Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology

Article excerpt

Christopher Abbott, Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology, Studies in Medieval Mysticism 2 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999). xiv + 197 pp. ISBN 0-85991-548-4. L35.00.

The subtitle of Christopher Abbott's book, Autobiography and Theology, initially perplexed me. I was puzzled by the generic designation of autobiography since we learn so little about Julian of Norwich's life from her Revelation. Moreover, the dual focus on personal experience and abstract analysis it implied seemed to promise a bifurcated study. As I began reading, though, my apprehensions were immediately allayed, for Abbott persuasively demonstrates that Julian's theology depends on her autobiography for its genesis, its rhetorical expression, and its central theme.

In chapter 1 Abbott addresses the question of genre, acknowledging that the Long Text of the Revelation, on which he concentrates, is sui generis, but comparing it to Augustine's Confessions. Like the Bishop of Hippo, the anchoress of Norwich constructs and represents her theology in terms of personal experiences. Abbott articulates the problem central to his study: `an anxiety about autobiography', that is, `an anxiety about the value attachable to personal experience within the context of late medieval Catholicism' (p. 45). As he argues in the subsequent chapters, Julian resolves this anxiety through her realization of an incarnational theology which unites her to Christ and her fellow Christians and authorizes her to speak of her experiences as a paradigm for all who will be saved.

In chapter 2 Abbott presents an illuminating reading of the first ten showings that traces Julian's progress both experientially and rhetorically from a self-centred affective piety to a recognition of the Church as a mystical rather than hierarchical community. …

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