August 2020

Vox

by James Boyce

Julian of Norwich

Might challenges to neoliberal orthodoxies emerge from the pandemic, as challenges to Christian faith did after the Black Death?

People turn to history during a crisis in the hope that there are “lessons” to be learnt. And if it’s examples of powerful pestilence we seek, there is no going past the 14th-century Black Death, which was unparalleled in its ferocity and impact.

It’s now estimated that up to half of the European population died in the first and most ferocious pandemic, between 1347 and 1353. With people of all ages being killed off, it took 150 years for the population to recover. 

The scale of the tragedy ruptured many mediaeval certainties. Some historians have proposed it seeded the revolutions in political, social and religious thought that we call the Renaissance and the Reformation. Among other questions explored: How much did the Black Death contribute to increasing anti-Semitism, the rise of heretical movements, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the end of serfdom, and so on and so forth? Or can the changes be seen to have been emerging before the pestilence – the flurry of new ideas receiving a boost from it but not being caused by it? These are matters of an ongoing debate, one that is generally focused on impersonal economic and political forces, and the actions and reactions of kings, bishops and lords. Only the bravest historians have delved into the fraught field of inner meaning. 

Yet this might be the most significant dimension of all, for whatever we conclude about the Black Death’s influence in history, there can be little doubt it undermined common understandings of life and death, resulting, for many ordinary people, in a crisis of faith.

Mediaeval Europeans not only believed in God but had such a rock-solid view that the deity underpinned the stability of the entire political, social and economic order. Definitive information about God and how to mitigate His anger was delivered through Christ’s representative on Earth – the Catholic Church. While there was much that was wondrous and wild in popular piety, the prescribed God was a stern and vengeful one. Theologians might write sophisticated, nuanced tracts in Latin from the safety of the university or monastic library, but at the parish level, uneducated priests ensured their flock remained perpetually frightened of the punishment to come. The only path to protection from God’s righteous wrath was to practise the sacraments, submit to authority, work hard, do good works and accept penance. Nothing could guarantee entry to Heaven (only the rich could afford that much indulgence), but obedience to the teachings of the Church would minimise a sinner’s time in purgatory. The object of mediaeval Catholicism was to accumulate as much credit as one possibly could. The basis of hope was your heavenly hoard.

When the plague arrived, priests died, prayers went unanswered and sacraments had to be ignored as a mass of pestilent bodies piled up in the streets. It seemed as if God had forsaken His people – good and bad alike. Why this meaningless and random suffering? Had the Apocalypse begun?

Unsurprisingly, in this vacuum new heretical movements emerged that proved to be precursors to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. But the most profound new voices were not usually the loudest. 

Perhaps the prime example of this was the little-known author of a modest book. We don’t even know the real name of the author of Revelations of Divine Love. “Julian of Norwich” was a pen-name. For a woman. 

The first book ever written by a woman in the English language – or at least the earliest surviving – was written under a masculine appellation by an “anchoress” who lived most of her adult life in a room adjoining the round-tower Saxon church of St Julian’s in Norwich, then the second-biggest city in England. Julian was a six-year-old child when the Black Death came to Norwich in early 1349, and a young woman when it returned in 1362 (along with a storm so fierce it blew down the cathedral spire), and again in 1369 (when it was accompanied by a deadly cattle disease and harvest failure).

It seems likely she lost much of her immediate family in the first outbreak, and perhaps a husband and children in the subsequent ones, before choosing confinement as an anchoress. It is also probable that Julian was, as she described herself, unlettered – unfamiliar with French (the language of the ruling elite), Latin (that of the educated class) or the written form of the vernacular tongue of the common people, until she was compelled to learn to read and write in order to record the 16 visions or “showings” she received in a near-death experience on May 8, 1373.

While a short text documenting the showings was recorded by a male cleric, the complete Revelations took decades for Julian to personally compile – refined by reading, reflection and ministry to the despairing people she consoled each day through her cell window. 

Revelations is so startlingly original that the 20th-century Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton considered Julian one of the two greatest English theologians. The book directly addressed the people’s fear that Heaven and Earth were becoming empty, replacing the despairing ideology of priests and lords (do penance, repent!) with the assurance of a “Mother God” that loved Her children unconditionally. 

Julian’s tome is an uncompromising affirmation of the presence of God with every human being, without regard to their heavenly or earthly status: “For as the body is clad in cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.”

