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The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

Things have been quiet here, and this is one of the big reasons why. In addition to the Prayer Book Studies project, I’ve been putting together a talk for Julianfest, the gathering of Associates, Oblates, and Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich. It took place this week and was a thoroughly delightful time—I finally met Fr. John-Julian in the flesh, as well as Marguerite and other long-time readers!

Here is the prepared section of my talk. It doesn’t contain the great questions during it or the musings that occurred as we looked through picture at the end. Before you read through this, you’ll also want to make reference to:

The Handout


The Slides with All of the Pictures

So, once you have those, here’s the talk…

The Liturgical Contexts of Dame Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love

1 Introduction

The Anglican turned Roman Catholic priest Ronald Knox is responsible for the quip that Mysticism begins with “mist” and ends with “schism.” And, indeed, the modern encounter with much medieval mysticism tends to treat it this way. God is a warm fuzzy ball of light—it says so right here in Meister Eckhardt or Mechtild of Madgeburg—or Julian of Norwich. As a result, our writers and thinkers get coopted by a syncretistic New Age mélange that draws on spiritual authorities of the ages in order to say, “I’m ok, you’re ok—or at least you will be once you’re as enlightened as I am…”

What modern people usually forget about the medieval mystics is that the majority of them were liturgical professionals. The order of their days was shaped by the appointed liturgies of the Church—the Mass and the Offices—and, that’s the correct context for understanding them. So, yes, they might write something that sounds like God is a big fuzzy ball of light, but you have to remember that they’ve already said or sung the Creed at least four times by that point in the day, and they’d likely say or sing it another four by the time they went to bed. And thus we read the mystics best when we read them through and in relation to the liturgies that they experienced on an almost constant basis.

2  The liturgical context of the anchoritic experience

2.1 Psalters and, later, books of hours as the premiere devotional materials for well-off Northwest European devotion

When we look at the lay spirituality of medieval England, we’ll notice that it takes part in a broader tradition that we see across northern France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries and, indeed, many of the resources for English spirituality were produced in artistic centers like Paris, Flanders, and Bruges.

Lay spirituality largely followed patterns laid down in monastic practice. As the mendicant movements took off, their forms of spirituality would be passed on to the laity as well, but at the heart of medieval spirituality lay the Psalter. We see psalters being translated in English for the use of the laity as early as the Anglo-Saxon period as part of Alfred’s flowering of English as a literary language, we see monastic style prayer services being adopted in the households of lay nobles in the writings of ælfric in the 10th century.

2.2 Psalters generally

Liturgical psalters, originally the same versions used in monastic liturgies, were either gifted to or created for lay nobles. We see liturgical psalters fusing with devotional psalters by the time we begin heading into the High Middle Ages. Now, a liturgical psalter is more than just a collection of the 150 psalms. Certainly it has those, but it also includes a liturgical calendar, it includes the canticles and hymns used in the full Daily Office, the litany, suffrages to saints, and it also includes the shorter devotional offices that developed following the model of the regular offices.

The earliest of these is the little Office of the Blessed Virgin which developed in Benedictine circles in the mid eighth century and filtered out into broader monastic and lay use by the 10th century. The basic format was copied for a variety of other supplementary offices like the Hours of the Passion, the Hours of the Trinity, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. These had the traditional seven plus one hours (sometimes fewer) for use at specific times of the day. Also dating from the 7th or 8th century is the Office of the Dead which consisted of only three hours in two blocks, Matins and Lauds of the Dead (which were often said together) and a Vespers of the Dead.

There’s a distinction I want to draw your attention to here: there are two kinds of these cut-down Daily Office “things.” There are “Offices”: These contain psalms and other parts and are longer. The “Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and the “Offices of the Dead” are the two most common of these. Then there are “Hours”; these don’t have Psalms and tend to be said either in place of or after a full-on Office which don’t have Psalms and are usually just Opening Versicles, a stanza of a hymn, then a Memorial which is a little liturgical packet composed of an antiphon/versicle & response/collect packet. Usually the materials for the Trinity, The Passion and the Holy Spirit are just Hours with no psalms, but you will also find some books from some periods that will have full-on offices for these devotions as well.

