Julian of Norwich: Essentialist and Feminist?
Presented at the Society for Feminist Studies Open Panel, Modern Language Association Annual Convention, December 29, 1998
ByDr. Thomas L. Long, Associate Professor of English
Thomas Nelson Community College, Hampton, VA
(Note: The MLA program omits a crucial punctuation mark at the end of my paper's title, namely a question mark. In keeping with this paper's tentative exploration of the topic it might not be redundant, in fact, to write "Essentialist? Feminist?")
The received texts of late medieval vernacular spirituality often serve as a screen on which nineteenth and twentieth-century readers project their own interests. Modern audiences of Julian of Norwich's Shewings or Revelations, available in a handful of manuscripts in an early short version and a later long version that recount her near-death visions in 1373 and subsequent theologizing upon those visions, have read these texts variously as the flowering of High Medieval affective spirituality or a link of continuity with Anglo-Saxon mysticism or a precursor to English Protestantism or a precursor to Baroque Catholic mysticism or a proto-modernist theodicy. Ritamary Bradley points out, for instance, that Julian's text has even influenced such diverse modern literary writers as T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Annie Dillard, and Mary Gordon (214-15).
More recently, the flowering of postmodern feminist criticism and feminist theology in the past two decades has claimed Julian of Norwich as a proto-feminist. For example, Frances Beer's 1992 study, Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages, proposes that
Julian most dramatically reveals her femaleness in her understanding of the motherhood of God . . . Julian explains that the Trinity actually includes a female component; as well as being the Son, Jesus is our Mother, who feeds and nurtures us, and looks after us during our lifetime . . . Are these sorts of 'female' observations the result of 'nature' or 'nurture', of biology or social conditioning? Impossible (as always) to say with finality. . . . [T]he fact that Julian may have been brought up to equate womanliness and motherhood with gentleness, and may herself have had a particularly close bond with her own mother, cannot in itself have given rise to her understanding of Jesus as Mother, which was (and still is) in direct contradiction to the orthodox view of the Trinity. (7-8)
As appealing as this reading might be for a contemporary feminist spirituality, it is both simplistic and anachronistic. Caroline Walker Bynum and Ritamary Bradley have fleshed out in detail the earlier observations of André Cabassut and Paul Molinaro that Julian's trope of "Jesus as Mother" is a widely attested figure in Judaeo-Christian spirituality with such varied nuances that it does not per se signify an egalitarian attitude toward "Woman" or women. Placing Julian of Norwich's deployment of the trope in a tradition derived from Anselm, Bynum points out that this tradition trades on three stereotypes of the female or mother--pregnant and sacrificial, loving and tender, nurturing (Jesus as Mother 131)--and that these terms are most often used by men to talk about themselves. Furthermore, she cautions that the trope of God's motherhood, "Too long neglected or even repressed by editors and translators . . . is perhaps now in danger of receiving more emphasis than it deserves" (168).
Claiming Julian's Shewings as proto-feminist runs other risks as well, especially the danger of anachronizing and essentializing "Feminism." This difficulty is apparent in Gerda Lerner's 1993 The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, which claims for Julian the proposition of an androgynous God and a revised role for women in salvation history (90-91). Lerner defines "feminist consciousness" as:
[T]he awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group; that they have suffered wrongs as a group; that their condition of subordination is not natural, but is societally determined; that they must join with other women to remedy these wrongs; and finally, that they must and can provide an alternate vision of societal organization in which women as well as men will enjoy autonomy and self-determination.(14)
While I do not argue much with Lerner's definition as applied to modern post-Enlightenment feminisms, it runs into trouble when applying such modern terms as "subordinate group," "subordination," "autonomy," and "self-determination" to medieval subjectivities, particularly those formed around Catholic spiritual disciplines in which subordination and the surrendering of autonomy were explicit goals: "In God's will is our peace," Dante observed.
Situating late medieval "womanist" vernacular spirituality within our own feminist narrative requires further calibration. Barbara Newman's recent From Virile Woman to WomanChrist suggests the existence of two feminist models that while opposed in theory are often combined in practice, the unisex ideal and the Goddess ideal:
The ancient unisex ideal, given new vigor by the Enlightenment and the politics of classic liberalism, still provides a foundation . . . for feminist thought and polity. Its byword is "equality"--the equality of souls before God or, in a secular framework, of rights before the law. The Goddess ideal, with its strong tinge of romanticism, is a religious version of so-called "difference feminism" and remains alive and well among Wiccans and feminists. It claims for women not mere equality, much less identity, with the problematic male norm, but a set of alternative and ostensibly superior values. (3)
Newman suggest that the second typifies sporadic and experimental practices and theories maintaining "the possiblity that women, qua women, could practice some form of the imitatio Christi with specifically feminine inflections and thereby attain a particularly exalted status in the realm of the spirit" (3). Newman makes special claims for Julian of Norwich and a handful of other woman mystics not on the basis of feminine tropes for the divine but on their universalist soteriologies, that is their tendency to propose that most--if not all--will be saved, typified in Julian's often quoted, "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Newman is careful to point out, moreover, that "some readers may be nervously wondering if I have embraced a sentimental and essentialist version of female piety. I must state emphatically, therefore, that most religious women whose lives are known to us did not question God's right to punish. . . . We are dealing with a very limited and extraordinary group of writers" (134). As Newman suggests medieval women's concepts of themselves as women and as human in relation to the divine is necessary in order to triangulate their womanist ideologies and commitments.
