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Book review: Julian of Norwich’s Literary Legacy by Luke Penkett

06 October 2023

Gabriel Byng welcomes scholarship that does the detail on sources

I HAVE occasionally wondered whether we are in danger of reaching peak Julian. There must be no other medieval writer who has become so overwhelmingly popular with both scholars and the public as the Norwich anchoress, the subject of dozens of TV documentaries, histories, and popular introductions. Even a fan (and I count myself among them) might confess some Julian fatigue.

In any case, I was wrong. Luke Penkett’s succinct and wide-ranging survey of Julian’s sources, vocabulary, rhetoric techniques, genre, and audience provides the kind of contextual breadth which more earnest popular publications often lack. The “intertextuality” of medieval mystics has long been a topic of scholarly interest, not least for Julian scholars, for example, but Penkett attempts a near-comprehensive gathering of sources.

Similarly, Julian’s highly sophisticated use of rhetorical technique is often commented upon, but Penkett lays out examples in an alphabetical list. Both Julian’s allusiveness and her extraordinary creativity are laid bare.

Penkett’s instinct is more for taxonomy than analysis. He rigorously lists quotations from Julian and her possible sources, for example, but with relatively little discussion of the nature or plausibility of their relationship. The virtue is that readers can make up their own minds, but I suspect that many would welcome some assistance with the process. Indeed, quite a few of the items listed seem to me like little more than broad resemblances suggesting common late-medieval concerns.

Some texts similarly receive considerably less introductory gloss than others, although they are unlikely to be familiar to a non-specialist audience. He also occasionally seems in thrall to other scholars, with a preponderance of long, sometimes dated, quotations that would similarly merit critical discussion.

Penkett writes that his text is written for a broad audience. Indeed, he is a highly readable and unpretentious writer; but this is a detailed survey of a short text by Julian, “A Vision”, and not of her longer, better-known Revelations. For an undergraduate or specialist reader wishing to get to grips with Julian’s language and literary environment, a proliferation of modern and medieval quotations, always in the original orthography, is useful; for a casual reader, the wood could get hidden by trees.

They will, in any case, provide scholars with plenty of raw material to chew over. One of my favourite examples is from his list of annotations to an early manuscript, hinting at the spiritual concerns of the unknown reader who double-underlined the spectacular “we er alle ane in goddys menynge thynge” in red and blue.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a Principal Investigator at the University of Vienna. He is the author of Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 2017).


Julian of Norwich’s Literary Legacy
Luke Penkett
DLT £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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