Julian of Norwich, Theologian. By Denys Turner. Yale University Press. 2011. 262pp. £28.00.


In the last ten years many books have been written about Julian of Norwich, some very scholarly, some at what can best be described as at the popular level, to be purchased with Julian fridge-magnets and tea-towels. See the work of Sarah Sahli on that misappropriation! Happily, Professor Turner's book is not in the latter category. Encouragingly, the reviews on the back cover are diamond-studded and from a specialist elite: Nicholas Watson, Elisabeth Dutton and Bernard McGinn, all praising Turner's study of Julian as theologian as innovative and lucid. One reviewer, a male cleric, even suggests that a view of Julian as theologian had never entered his mind till he encountered Turner's book. Maybe there are no surprises there. In academe memories can be short. Christopher Abbott's study of just such a concept, published by D. S. Brewer in 1999, Julian of Norwich: Autobiography and Theology, clearly did not enter his lists. But overall it looks promising, so we begin with very high hopes.

The contents are categorized as might be expected in a work by a contemporary working theologian – Turner teaches at Yale – part I, ‘Providence and Sin’, part II, ‘Sin and Salvation’. In the preface the author tells us the work is not a comprehensive introduction to the theology of Julian, its nature being too thematic to qualify for that (as the named divisions of the book make clear). What is it then? He says it ‘leaves aside a number of major themes that … loom large … in her theology’. What he attempts, he says, is ‘to situate this book, and Julian's theology, at that hermeneutical point at which, in my experience as a teacher, I find many students’. They are drawn, he says, to Julian's sympathetic mind, attracted by her spirituality, but puzzled by her theology. So is he. This work, Turner states, is his attempt to crystallize his own thinking: he writes to see what he thinks. Inevitably, it is, therefore, to some extent, self-referential.

I do not know what kind of students Professor Turner teaches, but if this study is meant to be of help to them, they must be from a different planet from those I have met, even among those training for ordination. The index barely runs to three pages, perhaps not uncommon with theological works, but unhelpful nonetheless. The layout of the book does not make access to discrete themes and subjects easy. In this it reminds me somewhat of The Archers on Radio 4: tune in anywhere in the storyline and it will seem much the same as anywhere else. Clearly, this is not a study for the uninitiated among us. So, who is the target audience? Professed religious? Other theologians? Possibly. I acknowledge that the study is an important achievement for Turner as a personal spiritual and academic exercise. How much it will communicate and commend itself to those outside a defined and fairly rarified circle is harder to say. I am acquainted with clerics and lay people in Norwich and beyond who regard themselves as lifelong students of Julian's texts and I think they will find little to extend or further illuminate their understanding here. For many of them Julian has always been understood as a theologian, both innovative and within a certain tradition.

Turner makes a valid point in emphasizing that Julian's text was unusual in its time in that it was written for her ‘even cristens’, as she called them, rather than narrowly aimed at professed religious. But was that nomenclature meant to exclude the latter? I think not. Who were her ‘even cristens’ in this context? There is enough evidence in fifteenth-century Norwich to show the permeability of the membrane dividing the lay from the professed religious. Books were being exchanged, borrowed and bequeathed among lay women and their professed sisters. Groups of women were befriending and befriended by solitaries as their wills testify. Therefore I would question the ‘smallness of scale and poverty of theological resources’ of the Julian anchorhold claimed by the author. Rather we should expect a range of possibility in such an international entrepôt. For example, the Benedictine priory which had nurtured Cardinal Adam Easton (fl. 1360s–1397) had in the first decade of the fifteenth century received his bequest of his library. Dispatched from Rome to Norwich in six large barrels, it enriched that foundation's resources.

We recall, too, the anchoress, Lady Emma Stapleton, enclosed at the friary of the Norwich Carmelites in 1420/1, who, by order of the Prior-Provincial, Thomas Netter, was receiving the benefits of the erudition of at least three Carmelite academics, one, Adam Hemblyngton, a theologian of international repute. Emma's father, Sir Miles, had been an executor of Isabella Ufford's bequest of 20 shillings to Julian in 1416. It may be that Julian can be characterized as a ‘demotic theologian’, but such a label and the ones that succeed it in Turner's exploration have a value pertaining to literary analysis rather than assisting comprehension of the overarching spiritual intention of this visionary author. Such definitions can also blind us to the extraordinary cultural milieu from which Julian sprang.