Julian of Norwich was the first woman in the world to write a book in English, and yet had largely disappeared from view until her rediscovery during the twentieth century.
A fourteenth century anchoress in Norwich, she lived in a cell for forty years, surrounded by savage plague, political inequality and religious bigotry. Yet Julian gave the world one of its most famous calls to hope: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’
Who was she? Why did she pray for a near-death experience and then choose containment in a cell? And how did she come to speak with such optimism?
In The Secret Testament of Julian, she tells her own story, full of difficulty and joy. No plaster saint, but a flesh and blood woman who from the silence of her cell speaks with a strength that few today can equal.
Let Julian tell her story.
Praise for The Secret Testament of Julian
‘Made, loved, and kept’ by E.M. Spradbery
This is the most unusual, extraordinary – and rather moving – book I have ever read. Having struggled in the past with the writing of Julian herself, I feared I was going to find this a difficult read, and even perhaps somewhat pious.
How wrong I was!
To quote Beatrix (Beaty) as she was christened: ‘The devil laughs when a woman writes, it is well known!’ Coping with great good humour and courage, Julian is born into a world of misogyny, disease and abuse. The plague is decimating the population, and it is described by the grasping church as ‘God’s will, and his anger’. She loses the two beings closest to her to it.
After surviving a deadly illness herself, during which she had visions of a loving and merciful God, she chooses to become an anchoress – walled into a tiny cell for 40 years, dependent on the goodwill of others to provide for her needs.
The aptly named Mr Strokelady casts a fearful shadow over her life. When he arrives at her cell window, now the town’s mayor, a shiver ran down my spine: he held the power of life and death over Julian and others, as well as being personally vile.
For a woman to write at all in the 14th century was forbidden. For anyone to be discovered writing in English, and not the obligatory Latin of the church, was punishable by death.
Characters that particularly stick in my mind: Sara, her faithful friend and ‘maid’, Mr Curtgate, the ill-fated vicar and Margery Kempe: disturbed or inspired?
‘The Secret testament of Julian’ strongly reminds me of the play by William Nicholson about C.S. Lewis: ‘Shadowlands’. That, too, packs a powerful punch, and both books frequently had me in tears, dealing as they do with love and death, grief, illness and loss. Here are life-changing thoughts on the nature of suffering. Both books are also suffused with humour and courage.
Preparing for a difficult encounter at her cell window, Julian picks up a hazelnut that has fallen, and marvels at it: ‘like all of us: made, loved and kept’.
‘All things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.
About the author
Simon Parke has been a scriptwriter for Spitting Image, a Sony award-winning radio writer and a priest in the Church of England. He is now CEO of The Mind Clinic and author of the Abbot Peter murder mysteries, set in Seaford on the Sussex coast where Simon now lives with Shellie, seagulls and his running shoes.
So I write from my prison. Or is it my palace? I know not. It feels like a heavenly palace today. Experience will decide.
And my first line is written, I can scarce believe it. There! I am quite free to write; it is hard to contain my joy.
I start simply and slowly, allow me this; I hope to reward your patience, for I do not like slowness myself. I will quicken, believe me!
And you will wish to know why a woman who loves the sky, the harbour and the bluebells, chooses to be walled in for life; enclosed in a cell, without exit and without light. I will explain myself. But I will explain in English, which even now I write slowly, without practice.
And I smile ... I smile at my writing desk. I may be enclosed, but I can barely say how free I feel behind these walls, as if all worries are quite melted, like icicles in the sun. Though some say I am dead.
The bishop declared me dead when he bricked me in; and my mother cried.
‘Why do you do this to me, Beatrix?’
We will return to them, though both advise me not to write, I know this. I write wickedly. They say I should not turn my woman’s thoughts, memories and visions into ink on a page.
‘The devil laughs when a woman writes, it is well known!’
But I do not hear him at present. And anyway, let the devil laugh, if he so wishes; his mirth does not concern me; his hilarity is a broken noise. I do not fear him nor his gaunt-faced fiends, for they are fools; my visions made this quite plain to me.
And it is my visions which have brought me here. (Do you have visions? You must treasure them.) My visions changed my life and it is they which now make me a captive; but a captive by my choosing. For while I cannot leave, neither can others enter. And this is freedom for me ... to live with no accusing eyes.
I do anger at these thoughts, I will not pretend. Many men write of God ... Mr Rolle and Mr Hilton, and they write well, I read their work. Yet a woman, it seems, is gagged and ordered to be quiet concerning the kindness of God. Gah!
