Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
By Amy Frykholm
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010
Review by Carl McColman

Stories are important. Spirituality is a field that can easily get lost in the most arcane types of discourse: philosophy, theology, psychology, scholarly prose. Such writing, no matter how well done, always seems to have a quality of abstract otherness that fails to fully engage the reader. By contrast, a heartfelt story: someone’s autobiography, a parable, or even a didactic novel like The Shack, seems to cut through the mental flotsam and jetsam and provide a real, meaningful insight into the sheer humanity of the spiritual life. This, I believe, is why Jesus, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the Celtic saints, not to mention great mystics from Teresa of Avila to Thomas Merton, have always been gifted storytellers. We connect most easily with spirituality through well told tales.

This is the principle at the heart of Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography.

Probably the most important word in the title of this lovely, if imperfect, little book is “contemplative.” Frykholm is not attempting to provide a scholarly consideration of the life of the great fourteenth century mystic we now know as Julian of Norwich; rather, she simply weaves a story around the mysterious, unknown human figure who wrote what is arguably the greatest work of mystical theology in English. We know almost nothing about Julian as a person; indeed, even the name “Julian” is almost certainly not truly hers. She was an anchoress — a consecrated solitary — attached to the church of St. Julian in the bustling port town of Norwich, and that is how she is known to us. Call her “the anchoress of Norwich” or even “anonymous” and it’s about as accurate as calling her Julian.

So what, then, is a contemplative biography? Frykholm has considered what daily life for a pious woman in the fourteenth century might look like, against the backdrop of wars, peasant uprisings, and the bubonic plague. Weaving this together with what little we can glean about Julian’s life from her own writing, Frykholm has created a speculative, imaginal approach to the anchoress’ biography. Scholars and Julian aficionados might want to argue about various elements of Frykholm’s tale; meanwhile, no less a reviewer than Sheila Upjohn has griped about the anachronisms (from canning to tea) that undermine this biography’s verisimilitude. I suppose such problems need to be pointed out, but in doing so the reader risks missing the point behind this book. It is less a work of historical scholarship, and more a simple invitation to befriend the human side of this amazing literary and theological figure.

Julian was the first woman to write a book-length manuscript in the English language. Unlike her near-contemporary Margery Kempe (an illiterate who dictated her autobiography), Julian appears to have written her book herself. She calls herself “unlettered,” but that probably meant she knew no Latin. Frykholm offers some ideas as to how this apparently normal, if fervently devout, woman could come to achieve such a literary milestone. Her writing, of course, was always just an aspect of her all-consuming faith, and Frykholm does a lovely job at envisioning how the experience of writing came to support, and then eventually define, Julian’s experience of reflecting on her mystical encounter with God that occurred during an illness in her youth.

What would it have been like living in a market town in the “calamitous fourteenth century”? How did Julian manage to write, in a society where women didn’t do such things? How would the plague have affected her? What was it like for her to become an anchoress, and how did this momentous decision shape the rest of her life? These are the kinds of questions that Frykholm explores in this engaging book.

If you are like me, and not too bothered by the occasional anachronism or the overall speculative nature of this book, I suspect you will enjoy it for its warm and inviting depiction of Julian, the woman; and such an enjoyment need not negate the fact that this book remains a work of imagination. But if you insist on ferreting out every little historical inaccuracy, perhaps this isn’t the book for you. One final thought on the notion of a contemplative biography: it seems to me that the ultimate purpose of such a work is to inspire prayer and a hunger to read the words of Julian itself. As someone who has been reading Julian for over 25 years now, I’d have to say this book succeeded on both of those counts. For that reason alone, I’d commend this book to anyone who wishes to understand the heart of this particular mystic.

Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
Faith, Doubt and Perseverance
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Ellen N. Duell

    This article about the biography of Julian of Norwich is enlightening and helpful! I have long loved “Julian”, but had become somewhat detached–and to have your comments and recommendation brings me back–or forward–to a part of my contemplative self.

    Some years ago I took a writing workshop with author Madeleine L’Engle, held at Mundelein College on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. We started each session with singing the song about Julian that began “Loud ring the bells of Norwich as the people come and go…”

    Thank you! –Ellen Duell

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    That song is called “Julian of Norwich” and is by Sydney Carter, the English musician who is best known for “Lord of the Dance.” The loveliest version of Carter’s “Julian of Norwich” can be found on this album: Lovely in the Dances: Songs of Sydney Carter.

  • Dan Corl

    Hello Carl!
    Thanks for a wonderful review of this book. I, too, found it leading me back to Julian’s work. Reading Frykholm’s work (which reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s wonderful novel of another Norwich-bred saint, Godric) along with Watson & Jenkins’ wonderful synthetic Middle English text (again) kept me going this summer, when we had record heat for days on end here in Japan.
    I’m also trying to finish The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Fine job!