So today is May 13 — the other possible anniversary date for Julian of Norwich’s showings (the first being May 8). So to commemorate this day, I thought I would highlight editions of Julian’s writings that feature her text based on the old handwritten manuscripts we have of her writing — in other words, Julian in Middle English.
There are several editions of Julian in Middle English available. The first one I ever owned was the Colledge & Walsh edition, published by the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. Called A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, this was a two volume edition (the short and long texts of Julian’s visions bound separately) with extensive annotations. It’s a wonderful book — the editors drew on all of the most important manuscripts to pull together this edition — but, alas, now out of print. Used copies online range in price from about ten dollars to well over $100 — just be sure that you are getting both volumes, as the books should be sold as a set.
If you really want to go whole hog, you can order from Italy the SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo edition of Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translations, edited by Sr. Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P. and Julia Bolton Holloway. This tome features four of the earliest manuscripts of Julian’s text, along with translations of three of them. Included are transcriptions of the British Library (Amherst) Manuscript of Julian’s “short” text (believed to date to the fifteenth century, making it the oldest Julian manuscript in existence); the Westminster Cathedral, Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, and one of two British Library (Sloan) Manuscripts of Julian’s “long” text (all dated to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries). Along with the other manuscript in the British Library (Sloan) collection, these are the oldest copies of Julian’s work that we have, and like all handwritten manuscripts there are variations between them (like the date of the revelations: the Paris manuscript has the “XIIIth” of May, while the Sloan manuscript says the “VIIIth” of May). Furthermore, the Paris manuscript appears to have been edited at some point — the language is more formal and regularized than the Sloan manuscript, and its presentation of Julian’s arguments shine with a bit more clarity and polish. By contrast, the Sloan manuscripts seem to be more faithful to Julian’s own voice, showing more linguistic idiosyncrasies that are consistent with the dialect of East Anglia — including Norwich, where Julian lived. So it is nice to have a book that collects these different manuscripts together. It’s not cheap, though: expect to pay about two hundred Euro for the book itself, plus the shipping costs to get the book (it weighs about seven pounds) to you. If you think you want a copy, contact Julia Bolton Holloway directly.
Thankfully, less expensive editions of Julian’s writings are available, usually in annotated editions designed for students. My favorite would have to be Nicholas Watson’s and Jacqueline Jenkins’ The Writings of Julian of Norwich, published by Penn State, which includes both the short text and the long text (edited from both the Sloan and Paris manuscripts, creating a sort of “hybrid” edition of the long text). Carefully annotated, balanced in its presentation of modern Julian scholarship and textual criticism, and beautifully typeset, this is the edition of Julian I turn to first.
Meanwhile, Denise N. Baker edited the Norton Critical Edition of The Showings of Julian of Norwich, based on the Paris manuscript. This book features essays by several important scholars, including Grace M. Jantzen, Joan M. Nuth, Caroline Walker Bynum and B. A. Windeatt. And if you really want to economize, the TEAMS Middle English series of books from Western Michigan University includes a student edition of The Shewings of Julian of Norwich which is yours for the bargain price of only $10! Edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton, this book is based on the British Library Sloan manuscripts.
Now, I would encourage anyone interested in discovering Julian in her own voice to acquire all three of the student texts listed here — Watkins/Jenkins, essentially a “hybrid” of the Paris/Sloan manuscripts; Baker, based on the Paris manuscript, and Crampton, based on the Sloan. Why does this matter? Because of the textual differences I mentioned above. We should read the Sloan manuscript to get the best sense of Julian’s own voice, while the Paris manuscript offers the most incisive presentation of her theology. A hybrid edition that draws from both manuscripts hopefully preserves what is best in each, which is why the Penn State edition is so useful. Nevertheless, if you want to be thorough, take the time to explore each of these editions. It’s like listening to music in stereo: the distinctions only make it richer.
Some contemplatives and scholars — a notable example being Maggie Ross — often insist that the only way to truly and fully appreciate the wisdom of a mystic like Julian of Norwich would be to read her in her own voice. I’m not quite that much of a purist: I’d rather see someone read Julian in an imperfect modern rendering of her words than not read her at all. But the more I learn about textual criticism, and the more time I spend with Julian in Middle English, the more I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and importance of reading an author like Julian in her original voice. It’s not like you have to learn Sanskrit or Mandarin Chinese! Middle English is actually quite easy to pick up (I’ve found that if I have difficulty with a passage, reading it aloud will often unlock its meaning), and if you have to have a dictionary handy and find yourself reading the text at a snail’s pace, well, so what? Julian is best read in a lectio divina manner anyway. So take the plunge. Get an edition of Julian’s revelations based on one of the old manuscripts, and explore. I am confident you will be richly blessed.