Medieval Women - Her Story in History.

Julian of Norwich

In a patriarchal world where most religions are dominated by the male deity, and the expression of same being wholly a bastion of maleness, it is heartening to see that there were women in positions of spiritual authority whose advice was sought after. The medieval anchorite women proved themselves as a very matriarchal force within the canon of church teaching. One woman, Julian of Norwich stands head and shoulders above the rest.


Who or what was an anchorite though? The simplest description is that of a religious hermit, but one attached or anchored to an existing congregation. The life of an anchorite was subject to a religious rite of consecration. This rite was similar to a funeral rite, and as such the anchorite was considered dead to the world, in a living saint sort of a way. They lived in a single cell that that measured three paces by three paces which was built onto a church and were ritually walled in. Between the 12th and the 16th centuries, female anchorites outnumbered their male counterparts by about four to one.

Although they were set apart from their communities by being walled in, the anchorite lay at the very heart of things and played a vital role as spiritual counsellors. Their cells were constructed in such a way as to have a hatch that linked them with the outside world and enabled them to give spiritual guidance to visitors.

The daily life of the anchorite was governed by an anchoritic rule known as 'Ancrene Wisse'. Julian of Norwich was also an author and a mystic has left a lasting impression on Christian doctrine. She was considered a prophet and the visions and out of body experiences that she wrote about chimed well in the medieval mindset, where it was believed women were more impressionable to visions. So, what do we know of this much revered woman and what does the timeline of history tell us of her existence?

We know that she lived in a cell attached to the Church of Saint Julian at Conisford, in Norwich, England. We do not know her birth name, just that she was named after the church she was attached to. She lived between 1342 and 1416 approximately. In 1373 at the young age of 30 and a half she became seriously ill and experienced what she termed as the 'Shewings', a set of mystical revelations. In these 'Shewings' Julian witnessed the Crucifixion, had a conversation with God, witnessed the Annunciation of Mary, and saw an image of the devil. She published her visions in 'Revelations of Divine Love'.

Almost nothing is known of her life, we do know with some authority that she was much sought after for spiritual guidance and became famous for her wisdom and piety. The Christian mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373 - c. 1438 CE) visited her for counsel in around 1413. Most of what we know about Julian comes from those corroborating accounts of her visit. Other sources of information on her life come from the accounts of bequests left to her in wills, there are four known wills which mention Julian.

We know that she wrote well and is credited as being the first woman author to be published in the English language. We know too, the fact that she was published shows that she was held in good authority and was a woman of some means, and was well educated, although she describes herself as not a woman of letters. She was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer.

She was clearly well acquainted with the Bible, which at the time was only available in Latin, and it was unusual that she could read Latin, women were not taught it.  Perhaps she had access to an underground copy of the Bible in English from which we could conclude that she was very resourceful. From her book we can also tell that she was au fait with the writings of the Church Fathers (such as St. Jerome), as well as Augustinian philosophy.

We know that she had freedoms not enjoyed by other anchorites. She had her own garden and at least two maid servants and was tended to by her mother when she was ill. We also know that she could speak to people face to face and not through a hatch. She was held in high regard by her contemporaries and by women in particular. Her manuscripts were carefully preserved by Brigittine and Benedictine nuns, all the scribes but one being women. 

Outside of London, Norwich was considered one of the most religious cities in Europe, with its cathedral, friaries, churches and recluses' cells dominating both the landscape and the lives of its citizens. The Black Death pandemic would have been rife in Julian's lifetime and we know that the aftermath of The Hundred Years War led to Peasant Revolts within the city resulting in much madness, mayhem and murder.

Julian's discussion of the maternal nature of God suggests that she knew of motherhood from the direct experience of bringing up her own children. It is possible to conclude that she may have lost them and her husband to the plague. Being an anchorite would have kept her in quarantine and safe. Her writings, however, give us no accounts of this. We do know she is said to have kept a cat for company, a necessary protection from vermin one would argue.

So, what is the tenant of Julian’s message, what is her legacy? She lived in turbelent times, there was much disease, strife and turmoil. Her voice is one of benevolence and optimism and she dared to liken divine love to motherly love. In fact, according to Julian, God is both our mother and our father and us mere sinners can glean forgiveness from our parent and be protected. She acknowledges sin as the cause of all the pain in the world, and says we should't worry, everything is going to be all right.

“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.” 

Her work is a sophisticated piece of theological writing which contains many powerful images, including one famous one in which Julian sees the universe as a thing so small that it is like a hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand. She said she saw three properties in this little nut;

'The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.'

Which she intrepreed to mean that God was the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. Essentially her message was a simple yet profound one - God is love and love is all that matters. She was the greatest woman mystic of her age. Her writings are unique with no other works from a female mystic author in English have survived.


Further Reading

1. Collins, Henry, ed. and trans. Revelations of Divine Love, Shewed to a Devout Anchoress, by Name Mother Julian of Norwich. London: Thomas Richardson and Sons, 1877.

2. Wolters, Clifton, trans. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966.


Christine de Pizan, writing.

Christine de Pizan, author of the Book of the City of the Ladies, was a fifteenth-century writer in France. She penned forty one known works between 1399 and 1429. She wrote poems, prose and biographies. This remarkable author served as court writer to Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy and John the Fearless and was also present at the French Royal Court during the reign of Charles VI.

She was very much a woman in her own right and challenged many of the cultural stereotypes afforded to women of her era. Widowed at the age of twenty she was forced to earn her living to support her children, an ailing mother and a dependant niece. 

Though born in Venice in 1364 she lived most of her life in France where her father Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzano was Astrologer, physician and astronomer to Charles V of France.  

It was in this library that Christine educated herself, immersing in humanism the classics and languages. She did not however, assert her intellect until after she was widowed and began writing love ballads. She thus became a novelty of the court with the nobel barons being intrigued to have a female pen their romantic exploits.

She evolved into a writer concerned with the role of women inmedieval society and the rule of chivilary. Christine involved herself in the renowned literary controversy known as 'Querelle du Roman de la Rose' (Romance of the Rose) written by Jean de Meun in which  he depicted women as mere seducers. She argued that he slandered women in his text and denigrated their sensuality. She said he was vulgar and misogynistic. This debate led to her most notable works.

In The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan attests to the contributions women have made in society, while in The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she suggests to women how to cultivate useful qualities and carve a niche for themselves in society. 

Christine is renowned across Europe as the first professional female writer. At a time when women were considered the property of men she broke new ground, defining her self and living independently. She embodies the first time a woman took up her instrument, the pen, in defence of her gender.


Further Reading:

  1. Redfern, Jenny R. (1955). "Chapter 5: The Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorical and Her Rhetoric". In Lunsford, Andrea A. Virtue Ethics for Women 1250-1500. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 74. ISBN 9780822971658.
  2. Jump upAbray, Lorna Jane (2004). "Imagining the Masculine: Christine de Pizan's Hector, Prince of Troy". ISBN 9780772720252.
  3. Earl Jeffrey Richards, ed, Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), pp. 1–2
  4. Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defense of Women: Reading Beyond Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  5. Chess, Simone. "Vision and Revision: Christine de Pizan and Feminist Histography."
Mawie B.