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translating Julian of Norwich

February 16, 2013

The community of blogging, of reading, is just wonderful.  For example, earlier in this year, my co-blogger Suzanne posted on “Women doing stuff” in which she mentioned how “Janet Soskice has written … The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language.”  Re-reading Soskice helped me recall the writings of Julian of Norwich.  And recently, as my very limited spare time allows, I’ve been going to the library, looking at the wonderful works of Julia Bolton Holloway, one of the world’s leading experts on Julian of Norwich.

Holloway, co-writing with Joan Bechtold, and Constance S. Wright, has produced “Equally in God’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages … a volume of essays [by women and men] presenting the argument that with the coming of the universities women were excluded, in an apartheid of gender, from education and power.”  And, fortunately, for those with online access but limited libraries or budgets to purchase such works, much of the work is online, here.

And, with Anna Maria Reynolds, Holloway has published, Julian of Norwich’s Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translation.  There’s lots to glean from this substantial volume.  For instance, here’s a page showing pages from this one edition of Showing of Love:


Each of the various extant manuscripts as differently edited and redacted by multiple individuals is given its own translation by Holloway.

Julia Bolton Holloway, then, gives readers a single translation of all of these various manuscripts in much more affordable and accessible book than this larger volume (shown above).  In the smaller paperback version, Holloway “seeks to replicate as far as possible that original glory of Julian’s manuscripts.”  She explains:

Most modern editions and translations transform a manuscript text into something new and strange, like a black-and-white photograph of what once was in reds and blues and with gold leaf upon purple, reducing it from its former glory and memorability into something ordinary and easy to forget….  This translation functions as a platform from which it becomes possible to see the whole while showing the layering of text throughout the many years of Julian’s lifework.

You can find this statement in an online google books format here.  I’m about out of time, but I’d encourage you to read the whole statement VI. On This Composite Edition and Translation to the end of the preface.  What I really appreciate are observations such as “In her writing she [Julian] seeks to reconcile the theologies of [Adam] Easton and [John] Wyclif; today she would seek to reconcile men and women, Jew and Christian, Ireland and England, Rome and Canterbury.  We need her Apocalypse, her Revelation, her Showing of Love more than ever.”

At her websites, Holloway gives us more.  She explains what she herself had been seeking when beginning to find Julian and her Showings; the work of the woman of Norwich was a translation in part, and one from the Hebrew Bible:

I was needing to study Hebrew. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom I was editing for Penguin, had been proficient in Hebrew as a child. At the same time, I was editing the manuscripts of Julian of Norwich in my convent. And I suddenly became aware that often in her texts Julian showed direct knowledge of that language, for instance in not translating * shalom, ‘peace, well-being, in all things’, ‘and all shall be well’, as had Jerome, with Latin recte, or Wyclif, with Middle English ri3t, but with ‘And all manner of thing shall be well’. I then found other instances, which I discuss later in this talk. I came to suspect that she was of Jewish ancestry but I could not go to Norwich for many years to investigate whether there were conversi to Christianity who remained in that city after King John had banished all Jews from England in 1290. In 2005, I was finally able to sit in Norwich’s Library with their copy of V.D. Lipman’s The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London: Jewish Historical Society, 1967), in front of me, taking copious notes, particularly on the conversi who remained in England and in Norwich following that expulsion.

Considering Julian of Norwich’s language, Julia Holloway explains her own for the translating:

n translating Julian of Norwich’s Showing of Love in 1991 from the Syon Abbey manuscript owned by Westminster Cathedral and now on loan to Westminster Abbey, her own English words were kept, rather than translating them into our Latinate forms, her ‘oneing’ instead of our ‘uniting’, her ‘noughting’ instead of our ‘negating’, her ‘endlessness’ instead of our ‘eternity’. Somehow the Latin hides their meaning into its foreignness. The English words’ truth, though now so unusual that they seem foreign, are actually closer to what we mean. Also, Julian’s theological concepts can have a very modern ring. Computers, like brains and noughts and crosses games, generally simply ‘one’ and ‘nought’ their way through problems. Julian’s ‘oneing’ is one’s shaping oneself to that of God, ‘noughting’ the opposite of ‘oneing’, as evil, which therefore does not exist. Her ‘endlessness’ is of God, who is all time, but smaller and smaller bits of time, like death, are of ‘noughting’….

Julian thus spent her whole life writing this book. From the age of fifty on she lived as a Solitary, an Anchoress, in an anchorhold at St Julian’s Church, Norwich, probably dressed in the black of a Benedictine nun, for she may have earlier been at Carrow Priory, and she gave counsel to troubled people, like Margery Kempe from Lynn. In all these versions, except the last, Julian gives passages from the Bible in her Middle English, from Isaiah, from Jonah, from the Epistles and much else, but she dare not do so in the 1413 version when to own or use John Wyclif’ s translation of the Bible into English would have caused one to have been burnt at the stake as a Lollard heretic. Strangely she uses neither Jerome’s Latin Vulgate nor Wyclif’s Middle English, the evidence being that she has access to the Hebrew of the Scriptures, likely gained through Cardinal Adam Easton who had taught the Hebrew Scriptures at Oxford and who had translated them into Latin, correcting Jerome’s errors. But she is not an elitist scholar. Her last word in her last version is the Lollard term, one’s ‘even Christian’, one’s neighbour as one’s equal in the eyes of one’s Creator

What is of great interest to me is that Julian of Norwich would translate Hebrew, for herself, when it was so risky. What is of great appreciation to me is that Julia Holloway would translate Julian’s English not into Latinate that might make readers today more comfortable but in a more “foreign” English that is closer to us somehow:

“Somehow the Latin hides their meaning into its foreignness. The English words’ truth, though now so unusual that they seem foreign, are actually closer to what we mean. “

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2013 7:01 pm

    Fascinating! I have been thinking about teaching the Shewings for a few years now; maybe I’ll try this translation out…I’d love to get some reactions from students.

  2. February 17, 2013 8:25 am

    I do hope you’ll consider Holloway’s translation when you teach Julian of Norwich’s Shewings. There much to consider, and I’ve tried to show a little more of what Holloway is after here. Please let us know how it goes and what your students think.


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