Finding Comfort in This Medieval Woman’s Words
My first encounter with Julian of Norwich came in March 2020, just as the world shut down. Amidst a never ending news cycle of pandemic panic, an abrupt shift to remote learning, and fears that “normal” might be gone for good, the last thing I wanted to do was read medieval literature.
Before the pandemic, my medieval literature seminar had gathered in a cozy room in a remote corner of the library. We would meet for an informal lunch before class, traipsing in at the last minute to settle into our warmly-lit retreat from the rest of campus. As we breezed through a long syllabus of books from the middle ages, our class became fast friends, and we loved our professor, who quietly began every class with a captivating retelling of the author’s life.
Then, COVID-19 came. Instead of gathering together, we logged on to Zoom. And with our present concerns about the state of the world, settling down to read a book from 700 years ago felt unreasonable. Until I met Julian.
Julian of Norwich’s Showings was the first book we read after shifting class online, and it turned out to be the perfect book. Julian lived in the 14th century, and she faced circumstances not unlike the once we faced at the time. We settled into isolation at home; Julian spent her life alone as an anchoress, unable to leave her cell attached to the church. We struggled with anxiety about the future; Julian had her own worries.
Showings is Julian’s record of visions she had when she was ill. After recovering, she put her visions to the page, authoring what scholars believe to be the first book written by a woman in English. The text offers a lesson in peace amidst uncertainty and suffering that rings through the ages, as timely today as they were 700 years ago.
Julian describes her visions as “living and vivid and hideous and fearful and sweet and lovely.” She saw immense suffering, but she also saw things that made her understand the depth of God’s love for her.
In one vision, she saw a tiny hazelnut held in a hand. Struck with wonder at the smallness and insignificance of a little hazelnut in the hand of God, she writes, “I was amazed that the hazelnut could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen to nothing.”
In her amazement, she receives an answer: “It lasts and always will because God loves it.” And suddenly, Julian understands. If little hazelnut can last, then how much more special is she, a human being with all of her strengths and weaknesses, faith and doubts.
In another vision, Jesus speaks to her, telling her: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
This was the comfort that Julian clung to in the uncertainty and confusion brought about by her illness. And this same line brought peace during those early pandemic days when I first read Showings. Even today, when life is chaotic and the bad seems to outweigh the good, these words bring comfort. All will be well.
How beautiful that the first book written in English by a woman isn’t just special because of the novelty of its authorship, but also because it contains these timeless gems of wisdom. Despite the intervening centuries, the contemporary reader can find a friend in Julian, an older sister of sorts who can pass along a valuable perspective born of experience. She wrote Showings to share the love she had received with others, to give them hope, and to remind them that, like hazelnuts, we are held as part of a much larger plan we can’t always understand.
In Julian’s words, I found a way to accept the bizarre circumstances of those early days of the pandemic. I didn’t receive clarity — I found peace. If a woman’s solitude and illness in the middle ages could produce such a timeless work of wisdom, what could my twenty-first century isolation hold? Maybe not the same creative work, but perhaps the same trust that all will be well in the end.
Today, Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature, known for its publishing houses and literary festivals. And with parts of the medieval city still intact, the blend of old and new seems fitting for the home of England’s first female author.