A contemplative 'biography' of Julian

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
Amy Frykholm
Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2010
Review by Timothy Jones

It might seem like an impossible task that Amy Frykholm is attempting here: A biography of the reclusive medieval visionary who was famously reserved about calling attention to the details of her life. Wasn’t Julian too focused on pouring out her discoveries about God to help us much with the typical biographical angles?

And Revelations of Divine Love, while full of unfolding insights, indeed has scant, scattered details. Questions surround even the Dame’s very name and its source. And was she a product of a convent? Or a widow and mother who never entered an order? (Following Sister Benedicta Ward in her lecture Julian Reconsidered, I affirm the deepening consensus toward the latter.)

Still, Julian’s own elegant, at times impassioned writing offers a treasury of hints, perhaps more so than many realize: Lady Julian clearly dates her seminal vision of Christ, for example. She speaks pointedly of a “bodily sickness” and being near death. She mentions a priest who tended her, and the presence of her own mother. We know she was 30 years old when visited by her vision of Christ, and that 20 years of reflection led her to take her “Short Text” and expand it to what we know as the “Long Text.” There are intriguing historical traces, too: a handful of English records and legal documents that seem to refer to the inhabitant of the anchor hold at St. Julian’s Church.

And much is known about fourteenth and fifteenth-century existence in England, what Frykholm terms “a rich, lingering material record” of what life was like back then, fascinating raw material that a creative writer could ferret out and sift through to fashion a vividly told life of Julian. (Did you know that the ink Julian used likely was “brewed from crushed oak galls and rainwater, aged with an iron nail?” Or that if Julian and her mother visited the parish’s sick, they would have bathed “sick bodies in vinegar and rosewater, … lanc[ing] the putrid sores and black buboes and then [binding] the wounds with tree resin and the petals of lilies?”)

Frykholm leans hard on Julian’s own writing, of course, mining the littlest bits of everyday details found there. But there is much sanctified envisioning. “All biography,” she admits in the introduction, “requires an empathetic imagination.” Julian herself found a writing voice that allowed her to convey contemplative insights that were strikingly personal, even intimate. Frykholm lets Julian speak in that inimitable, compelling voice, but with addition of a well-researched backdrop that helps an already moving life speak even more powerfully.

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