09.10.23, McAvoy, ed., Companion to Julian of Norwich

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Lisa Lettau

The Medieval Review 09.10.23

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed.. A Companion to Julian of Norwich. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2008. Pp. 249. ISBN: 9781843841722.

Reviewed by:
Lisa Lettau
Hood College

Liz Herbert McAvoy's addition to D. S. Brewer's Companion series, A Companion to Julian of Norwich, provides a valuable examination of current debates about the facts and assumptions regarding Julian's life and texts. This book of sixteen essays by various scholars will be useful to teachers who want their students to examine a variety of interpretations of Julian's work and/or life as well as Julian scholars who desire a compact collection of some of the most current research. As McAvoy points out, "Julian has become an increasingly familiar figure within both literary and non-literary circles, and both religious and non-religious milieu" (1). Despite Julian's growing readership, we still know very little about her, but that does not stop readers from defining Julian according to their own inclinations. McAvoy explains, "Julian of Norwich, as much in her own day as now, seems to evade both definitive categorization and knowing. The more widespread her renown, the more we try to pin her down, the more of an enigma she seems to remain" (2). In her introduction, McAvoy sets up the diversity of information promulgated about Julian and her texts. Despite some minor errors in editing, for example McAvoy confuses the order of the final two essays in section one, McAvoy's introduction provides valuable insights regarding how Julian's readers perceive her and where these perceptions come from. The ultimate question, McAvoy asserts, is "can we ever aim to 'know' who or what Julian 'really' was?" (16). While she concedes that "the answer is probably 'no'" (16), McAvoy's collection does provide new insights into her texts and reminds readers that Julian herself will always be, and perhaps should always be, as mysterious as her assertions that "all will be well."

McAvoy divides the collection into two parts: "Julian in Context" and "Manuscript Tradition and Interpretation." The first part "aims primarily to place the writer firmly within a variety of her own contemporary contexts" (9). The contextual essays on Julian's life could easily slip into conjecture, but these authors promote the facts and indicate when they utilize them to make suppositions. The section opens with "Femininities and the Gentry in Late Medieval East Anglia: Ways of Being," Kim M. Phillips' response to Alexandra Barratt's 2004 article, "Lordship, Service and Worship in Julian of Norwich," that challenges readers to construct a social Julian. In order to imagine Julian as a social being, Phillips utilizes R. W. Connell's framework for examining masculinity (developed in Masculinities) by restructuring the categories for femininity. After working through the categories she has developed--consort, vocational, deprived, and alternative--Phillips classifies Julian as a vocational woman. In doing so, Phillips provides modern readers with a recognizable Julian based on knowledge of her vocation as anchoress.

The next essay, "'A recluse atte Norwyche': Images of Medieval Norwich and Julian's Revelations" by Cate Gunn, builds on Phillips' argument by examining Julian through the context of her surroundings. Gunn argues that "the images she was familiar with may have acted as rememorative signs" (35). Gunn connects the sensory nature of Julian's descriptions of her vision to the rich images of affective piety so popular in the Middle Ages, especially images of the Trinity available in Norwich during Julian's life. While Gunn carefully avoids overt speculation, she provides a valuable examination of the possible influences that may have surrounded Julian in her youth and as an anchoress.

Authors in this section often turn to Alexandra Barratt's work on Julian in formulating their arguments, and her essay in this collection, "'No such sitting': Julian Tropes the Trinity," lives up to her past contributions. Barratt enhances the arguments that Gunn has presented as she describes and discusses the many depictions of the Trinity accessible to Julian. While her essay provides a fascinating overview of the types of Trinity images, her emphasis on the Dixit Dominus image of Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father, which appeared in the Ormesby Psalter that sat open in the choir at Norwich, as a possible foundation for Julian's description of God as father and mother is particularly intriguing.

Denise N. Baker's essay, "Julian of Norwich and the Varieties of Middle English Mystical Discourse," moves away from Julian's surroundings to explore the "metaphoric language of mysticism" in order to assess Julian's "position in the Christian tradition of contemplation" (54). She compares Julian to Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and the Cloud author and provides a helpful evaluation of the commonalities these mystics share, often due to common beliefs rather than familiarity, and their different "assumptions about the nature of God and of humankind's relationship to the divine" (55). Baker concludes that Julian's language and all-embracing message set her apart from other English mystics, and she encourages others to further examine Julian against "her continental predecessors" (63).

