of a woman we know as Julian of Norwich, lately edited and translated by Cambridge professor Barry Windeatt under the title Revelations of Divine Love. The spirit of the two works is starkly different – TS Eliot remarked that they “represent pretty well the two mystical extremes or, one might say, the male and female of this literature” – but each is a remarkable achievement of literary style. In Julian’s case, the task of conveying the fruits of mystical experience to an audience, in Windeatt’s words, “confronted [her] with intractable problems in both form and content which remain part of the challenge in reading her work”. They are also part of its fascination.
In the year 1373 a thirty-year-old English woman lay on her sick bed. As she gazed on an image of the crucifixion, she saw blood run down the face of Christ. After this initial vision followed a series of revelations about the nature of the world, mankind and God. The woman, whom we know as Julian of Norwich, spent the following twenty years reflecting on this experience, and deepening her understanding of it. She came to believe that she had been shown these revelations not for her own benefit, but for the sake of all. In that spirit, she wrote two texts, the second a much longer elaboration of the first, which are the oldest in English known to have been written by a woman.
Julian, an almost exact contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, was a religious solitary or “anchorite” (or “anchoress” if we’re feeling old-fashioned). These were individuals, mostly women, who dedicated their lives to solitary prayer and contemplation, sealed away from the world in cells or “anchorholds”, which were small enclosures usually built against the side of a church. Their entry into their cell was marked by sombre ceremony – funeral prayers were read and dust scattered as at a burial.
An anchorite’s life, however, was not always so grim. With one window into the church and one onto the outside world, they were free to converse with parishioners, and in some cases found themselves in the role of town gossip. Their function was not self-indulgent, but to benefit the surrounding society by their presence and religious activity. Like those who live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle so that we don’t have to, the anchorite dedicated herself to intense worship on behalf of her fellow Christians.
The people of fourteenth century Norwich were well served by such self-sacrifice. The town was a centre of spiritual activity, with more records of religious recluses than any other town in England. Julian (the name comes from the patron saint of her church – it and her cell were destroyed by the Blitz) appears to have achieved some degree of celebrity. She makes a cameo appearance in the other major book by an English woman of the period, that of Margery Kempe, a woman given to intense mystical experiences and bursts of public weeping. Margery visited Julian to ask whether her experiences were genuine revelations from God; Julian reassured her that they were, and “[g]reat was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had”.
Julian’s message to the world is relentlessly optimistic. All shall be well; God is love; “we are all one in love.” Sin, seen from one perspective, is nothing at all; from another, it is nothing less than the means of our salvation through penance – and in fact we never really mean it, cannot really mean to sin, since our highest selves always remain pure in motive. We come out of eternal love, and are on our way back into it. Death is nothing but “a new beginning which will last without end, always beginning anew”. There is much reference to the saved, but the damned hardly feature.
This positive message has contributed to the text’s enduring popularity. At times Julian sounds almost like a hippie: “And the reason why we are troubled by [our sufferings] is because of our failure to recognize love.” (I am reminded of Jimi Hendrix on those that bring bad vibes: “It’s because they’re not in love, man!”) It is tempting to say that her vision is simply one of universal love, and fundamental goodness at the heart of all humans and reality itself. That is not inaccurate, but it is to leave a lot out: it is a work of Christian spirituality after all.
In recent times Julian’s work gained far greater renown than ever before when it found itself quoted – repeatedly – in “Little Gidding”, the final part of Eliot’s magnum opus Four Quartets. Among Eliot’s several stealings from Julian, two lines became the hopeful refrain of the poem, and in the process, Julian’s most recognisable words: “And all shall be well and / All manner of things shall be well”. (Eliot reduced the repetition to two, from Julian’s three: “al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.”)
The message that “all shall be well” strikes readers of Eliot as somewhat out of keeping with the determinedly pessimistic general tone of his work. For Eliot, the choice is between the hell of meaninglessness, and the hell of hell; he unambiguously chooses the latter: “I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.” The disparity prompted academic Barbara Newman to dig into the composition history of “Little Gidding”, where she discovered that the Julian quotes were a late addition. Newman speculates that Eliot, writing during World War II, felt it behoved him to offer his readers a note of optimism at the Quartet’s close.
What would have appealed to the poet was not just the hopefulness of Julian’s message but the sense of urgency with which she conveys it. Hers is the work of a woman on a mission, driven by the conviction that her revelations must be communicated. This urgency befits “Little Gidding”, which strives to confront simultaneously the immediate reality of wartorn Europe and the timelessness of the divine. Like Julian’s text, Four Quartets displays the artist’s struggle to put the ineffable into words, to make intelligible the felt intuitions of the sometimes baffled individual.
Windeatt’s carefully and skillfully made edition is the latest of many translations into modern English. One wonders why. Middle English can be difficult. The great fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in a midlands dialect that makes it very challenging. Translations of that poem are useful. But Julian’s work is not in the same category. She strove for a plain and simple style, and that reflects in the text even to a modern eye. A Middle English edition, with notes to help where the language does get tricky, would probably be easier for most readers than much of Shakespeare, written two centuries later. Rendered into modern English, the text loses not just its flavour but its power to move.
