“THE devil laughs when a woman writes: it is well-known.” Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Divine Love was the first book in the English language written by a woman, despite that prevalent opinion. The manuscript was taken to France in 1395, and, although the original MS no longer exists, it was copied and widely circulated among 14th-century believers. It then dropped out of sight until it established a new readership in accessible print editions.
What Simon Parke has done is to create a companion volume: Julian’s autobiography. The Secret Testament of Julian is written in the small cell where she was walled in at her own request after the deaths, during the plague, of her beloved husband and child. She herself miraculously survived her infection; in gratitude, she insisted on becoming an anchorite, and, on 8 May 1373, was walled in beside the church in Norwich now dedicated as St Julian.
Norwich was then the second largest city in England, and her entombment went down badly with the religious Establishment, fixed in its condemnation of women.
Parke’s book is a magnificent achievement: you sense, smell, and hear the religious turmoil in the England of Chaucer, of Wyclif, of The Cloud of Unknowing. The actual daily survival of Julian in her cell feels real, and the courageous support of her friends and neighbours is moving. An example is the boy Thomas who arrives in distress to explain the shouting near by and the stench of burning: “They burn books, mistress. . . Wyclif Bibles, Bibles in English. . . I speak not of your writing, not to anyone.”
Julian’s famous call of hope for humanity during a time of turmoil: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” — borrowed by that other seer, T. S. Eliot — is a peculiarly fitting one for today’s Britain during a period when the divisive lure of Brexit does its best to tear our country apart.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Secret Testament of Julian
White Crow Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10