And my mother agrees it should be so; she agrees her daughter should have no voice ... when clear as a sunset in June, I have seen both God’s goodness and his wish that it be known by my fellow Christians in Norwich, England’s foremost town ... though some speak of London.
I am, of course, unworthy. I do not have the lettered voice of a celibate cleric, for I am neither; nor do I speak as a teacher of canon law ... I have not studied. And you will find little of the cloisters in my tone, little of the monk, friar or nun, for this is no catechism. But find here, if you dare read, an honest telling of my life and the meeting which changed its course.
And though unqualified, I am ready to write; quite ready ... I have here the tools. I have a desk where I now sit, my parchment is attached by iron clips; and under my desk, a wooden box holding quills and ink.
I will brew ink from crushed oak galls and rain water, aged with an iron nail. Sister Lucy taught me this. She knows a great deal about ink, and she will visit me here in my cell. She will be my spiritual director, straightening me; she says this must be so.
‘I shall be your straightener’ she says. ‘To save you from crooked ways.’
‘I do not plan on crooked ways, Sister Lucy.’
‘No one does,’ she replies. ‘No one plans them; but all find them. They arise unbidden and quite unnoticed.’
‘Then you must notice them for me!’ I say gaily.
‘And you will scream in this place, Julian.’
She says this, though the words seem strange; they make no sense.
‘I am too happy to scream, Sister Lucy. Why would I ever wish to scream?’
She does not know me. And my writing ink sits ready, in a sea shell I found at the harbour, where my father took me often. Daily it reminds me of him, dry from sea slime, now fixed to the desk.
And my goose-quill pen, the gift of the vicar, Mr Curtgate, who worries too much.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ he says.
‘I am most sure, Mr Curtgate. God has made it very clear.’
‘You seem certain of God’s voice.’
‘Is that a sin?’
‘Not a sin, no ... though sometimes mistaken.’
I am amused by his fears; they make me chuckle. And I have three such quills, as well as a knife, for sharpening and to scrape mistakes away.
The parchment which carries these words is scraped animal skin, dried, stretched and polished with pumice to remove the fur. This was my father’s trade, the tannery. He said Norwich makes the finest parchment – goat, sheep or cow ... and I like it that even now, I touch the animal as I write, for planets, elements, plants and creatures - they work in their natures to the benefit of us all, and I bless them now as my quill scratches, for they hold my words and make Norwich famous with their fine wool. And has not wool paid for a church in every village in Norfolk? Yes, God bless our sheep!
‘Norwich is best,’ my father would say and truly, I was born into a busy city, the centre of life. The world comes knocking on our door here!
‘You come from the commerce class,’ he would say on our harbour walks, ‘More closely tied to the Low Countries than London, a boasting city we need not!’ And I am proud to be of commerce class, though for parchment, vellum from calf is better, I know this ... but I do not have vellum and nor do I have my father. He fades a little in my memory; I do not see him so clear now, and his voice is gone, though I wish him here. But I make straight lines across the page, with a straight wood; for my hand wanders without lines.
And the parchment is given by Mr Strokelady, who you will meet in a while. It is a gift I accept, despite events.
‘I hear parchment is what you most desire, Beatrix,’ he says. ‘And so I will provide it. I care for you, you see?’
It is what I desire; but I do not desire it from him; truly, I wish nothing from him. He has not spoken of the past, or of things done; he makes no mention of them, as if they disappear with time; as if those things were never done ... as if I invent them.
But they were done, there is no invention; and there is nothing resolved with Mr Strokelady. Yet without coinage of my own for the parchment, I accept the gift ... or how can I write?
So let me welcome you to my small and perfect three-windowed world. You may come and go; but I am here for life.
And I feel so free.
My three windows ... I look at them now, curtained.
First, there is Sara’s window, through which my food and drink shall arrive and my bucket of waste depart. Second, there is the Visitor’s window, through which I will speak with those who seek counsel. And finally, to my right hand as I sit here, the cross-shaped squint into the church, the Christ window, through which I shall receive the mass and confession.
And I shall not be cold come winter, or only a little; for I shall build peat fires, as was our practice at home. The peat is a gift, though I know not who gave it; and I am told there is the promise of more. Norwich priory needs two hundred thousand bales of peat a year, drawn from the marshlands. I shall not need as much, there are sixty monks in the priory, more cold skin than here ... but I shall need some.
