Julian of Norwich is often credited as being the first woman to write a book in the English language, and what a book it is. Julian's Revelations of Divine Love was nothing short of a revolution - it explored themes of equality so contrary to the doctrine of the Christian church that one marvels at the fact that her works were not burned by the establishment upon their completion. Julian was the first English mistress of "writing between the lines," or placing subversive messages in texts that are not apparent to the purveyors of the institutions they are subverting. In our class readings, we learned how Julian dealt with the misogynist make-up of the Holy Trinity in God the Mother, but she also rejected controversial Christian institutions in her other major work, Revelations of Divine Love.
The most obvious way in which Julian made her stand against the Christian traditions of her day was her language. In a time when most of the religious texts were still written in Latin, Julian wrote in the English of her day, a method that has been championed in the 20th century by women writers like Maya Angelou and Paule Marshall. While the Middle English prose may be difficult for the modern reader to stumble through, it really was the language of the people when it was written, and it is appropriate given the nature of Julian's shewing. God's revelation to Julian was one that was shown directly to the people (Julian held no kind of religious office, she was not even technically a nun), and it is only fitting that the account of that revelation be written in the vernacular of the day.
In Julian's time, an intermediary (usually a priest) was required for nearly every religious experience, from confession of one's sins, to translation of religious texts, to the receipt of a divine manifestation. However, God manifested himself (I will use the generic masculine pronoun to refer to God, as Julian did in her text, despite the theories she puts forth in her God the Mother essays) to Julian alone, with no intermediary. Julian makes sure the reader is aware of this departure from clergical tradition in several places in the text. When God first manifests himself, Julian says it is "without intermediary" (Beer 29). When she addresses her fellow Christians in chapter VI, she says she hopes everyone receives pleasure from reading her book as if "Jesus had shown it to you directly, as he did to me" (Beer 32, italics mine). Despite the doctrine of her day, Julian repeatedly communicates her belief in direct contact between the Lord and his worshippers to her readers.
Julian also subverts Christian tradition merely by writing her text and communicating her ideas to others. To this day, the Catholic church will not allow women to be priests, but in the fourteenth century Julian was struggling to find an instructional voice in her religious tradition. In chapter VI she states, "God forbid that you should take me for a teacher" (Beer 33), but the implication throughout the rest of the essay is that she means the exact opposite. Earlier in the very same chapter Julian states that she wants to "council you for your own profit" (Beer 32), and there are many other instances of Julian identifying herself as an educator throughout the text. Just as Mary Wollstonecraft makes certain concessions to patriarchal prejudices about women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Julian nods her head in affirmation of tradition, but includes a not-so-subtle wink directed at her fellow believers in equality.
Julian also differs from the church in the fundamental ways that she views God and humanity. Whereas the God of the Old Testament is a wrathful God, the God of the New Testament becomes a forgiving and loving God. The Catholic Church has tended to instill in its followers a healthy dose of the guilt and fear that the Old Testament inspired. Julian, on the other hand, is a proponent of the concept of the loving God. The titles of her works alone (Revelations of Divine Love and God the Mother) portray God as a nurturing figure, and the texts make Julian's feelings about her God even more apparent. What is really interesting, though, is that Julian actually goes so far as to project some of this divine benevolence onto humanity, which is fitting, since humans were created in God's image. In chapter XVII, Julian states, "in each soul who shall be saved is a natural will that has never assented to sin, and never shall" (Beer 48), drastically contradicting the attitudes of the church. The prevailing attitude of the Church was (and still is to some extent) that humanity was borne of sin, and is constantly flirting with the side of the devil, retaining their ties to heaven only by very weak bonds. Julian's view, however is an entirely optimistic one that is acceptable to someone who wants more than fear and self hatred from his/her religion.
When we read excerpts from God the Mother in class, no doubt many of you thought that Julian's work was as revolutionary as I did. When we start to read between the lines, however, we find even more subversive material that was so progressive that much of it still runs contrary to 20th century Catholic thought. Julian was so far ahead of her time that 600 years later she is still ahead of our time. Throughout the ages, her struggle to find a voice in the Church gives hope to women everywhere who believe in both sexual equality and the Christian Lord.