Julian of Norwich in the Fifteenth Century: The Material Record, Maternal Devotion, and London, Westminster Cathedral Treasury MS4

By Larsen, Vickie | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Julian of Norwich in the Fifteenth Century: The Material Record, Maternal Devotion, and London, Westminster Cathedral Treasury MS4


Larsen, Vickie, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The relationship between reader and book has long shaped Western culture's imagination of what it means to be a "self." In a literate society, how we read--why we read--and what we think we are doing to ourselves in the process informs our notions of an "I" that is itself a kind of text, itself both object and subject of our reading and reflection. (1)

Jennifer Bryan compels us here to observe reading as a complex cognitive, emotional, and political practice, an event that is both personal and cultural. (2) She places the "relationship" between a reader and a book at the origins of Western humanism in that human beings define themselves as individuals, selves (as opposed to collectives, other types of beings, or objects), through their relationships with books. The artifacts of medieval reading that the Early Book Society examines, in conversations, conference panels, and here in JEBS, testify to the specific acts of reading through which those reading selves were formed or reformed. Our materially grounded work relies upon a notion of reading as a historically and culturally situated technology, a thick product of "taste," and a deeply personal act; and we discover again and again that all readers--the literary, the professional, the uncritical, the romantic, the aroused--have their pieties, those desires through which the self comes to be and know itself. The readers imagined by the manuscript I examine here read to improve themselves, to redirect their attention, to rearrange their desires, and to reshape themselves in relation to a divine being they took quite seriously, not just as a creative force in its own right, but as a locus for personal transformation and self-knowledge. They use this book, Westminster Cathedral Treasury MS 4, within a network of relationships between readers, ideas, emotions, biological experiences, and objects to reorganize their "selves," a product they clearly see as malleable and intensely connected to their embodied life experiences.

By all accounts, pious readers propped up the book trades in both manuscript and print during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and their spiritual ambitions reshaped some of the products of the fourteenth-century literary "renaissance." (3) Here I focus on one of those products: the only medieval manuscript of Julian of Norwich's long text, A Revelation of Love, an extremely abridged fifteenth-century version of her book describing a series of visions she experienced during a serious illness in 1373. The text in Westminster Cathedral Treasury MS 4 has probably never been read in a medieval-literature classroom, and most scholars of Julian disregard it as an incomplete variant. (4) Nonetheless, within the history of reading, the Westminster text bears witness to the methodology some of Julian's readers used, the cognitive and emotional exercises their devotional reading facilitated, and A Revelations role in the formation of the late-medieval literate subject.

The Westminster version of Julian's text implicates gender in these late-medieval devotional readers' efforts to organize their interior selves. This version of Julian's text was compiled for readers who were compelled to read as women, either because they were women, or because reading as a woman was in itself a rewarding devotional practice. While I am not prepared here to posit a medieval theory of gendered interiority or even gendered spiritual ambition, I do claim maternity as the central hermeneutic that allows the Westminster version of Julian's text to harness gendered experiences and attachments and redirect them toward devotional ends. While the experience offered to the reader by Julian's full text is complex and nuanced, and the female body certainly abounds in the text, the Westminster variant places this body at its very center and suggests that medieval readers, like recent psychoanalytic critics of Julian's text, saw the reproductive female body as a space wherein psychodevotional work could reorganize the self. …

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