The Anchoress of England: Julian of Norwich's Portrait of Christ as Mother
When speaking of medieval literature, Chaucer, Gower and Langland are quite often the most noted. However, recent studies have provided modern scholars with a wide variety of medieval women writers from all over Europe and a few in England. The most widely anthologized English female writer is Julian of Norwich. Julian was an anchoress, and as Marcelle Thiebaux notes, "The anchorite movement was widespread in England from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. Both men and women chose this extreme form of asceticism, which was favored and encouraged by the crown, the church, and the laity. Anchorholds were small, narrow cells attached to churches or friaries" (442). 1 The process of becoming an anchoress was difficult and complicated, but suffice it to say that after the process was completed "the anchoress was sealed up, never to re-emerge into the world. Penance, meditation, reading, and in some cases writing were the anchorite's sole activities" (Thiebaux 442). This was the case for Julian of Norwich. She was "well read in Scripture, dwelling especially on the Psalms, the gospels, and the epistles of Paul and John, ...and was the first English woman to write a book" (Thiebaux 443-44). Her Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich 2 possesses literary and religious value, and the work lends itself quite naturally to a feminist reading. In her clear, lucid, prose style, combined with the images of the medieval mystic, Julian establishes herself as an independent, female religious authority and she gives a staunch affirmation of the divinity of God with this unique view point: the motherhood of God.
In her first showing, Julian sees Christ and emphatically declares, "I grasped truly and mightily that it was he himself that showed it to me without any go-between..." (449). 3 This is a significant beginning, for Julian must establish her independence. She sees this miraculous vision of Christ without mediation. No other saint, guide or individual assists her in accessing Christ. Julian establishes herself as one who is worthy, capable and humble enough to receive an independent visitation from God. At this very crucial beginning, Julian distinguishes and separates herself in a religious sense, and a literary sense. As an anchoress, she separates herself from the male dominated clergy of the time period. She does not need the male "go-between," the male clergy, to escort her to the presence of God. Moreover, as a writer, she distinguishes herself from her male contemporaries who traditionally have some sort of guide or mediator-most often male but sometimes female-who helps arrange for the vision or guides the individual to God.4
Of this same vision, Julian notes:
And at this same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual sight of his homelike loving. I saw that he is all...