The next two essays in Part I, "Saint Julian of the Apocalypse" by Diane Watt and "Anchoritic Aspects of Julian of Norwich" by E. A. Jones, explore Julian as a part of her community. Watt examines Julian's role as an anchoress involved with her community and as a visionary within the medieval prophetic tradition by comparing her to other visionaries such as Christina of Markyate and Margery Kempe. Watt asserts that Julian's visions are "concerned with salvation rather than with damnation" (71), setting her apart from the overtones of sin and damnation so prevalent in the Church at the time. Jones explores the physical reality of Julian's existence through bequests left to Julian, indications of her calling as a spiritual advisor through The Book of Margery Kempe, and Julian's possible education through her own texts and the work of other medieval anchoresses. Both authors contest the fallacy of imagining Julian as an isolated solitary.

Annie Sutherland's essay "Julian of Norwich and the Liturgy," which completes the first section, examines "Julian's visionary experience and the patterns of contemporary prayer" (89). Sutherland observes how Julian incorporates communal liturgical practices into her text while remaining "uniquely distinctive" (98). She argues that "echoes of liturgical language and syntax can be heard throughout both of Julian's texts" (90). However, Julian substitutes her own structure, for example bipartite as opposed to tripartite, in order to allude to the liturgy while conveying her own message.

Altogether, the first section provides diverse observations on the context of Julian's life, encouraging readers to keep an open mind and dissuading them from forming views based on modern expectations or mistaken judgments about enclosure. The next part, "Manuscript Tradition and Interpretation," builds upon the contextual approaches of the first group of essays, "focusing on manuscript traditions, dissemination and new methodological approaches" (12) to closely examine Julian's texts from a variety of viewpoints. This section opens with Barry Windeatt's examination of Julian's A Revelation of Love, "Julian's Second Thoughts: The Long Text Tradition." Windeatt sees A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman as Julian's story of her visions and A Revelation as "the history of how she comes to understand them" (102). By delineating the texts in this way, Windeatt finds that Julian shares her experience of spiritual revelation with her readers by offering "her own experience as a witness" (113). The text not only imparts the revelations that she has received, but it also reveals the development of her understanding. As intriguing as Windeatt's arguments are, his examination of the two texts together is valuable in itself.

Marleen Cr also focuses on A Revelation in her essay "'This blessed beholdyng': Reading the Fragments from Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love in London, Westminster Cathedral Treasury, MS 4," but she specifically concentrates on fragments of Julian's revelation compiled around 1500. Cr compares the fragments chosen from Julian's text to the other works in the compilation, specifically "selections from the Qui habitat and Bonum est expositions and from the Scale of Perfection," in order to view the manuscript as "one coherent text rather than as a haphazard collection" (117). Cr argues that the fragments of Julian's text in this manuscript are an integral part of the whole, reinforcing not only the spiritually affirmative message, but also how to read contemplative works.

Likewise, Elisabeth Dutton's essay, "The Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Tradition and the Influence of Augustine Baker," concentrates on manuscripts produced after Julian's death: Paris, Bibliothque Nationale Fonds Anglais MS 40; British Library Sloane MS 2499 and MS 3705; and MS St. Joseph's College, Upholland. Dutton examines lexical differences in these later manuscripts to explore the distinction between scribal errors, deliberate changes, and Julian's words. She finds the Upholland manuscript particularly important because of the specific adaptations made to Julian's text to suit the purposes of the Cambrai nuns. Dutton concludes that such divergences reveal how Julian's work "has been read and interpreted since its 'publication'" (138).

Elizabeth Robertson's essay "Julian of Norwich's 'Modernist Style' and the Creation of Audience" hearkens back to Windeatt's essay in that Robertson explores how Julian encourages her readers to interact with her visions. She argues that Julian's "stylistic techniques...have much in common with 'modernist' style as defined by Eric Auerbach, and have the effect of dissolving the distance between both Julian and her vision and Julian and her audience" (139). Robertson's essay is compelling, and she compares Julian's techniques to those of Virginia Woolf who also "grants the reader as much agency, control or understanding as she herself has, while at the same time sharing...the depth and intricacy of her own thought" (145). Robertson considers both Julian's expected audience and her actual readership in her arguments and closely examines the text to explore how it anachronistically resembles a "modernist style."