By necessity, decisions have been made which alter the meaning of the text. Windeatt professes his intention to avoid translating Julian’s text into “the ordinariness of modern chat”. That is merciful. He has also decided in many cases against selecting a medieval word’s direct modern descendant, since “many words, although still in use, have shifted in meaning and register”. That is sometimes sensible but becomes problematic when the modern words that are introduced bring with them a range of association which is alien to the medieval context.
Reassuring Julian that we should not feel too guilty about our sins, God explains: “I will not that thou be hevye ne sorowfull undiscretly.” Windeatt translates: “I do not want you to be unreasonably depressed and sorrowful.” Rendering “undiscretly” as “unreasonably” is helpful, as modern “indiscreetly” carries a different meaning. As a translation of “hevye” (heavy), “depressed” catches the right sense – and some more. Nowadays, the word belongs to the language of mental health. It means something more than a despondence or heavy gloom. A reader would be misled to think that this represented a fourteenth-century instance of “mental health awareness”.
In reference to “all shall be well”, Windeatt notes that “shall” in Middle English “implies necessity (“must”) at least as much as futurity (“will”)”; but he leaves the phrase intact as a concession to it being “perhaps her best-known utterance”. In another instance, however, one wonders if he is deliberately trying to lessen Eliot’s presence in the fourteenth century text: Christ announces himself to Julian as “[the] ground of thi besekyng”; Eliot quotes in “Little Gidding”, in quite intelligible modern English, “the ground of thy beseeching”; for which Windeatt gives us “the foundation of your prayers”.
Elsewhere the translator’s interventionist approach has been more disruptive to sense. Very near the end, Julian tells us – in Windeatt’s version – “This book was begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it is not yet completed, as I see it.” This is a puzzling line. An endnote interprets it literally, as referring to the need for further revisions by the author. But consider the Middle English: “This booke is begunne be Gods gift and His grace, but it is not yet performid, as to my syte.” The book has not yet been performed. Does Julian mean that it is incomplete until it does its work in the world, being read by and benefiting others?
That is the meaning understood by Vincent Gillespie, an Oxford professor, and Maggie Ross, a contemporary anchorite, who have co-authored articles about Julian’s text. In an analysis which also touches on the profundity of the experience of closely engaging with the text, they write: “Julian’s nearly-last remark about her book […] is the prerequisite for beginning to read it. It permits and requires its readers both to perform the text and, paradoxically, to be performed by it.” Needless to say, the nature of the performance will be determined by the version of the script.
Windeatt notes that Julian encountered “intractable problems in both form and content”, and yet was determined to “[turn] revelation into writing.” As with the best poetry, it is this tension which makes the text so compelling. That struggle cannot be fully witnessed without the weft and warp that are Julian’s words and their arrangement. Gillespie and Ross have described their experience of slowly reading the text together over the course of years. They give a fascinating account of a meticulous reading process. Teasing out the remarkable complexity of the author’s use of language, they go so far as to argue that “Julian’s syntactical choices express a latent theology”. Of her repetition of the same words (a technique disrupted by the translation, which renders individual words in multiple ways): “Typically she takes a nucleus word and winds around it strands of homonyms, grammatical variants, near-puns and half-rhymes that constitute the genetic code of her theology.”
The same critical movements which first rejected authorial intent also made a fetish of the formal integrity of the text, its precise arrangement. When it comes to medieval texts, we should be aware that editions are necessarily also interpretations and emendations: as is the case with the longer of Julian’s two texts, most will be derived from multiple manuscripts, each different in minor or major ways, and the editor makes decisions about what to include. The task is to seek after the, usually vanished, original – to try to work back to what the author had intended. Julian’s latest editor and translator may feel that he is participating in her mission: to bring her vision to the widest possible audience. But I would contend that the loss of the flavour, the power, and the poetry of Julian’s text diminish its ability to work on the reader and set us at a further remove from her than does the unfamiliarity of Middle English. The danger is that seeking to open windows onto the Middle Ages we instead build walls before them.
In her closing statements Julian gives her own version of the caution we found at the start of The Cloud of Unknowing. For all her supposed universalism, Julian would prefer “that this book come only into the hands of those who wish to be [God’s] faithful lovers”. She further asks that a reader approach the text “humbly and perseveringly” (with “mekenes” and “perseveantly”). We would do well to follow that request, even if we fail on other counts. The passage directly preceding that is one of those echoed in “Little Gidding” (and possibly earlier in the Quartets, the final line of the second part: “In my end is my beginning.”) Its poetry is damped out by translation:
Woldst thou wetten thi Lords mening in this thing? Wete it wele, love was His mening. Who shewid it the? Love. What shewid He the? Love. Wherfore shewid it He? For love. Hold the therin, and thou shalt witten and knowen more in the same. But thou shalt never knowen ne witten therein other thing without end. Thus was I lerid that love was our Lords mening. And I saw full sekirly, in this and in all, that ere God made us, He lovid us, which love was never slakid, no, never shall. And in this love He hath don all his werks, and in this love He hath made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlestand. In our making we had beginning. But the love wherin He made us was in Him from withoute begynning, in which love we have our beginning.
The first quotation (“I charge thee and I beseech the … “) is from the translation of Evelyn Underhill, published in 1922. The final quotation, in Julian’s Middle English, is from the 1994 edition of Georgia Ronan Crampton.
Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as an editor.