To my mind a more fruitful exploration of this question, therefore, hangs on two specializations of Christian theology, the first known as "Christian anthropology," that is the discourses about nature, grace, and the interrelationships of the divine and the human, along with soteriology, discourses about salvation. For Julian of Norwich the concept of woman rests in the context of the concept of humans in relationship to the divine and only a fuller understanding of her anthropology and soteriology can begin to contextualize her womanist discourse.
Reliably defining concepts of gender or sexuality in any culture is notoriously problematic and no more so than in religious texts of the late Middle Ages. As Stephen F. Kruger reminds us in the article "Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories," medievalist scholars tend to compose a monolithically Catholic medieval society that occludes Islam and Judaism while feminist scholars tend to isolate gender, which is always already imbricated with other concepts like race, social class, and religion. Furthermore, attempting to view a Christian anthropology "from above" as a reliable expression of how medieval people--women in particular--negotiated complex power relations is similarly problematic. Nonetheless, I want to suggest that Sister Prudence Allen's encyclopedic study in the history of philosophy, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.-A.D. 1250, offers a set of analytical tools by which to situate a mystical theologian like Julian of Norwich, whose longer text of the Shewings was the product of two decades of spiritual reflection and, as numerous scholars have proposed, sophisticated study of Augustinian Neo-Platonic anthropology and soteriology. Given the time limits of this paper, I can only sketch what this analysis might look like and I rely on a synthesis of Allen's study of the concept of woman with summaries of Joan M. Nuth's and Denise Nowakowski Baker's studies of Julian's theology rather than my own close reading of Shewings.
Allen structures her study by composing a four-category matrix comparing philosophical concepts of woman. The four categories derive from four questions: Generation (What are the respective functions of mothering and fathering in generation?); Opposites (In what way are woman and man opposite?); Wisdom (Do women and men relate to wisdom in the same or in different ways?); and Virtue (Do women and men have the same or different virtues?). Employing this matrix Allen arrives at the conclusion that Western philosophers have derived a limited set of five theories of sex identity: Sex Unity (the unisex theory that men and women are equal and not essentially different); derived from it, Sex Neutrality (the theory that differences between men and women are not important); Sex Polarity (the theory that men and women are essentially different and that men are superior); derived from it, Reverse Sex Polarity (the theory that women are superior to men); and Sex Complementarity (the theory that men and women are essentially different but equal) (2-3).
Allen composes a narrative in which theories of sex unity and sex complementarity struggle against theories of sex polarity, which eventually comes to dominate in the late medieval adoption of Aristotelianism, with the concurrent fragmentation of the university curriculum, the dominance of Galenic over Hippocratic ideas of human reproduction among faculties of medicine, the exclusion of women from the university, and the decline of double monasteries of men and women as centers of learning. (I told you it was an encyclopedic study!)
Allen characterizes Augustine as "caught between three different theories of sex identity" (218). Augustine characterized men and women in the world and in temporal existence as polar opposities, but maintained a sex-unity concept of them insofar as they were spiritual beings oriented toward heaven and a sex-complementary concept for the state of the resurrected body in heaven. Allen suggests that Augustine's Neo-Platonism inclined him toward a sex-unity theory while his insistence on the corporeal reality of the resurrection grounded his notions of sex-complementarity. Furthermore, she notes that Augustine's explicit rejection of any feminine nature to God was likely based on his polemical need to distinguish Christianity's immaterial God from paganism's material and immanent gods, Christianity's monotheism from paganism's polytheism (218-22). Finally, Allen finds remarkable Augustine's representation of his mother Monica as student and teacher of wisdom in De Ordine and De Beata Vita, while noting that this priviledging of Monica comes at a price to her female identity: "The female philosopher, when exercising her hightest reason, led others to be mindful of her sex, or to think of her as a man. In this revealing description we see that the sex complementarity that might have been expected from a union of philosophy and self-knowledge, in the existential sense of the term, slides into sex unity. The differentiation between the sexes disappears and only a neutralized masculinity remains" (229).