Laura Saetveit Miles explores the space in which Julian worked and compares her physical enclosure to the "visionary space" of her mind in her essay "Space and Enclosure in Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love." In order to make the comparison, Miles examines Julian's "physical relationship with her community as an anchoress, her theological relationship with God and mankind as expressed in the spatial images of her visions...and, lastly, Julian's unique use of visionary space when compared to texts written by other medieval visionary women" (155), such as St. Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe. Miles also compares Julian to Woolf by arguing that Julian's anchorhold corresponds to the private space required for thought and creativity. She sees the anchorhold as "a paradigmatic example of Michel Foucalt's 'heterotopia'" (156) and stresses the importance of it as both a physical space in which Julian writes and a spiritual space where she experiences God, a private place where she meditates and a public place from which she interacts with her community.

In her own addition to the collection, "'For we be doubel of God's making': Writing, Gender and the Body in Julian of Norwich," McAvoy tackles Luce Irigaray's call for a new discourse with which to examine the body of the mother. McAvoy argues that the physical nature of her visions compel Julian "to develop a powerfully persuasive hermeneutic of the female body" (167) in order to articulate her experience. She directly contests David Aers' assertion that Julian sets aside her femininity. Instead, McAvoy argues that in A Vision Julian utilizes accepted social modes of exposition for women, such as hagiography, whereas A Revelation reveals her "greater sense of confidence" (179) in that she articulates her femininity through a disruption "of traditional phallogocentric language" (180). As Julian gains confidence in her authority, she lets go of the "hagiographic smokescreen" (171) and adopts a feminine hermeneutic through such images as the motherhood of God and Christ's profuse bleeding. Because of its heavy theoretical content, McAvoy's article will be the least accessible to undergraduates who have not yet studied theory; however, for those incorporating Julian's work into gender studies, this essay will be invaluable.

In the next essay, "Julian's Revelation of Love: A Web of Metaphor," Ena Jenkins, first influenced by Julian's words in T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," reads Julian as a poet, "both a mystical poet and a theological mystic" (181). Jenkins studies Julian's metaphoric images to explore how she makes the unfamiliar familiar through poetic language. By closely examining the aesthetics of Julian's work, Jenkins brings the beauty of her words to the forefront and shows how poetic language and structure allow her to invite her audience to enter into the visions, a common thread through many of these essays.

Like Jenkins, Robertson, and Windeatt, Vincent Gillespie's essay, "'[S]he do the police in different voices': Pastiche, Ventriloquism and Parody in Julian of Norwich," examines how Julian interacts with prospective readers. He points out that Julian's "showings require a particular set of interpretive skills from their readers" (206) and emphasizes that Julian uses a variety of contemporary discourses, such as philosophical or theological, without letting any particular discourse dominate her text. Gillespie especially connects Julian's work to lectio divina, the meditative reading of Scripture. He argues that "seeking into 'beholding' is the core work of Julian's response to her showings. It is also a viable critical methodology for reading Julian's account of that work" (194). As Julian must discover new ways to interpret her visions, she requires her audience to do the same. Gillespie relates Julian's multifaceted discourse to Bakhtinian "heteroglossia" in that she utilizes familiar discourses in ways that break down the expectations of her audience, reinforcing the difficulty of conveying the ineffable.

The aptly placed final essay of the collection, Sarah Salih's "Julian's Afterlives," sets aside the theologians and scholars to examine Julian's modern day "fans" who, despite their differences from each other, tend to respond to similar points in Julian's work: the hazelnut vision, the motherhood of Christ, and the declaration that all will be well. Salih examines how modern readers attempt to fit a medieval woman into their own ideas of femininity, reconstructing her from the little biographical information that is available. This essay provides an absorbing look at the many modern versions of Julian as it explores the basis for certain depictions, such as Julian as counselor, and the fallacies supporting these assumptions.

While the price of McAvoy's book may be cost-prohibitive for many scholars in the current economic climate, I strongly recommend it as a library purchase for the use of serious researchers as well as teachers introducing their students to Julian. Besides the value of the essays, the book contains an expansive Julian bibliography including manuscripts, primary sources, and secondary sources conveniently divided into subdivisions. The comprehensive index is also helpful and easy to use. If I had to offer one complaint, it would be for the inclusion of more images, especially for Barratt's and Gunn's essays. Otherwise, the collection was a delight to read and review.

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Lisa Lettau

Hood College