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Stirring times in Norwich

13 June 2014

David Wilbourne on Mother Julian, her visions and century

Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the life and revelations of Julian of Norwich
Veronica Mary Rolf
Orbis £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60 (Use code CT413 )

The Showings: A contemporary translation
Julian of Norwich
Mirabai Starr, translator
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT413 )

JUST as the Old Testament books weave four sources (J, D, P, and E), Veronica Rolf's Julian's Gospel has four strands. The first is a recreation of Julian's life, read back from her Shewings, speculating on the impact on Julian of the great events that dominated the 14th century in Norwich. Though elaborate, such recreation is speculative and prone to repeated whimsy: Julian as a girl clings to her mother's skirts in Norwich Cathedral, where "the organ stirred her soul to prayer." The adult Julian marries, has a contented sex life (immune to repeated denunciations from the pulpit of the enjoyment of sex), gives birth, rears children, only to lose them to the Great Pestilence. Or not. . .

The second strand is a detailed and careful analysis of the events that hit Norwich, which, like Saki's Crete, clearly produced more history than could be consumed locally. Fear of French invasion during the Hundred Years War, fear of being molested by marauding mercenary riffs, fear of Lollardy, fear of the Peasants' Revolt, fear of the Great Pestilence - all dominated, it seems, every moment, a sheer dread only relieved by colourful Mystery plays. Simon Schama meets Pillars of the Earth: I found it absolutely fascinating.

For instance, in 1349 (the year of three Archbishops of Canterbury), the Great Pestilence reduced the population by 25 per cent, and virtually halved the priestly workforce, necessitating that people confess their sins to each other, even a woman. Thirty-two years later, during the Peasants' Revolt, Bishop Henry le Despenser (more given to wearing armour than robes) heard the confessions of rebels, gave them absolution, but then promptly impaled their heads over the city gates: a somewhat fierce penance, even by Norfolk standards.

Rolf's third strand analyses the theological influences on Julian, majoring on the biblical and Patristic rather than Scholastic writings. This again is very detailed and immensely helpful, though Rolf at times lacks a sure touch: the Triduum does not consist of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday; in correcting Mother Julian's Latin, Rolf herself confuses the vocative and nominative cases; and, repeatedly, Rolf just doesn't get Corpus Christi.

Rolf's final strand is her book's triumph, imaginatively employing history and theology to draw out the significance of Julian's Shewings. I have preached countless sermons on 33 Good Fridays, but the depths Rolf drew out of Julian's conversations with her crucified Lord made me feel as if I hadn't even touched the hem. Nearly every reflection was deeply converting.

J. B. Phillips excited me as a boy: his translation succeeded in making the New Testament vivid, enabling the driest narrative to unfold as a freshly written story or letter. Mirabai Starr's contemporary translation of Julian's Shewings has the same effect, retaining enough vocabulary to root Julian in the 14th century, but with a definite 21st-century woof and warp. And that is the mystery of Julian: either seven centuries before her time or actually conversing with the Lord of all time, a mystery that Rolf and Mirabai catch brilliantly.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

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