Both Denise Nowakowski Baker and Joan M. Nuth gloss Julian's Augustinianism and "post-Augustinianism" (if I may). Baker proposes that "Julian of Norwich's characterization of Jesus as Mother takes advantage of the medieval ambivalence derived from the discrepancy between Augustine's literal and figurative constructions of woman. . . [B]y representing Jesus as Mother, Julian reconceives the Augustinian imago Dei. In the act of individual creation, Jesus the Mother unites the imago Dei with a material body. . . Using the Middle English terms substance and sensualite, Julian insists that both parts of the soul are integral to it" (128-9). In Baker's reading of Julian:
[H]uman persons, whether female or male, are created by both God the Father and Jesus the Mother as a union of body and soul incorporating qualities associated with both sexes. In rejecting the Augustinian model that attributes the imago Dei to the masculine reason alone, Julian cautions about the dangers of reiterating the traditional identification of woman exclusively with the body. (166)
Moreover, Baker associates Julian's anthropology with her universalist soteriology in which divine qualities of protection and nurturing are preeminent.
Joan M. Nuth characterizes Julian's anthropology as ambiguous and difficult to understand. However, she reduces its "central theme" as the Augustinian (and Neo-Platonic) notion that the human soul is restless and will find no rest until it rests in God. Nuth summarizes Julian's theology in this way:
The substance of the human soul of Christ, the created reality most like the Logos, the one true image of God, was the highest being created before time and eternal joined to the Logos. The substance of all human souls was created at the same time and made one with the substance of Christ's human soul, thereby eternally united with God. The sensuality of human souls appears only in time as their bodies gradually develop from the seminal reasons. In the human being, the same soul, whose substance is eternally united to God, becomes related to corporeal nature, but the unity between substance and sensuality is a fragile one, incomplete, partial. Full unity between human substance and sensuality was not achieved until the substance of Christ's soul united itself to a human body in time. Thus the incarnation, Gods work of mercy in time, completes human nature by bringing sensuality into complete union with the soul's substance. (111)
Like Baker, Nuth relates Julian's Christian anthropology with her soteriology, although Nuth is not inclined to characterize Julian's as a doctrine of universal salvation, at least not technically.
Ringing changes on Augustinian anthropology and soteriology, Julian of Norwich appropriated for women a substantial, not simply a figurative, place in the spiritual economy of medieval Christianity. Elizabeth Robertson has asserted that prevalent medieval medical concepts of women (as excessively moist) conditioned their religious subjectivities, arguing that in her representations of body fluids "Julian, rather than accepting male views of women, ultimately subverts them, and that rather than being an essentialist herself, she takes an 'essentialist' stance only as a strategy, in an Irigarayan sense: she mocks male views by mimicking and hyperbolizing them, and undoes them by overdoing them" (150). However, by adopting medieval medical theories as normative, Robertson's reading occludes Julian's insistent Christian anthropology in which substance and sensualite are joined in Christ and in humans, to the extent that "male" and "female" are themselves tropes of all humans while at the same time categories that absorb different material conditions. As Bynum observes:
Medieval men and women looked at and used gender-related notions very differently. Male writers saw the genders as dichotomous. . . Women writers used imagery more fluidly. Personal and social characteristics were more often shared by the two genders in women's writings. The female was a less marked category; it was more often simply a symbol of an almost genderless self. (Fragmentation and Redemption 175)
Essentialist? Feminist? Perhaps neither; perhaps the wrong questions to begin with if we use the discourses of Julian of Norwich's Christian anthropology and soteriology. Moreover, using Allen's analysis of medieval concepts of woman, Julian's Shewings seems to occupy a liminal space among sex-unity, sex-polarity, and sex-complementarity theories. As Felicity Riddy suggests, "Through these shifting subjectivities she is able to maintain . . . quite different views of what it means to be feminine. On the one hand she accepts . . . the clerical definition of the unlettered woman as weak and marginal. Nevertheless at the same time she has an utter confidence in her own gender that presumable derives from her experience of women's collective lives" (116).
Adapting an Augustinian anthropology, Julian restored the female body of the wise woman from its erasure in Augustinian sex-neutrality. What is irreducible, therefore, in Julian of Norwich's Shewings are the traces of that authorized voice, insistent upon its authenticity against the canons of the male-dominated religious establishment, the besouled body from her cell empowering other more public women women like the vexed and vexing Margery Kempe.
Allen, R.S.M., Sister Prudence. The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.-A.D. 1250. Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1985.
Baker, Denise Nowakowski. Julian of Norwich's Showings: From Vision to Book. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.
Beer, Frances F. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Rochester, NY: Boydell P, 1992.
Bradley, Ritamary. "Julian of Norwich: Writer and Mystic." An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe. Paul E. Szarmach, ed. Albany: SUNY P, 1984. 195-216.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone, 1992.
---. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.
Kruger, Steven F. "Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories." Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, eds. Medieval Cultures. Volume 11. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 158-79.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1995.
Nuth, Joan M. Wisdom's Daughter: The Theology of Julian of Norwich. New York: Crossroad, 1991.
Riddy, Felicity. "'Women Talking About the Things of God': A Late Medieval Sub-culture." Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. 2nd ed. Carol M. Meale, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993, 1996. 104-27.
Robertson, Elizabeth. "Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich's Showings." Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, eds. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1993. 142-67.
Copyright 1998 © Thomas L. Long
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