‘The donor asks to remain a secret,’ says Mr Curtgate.
‘All gifts are from God, so there is no secret,’ I declare. ‘It is from God!’
‘As you say, Mistress Julian ...we merely pass the treasure on.’
Parchment is more needful than peat, this is so; but you cannot write in the cold of February without the friendship of fire. I know this from the scriptorium at the abbey. Some nuns, those older in years, scribed with blue fingers; but I cannot do this. Thick fog and chilling winds arrive from the sea, enough to numb our Norwich bones. I will need the fire.
While outside my cell, there is a porch for visitors, safe from the rain; and a chair where they may sit, as they talk through the window. When they come to me, they can rest a little; I hope they find rest.
The bishop says I must build business, that I must counsel rich visitors, and hope for grateful legacies when they die:
‘An anchoress must pray, counsel and make money. Or how else shall she live?’
I say she will live from God’s kindness and he laughs.
But while visitors will come and go, I will remain. No more can I walk the streets, through Needles Row, Spicers Row, Ironmongers Row or my favourite, Apothecaries Row – the kindest smell in Norwich. Nor shall I hear French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German in the market place, fighting for place and price. The bread market, cheese market, flesh market, poultry market, herb market – the grocers, the fruiterers, fishmongers and egglers! How can I say goodbye to these? Yet I do ... and nor will I gaze, and here I sadden again, upon the wintry cathedral skies or swaying trees of summer’s dawn. Visitors may come; but I must stay.
Though I do not escape the world, as some suggest. They call such walling in an escape.
‘You seek escape from the world – but why? To avoid another marriage?! Was your first marriage so bad you must place walls between yourself and another?’
But I do not come here to escape the world; I come here to sit in its flow, like a rock in a stream, steady and anchored ... an anchoress. We must all make well of the prison life gives us.
But I will need a fire.
All is quiet in the city. Darkness has fallen, and I hear the dark ... it is somehow a sound. No one shouts at the apprentices ... the carts, the cursing and the selling have ceased. Norwich, my dear city, like a tired carpenter, lies at rest, beyond my three windows.
And I start to write and I start with my walling in.
I will write of this first - though where I will end, I cannot tell. Who knows beyond this day? ‘Have anxious thoughts about nothing,’ says St Paul - though anxious thoughts arise, despite his command.
Will my funds be sufficient? Will I be maddened by this enclosure, as some suggest? Will I miss the sun and the moon, now denied me?
I do not know ... but I will write from my tomb, knowing that Christ rose from his. And I will write things from here that I could not write beyond it; for I am secure in my hiding, when outside, no one is secure and no one free from judging eyes.
‘I can still see you,’ my mother would say when I was a child; I remember this. She stood elsewhere in the house, but said ‘I can still see you.’ And for many years I believed her. But she cannot see me now, sealed in by stone and mortar. And if you read these words you will, in time, know why I chose this grave. And perhaps, with time’s passing, I too will better know.
I have not been hasty; neither will I be.
I have waited some weeks before starting to write; the ink sitting calm and the quills quite clean. I have wished to pray, to be safe, and to listen to Mr Curtgate through the squint. I learn structure from his sermons, more than goodness. This I have found. I learn how to explain a theme, rather than news of the goodness of God. It is the ‘how’ more than the delight which I discover in his preaching ... but this is gift. I do not need lessons in delight for I have had my fill.
And so now I begin, I learn to write by writing. And like a foal testing its legs, I use my own words. I no longer wish to copy the monks’ Latin writings - other people’s fine words in a language I do not know. I wish for my own words to speak of our courteous Lord and I will write sometimes ... I will not write always. I will not become a slave to this work ... but sometimes.
And I know people anger. Not all are pleased at my walling in, when truly I wish for their good thoughts. I do not desire their offence, but cannot help it. And the day itself, the day of the walling, was both terror and a joy, Bishop Henry standing outside my cell, reciting funeral words in the chill March air.
And I will tell you of it; and tell you of him. But even as my mother asked why, so might you.
‘How come you choose this path, Beatrix – or rather, this end? For that is what it is. How come you choose burial at the age of thirty?’
Strong words, I hear them still.
So let me speak a little of my story; of the path that led me to this cell. Not each step was happy; and some were great pain to my feet ... though maybe each step was love.
I believe I forgive my past for not being more kind.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published August 2018
Size: 5 x 8 inches