Every person is accepted unconditionally. God is “the true Mother of life and of all things” and “to the property of motherhood belongs nature, love, wisdom and knowledge”. Sin is upsetting because it is a rejection of human beings’ true nature, but it “is our enemy who wants to retard us with false suggestions of fear about our wretchedness”. A person alone blames and punishes, as there is no anger “except on man’s part, and God forgives this anger in us. For anger is no more than a … striving against peace and love.”

The most commonly cited passage from Revelations (largely thanks to T. S. Eliot, who reproduced it in Four Quartets) is “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

Taken out of context, this can read like naive optimism, or worse, an endorsement of passivity. Read in context, it is a courageous rejection of the wrathful patriarchal God on which the power of the Church and State relied. In proclaiming the ultimate goodness of created life, Julian was not just providing words of comfort to a plague-ravaged generation, but was challenging the fear on which conformity to prescribed teachings relied. There was no need to build up credit in Heaven, no division between the saved and the unsaved, as God’s love knew no limits. 

At the end of her book, Julian summarises the response she received after she asked “Mother Jesus” the meaning of her showings. “He” said (Julian was relaxed about divine gender): “What do you wish to know, your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.”

How in God’s name did Julian get away with it? Here, ironically, being a woman helped. Like other mediaeval mystic women writers across Europe, Julian used her lowly status as a protection: “God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher … I am an unlettered woman, poor and simple.” (Then later: “But because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it was His will that it should be known?”)

Julian acknowledged the contradiction between her showings and the teachings of the Church, but did so with sufficient deference to keep her from burning at the stake: 

Now, during all this time I had two different kinds of understanding. One was the endless, continuing love, with its assurance of safekeeping and joyful salvation for this was the message of all the Showings. The other was the day-to-day teaching of Holy Church, in which I had been taught and grounded, and which I understood and practised with all my heart.


The mediaeval worldview did not collapse because of the Black Death. But the failure of the old religion to explain or console created the space in which an ordinary woman in Norwich wrote a subversive book, in the vernacular tongue, that challenged the orthodoxy on which the power of Church and State relied.

More than 600 years later, Christianity is actively practised by only a small proportion of the population of Europe and Australia. In recent decades, however, a new faith has emerged. The market has come to have many characteristics formerly reserved for the deity: it punishes and rewards individuals, organisations and communities, and requires that citizens and governments trust it as an ultimately beneficial power, despite the suffering and sacrifice that must be implemented in its name. Conveying existential fear as effectively as the mediaeval Church, neoliberal economic preachers warn people to build up their earthly hoard lest in their hour of need they must rely on an unreliable, discredited and ever-shrinking state.

Faith in the market took a major blow with the global financial crisis, and doubts are again being openly aired. It is the state to which most are now turning to provide salvation and security. Market ideology seems as devoid of answers in the face of rampant pestilence as the dogma of mediaeval popes (there being rival bishops of Rome during the plague). Perhaps a God that is helpless in a crisis is no God at all? 

It is important to keep our pestilence in perspective: mediaeval Christianity adapted to the far more dramatic 14th-century crisis, and I suspect that neoliberalism will show similar resilience. It has powerful supporters, and, like the mediaeval way of life, its own virtues (for some it’s been quite a ride).

What is more probable is that, as in the aftermath of the Black Death, COVID-19 will create a space for new ideas to take hold, even if the impact of these remains hard to predict. The question of meaning, what really matters, will come to the fore. People will once again be asking: How then shall we live? The possibilities of a questioning moment in which priorities and perceptions shift should be honoured. 

I am nervous of affirming that there are “lessons” from history. Given that parallels between coronavirus and the Black Death are rough ones, a less definitive metaphor is called for. What we can learn from the 14th century is not how to respond to a crisis, but that if we are to hear the new possibilities it brings, we will need to listen deeply. Julian of Norwich’s writing was a more authentic answer to people’s plague-pained questions than the well-copied tomes written by learned clerics.

Despite the changes of the centuries, prophets are still usually kept far from the seats of power. Real answers to our deepest longings and fears will still most likely be found at the margins. As we listen for silenced voices of truth, we could do worse in these troubled times than reconnect with Julian of Norwich. Hers is one window to an aching world that has always remained open.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a writer and historian whose books include Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World. He is a Research Associate at the University of Tasmania.

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