To be taken into account is Julian’s residence in a town, large by medieval standards in England, with a number of institutions of learning. It claimed a noted grammar school. At the great cathedral, the priory gave instruction both to monks and to young men destined for the diocesan clergy. Late fourteenth-century Norfolk still drew scholars from the continent. Scholars from the orders, most of whom lived within a mile or two of one another, held disputations, although these probably were not open to women auditors. In such a place, the quality of the sermons must have been enviable, and an eager listener might well absorb both advanced ideas and the formulations that would most economically express them.
The fact is that it is very difficult to judge confidently the degree to which a listener might become learned in a late medieval milieu. Even the twentieth-century mix of oral and written, authorial and scribal, may become complex. Consider only Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics or a Paris Review interview. Lacan writes that his subsequently published lecture, “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” is inserted “at a point somewhere between writing [l’ecrit] and speech – it will be half-way between the two.” Lacan then footnotes, “The lecture took place on 9 May, 1957, in the Amphitheatre Descartes of the Sorbonne, and the discussion was continued afterwards over drinks.” Evidently he considers the final writing to owe something to this pendant, surely oral, occasion. Weighty and plausible, the evidence that Julian was literate in both Latin and English is not conclusive.
Interest centers upon the statement not only for its bearings upon the issue of the late medieval interplay of orality and literacy but also because this is one of the rare facts Julian offers about herself that does not issue directly from the few hours of the visions, their occasion and context. We know little or nothing of her life with certainty. Even the identification of the book’s author with the anchoress who in the late fourteenth century occupied a cell at St. Julian’s church in Norwich, though secure from reasonable challenge, depends not upon internal evidence but upon a manuscript rubric. Of a neighboring, younger religious seeker, Margery Kempe of Lynn, we know family, Christian and married names, status of father and husband, number of children, business ventures, travel itineraries, and the gist of encounters with many persons, clerical and lay, including Julian herself. Saint Augustine addresses his Confessions — to God, but exposes to incidental audiences a David Copperfieldian abundance: names of mother, father, son, and various friends and associates; education and reading; marriage negotiations, and professional conditions in two cities. Of the English solitary of the generation preceding Julian, Richard Rolle, we have many anecdotes, including how he dropped out of Oxford at the age of eighteen and embarked on his hermit’s career in a garment fashioned from his father’s rainhood and two tunics of his sister, prompting her to cry out, “My brother is mad!”
But Julian models no emblematic anecdote and offers few facts. Least of all self-dramatizing, neither is she forthcoming. Some of the sparse externals – that her mother was present at her bedside and that a child accompanied the priest on his sick call – as well as her defiant sense of her own daring in presuming as a woman to speak up with authority are even pared away in the later version of the Shewings.
Adapted from G.R. Crampton, The Shewings of Julian of Norwich @ 1994
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