2.3 The Carrow Psalter, Specifically

The book that kicked off this whole topic is a Psalter that lives in the Walters Art Museum which is a mile away from my house in Baltimore. If you’re an expert in all things Julian, you may well recognize the first part of the name. Carrow Abbey is a Benedictine priory in southeast Norwich founded in the year 1145. According to some theories, Julian may have been trained at Carrow Abbey; of course, that’s not Fr. John-Julian’s take on it, and I’m not about to dispute his expertise! However, he does note that Carrow Abbey played a role in Julian’s life as they were had some authority over the parish.

The Carrow Psalter was created in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century. At some point thereafter it arrived at Carrow Abbey from which it gets its name. In all likelihood, it was there during Julian’s lifetime. Could she have seen it? Who knows… It’s a tantalizing thought. We’ll never know for sure, but there’s no doubt that even if she never held or looked at this particular book, she certainly would have seen others just like it. As a result, this is the perfect book from which to get a sense of the kind of liturgical manuscripts Julian would have known and used.

2.3.1  Overview of the Contents

This is a typical liturgical psalter of the period, meaning that it contains not only the psalms but a full complement of the liturgical extras needed to properly pray a high medieval cycle of offices and additional devotions.

It contains an initial section of saints with full-page images, devotions and collects; two cycles of biblical images; a Kalendar; the 150 Psalms; Canticles; the Litany, petitions and collects; the Office of the Dead; the Hours of the Virgin; and the Psalter of the Virgin. So—no Hours of the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, or even the Passion. But, it does have the two cycles of images which are quite interesting. Let’s take a look at some of these sections…

  • Quick look at the Image and prayers for Barnabas and John
  • Biblical Cycle
    • OT focuses exclusively on Adam & Eve, then directly to Christ
    • The handing of the shovel calls to mind the long chapter 51 of the Showings where Julian talks about the lord and the laborer; the Lord dressed in blue with brown hair sitting on the ground and the laborer in his dirty white tunic who is a gardener.
    • I’m not trying to say that there’s any direct connection between this picture and that showing. What I am pointing out is the visual connection and correspondence between Adam the laborer and Christ the Lord who is giving him direction. This picture is certainly representative of the kinds of pictures that would show up in these kinds of books.
    • The life of Christ moves through the Incarnation to the Temptation directly to Holy Week.
    • It’s a little hard to see some of the details so I’m blowing up the Arrest and Flogging, and also the Crucifixion itself.
    • This is definitely a Gothic crucifixion as opposed to an early medieval one, the central difference being that there’s no question that this is a dead Christ on the Cross
    • Then we have the Deposition, the Empty tomb, the Harrowing of Hell, then the moment of resurrection itself with Jesus actively stepping from the tomb.
    • Then we have the resurrection appearances: Thomas touching the side-wound of Christ, The Ascension, Pentecost and then a final image that we should look at more closely
    • Before we get there, here’s a detail of the Harrowing of Hell and the Moment of Resurrection. I want you to notice something here—that is, this is definitely a bloody Christ. Even as a resurrected body, the wounds of Christ are still conspicuously bleeding. And we’ll continue to see this as well.
    • On the left we have Pentecost with the dove descending; on the right we have an image known as the Throne of Grace. This is an image that you will see a lot when looking at depictions of the Trinity in this period and going forward. This is going to be one of the most dominant images of the Trinity. This is an early version as it just shows God the Father holding the Cross containing the crucified Son. In later periods, we’ll see the Spirit as a dove hovering right above the head of the Son—but that’s not in the picture quite yet.
    • The last image from this cycle is the Last Judgement.
    • That’s the end of the first cycle of images. Think about it for a minute: This is an attempt to convey the entire span of the biblical salvation narrative in 34 images. We have Adam—we have Christ. Of these, we have only two full page images where a single folio is devoted to one image—the first is the angel giving Adam the shovel and Eve the distaff; the second is the Last Judgment. This is biblical interpretation at work—this act of selection is a weighing and parsing of what events are the most fundamental, the most significant. Furthermore, the choices about layout and size are interpretive decisions. This framing of the narrative of salvation is going to have an impact on the people who are using these books, looking at these images day after day, week after week, decade after decade.
    • There’s a second cycle that follows the first—this is just scenes from the life of Christ which hit just the high points of Incarnation and Redemption: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, Carrying the Cross with a display of the instruments of the passion, the nails and the crown of thorns. We’ll just glance at these two images.
  • The Calendar
    • Then we’ve got the Calendar—this is a pretty standard one, that is localized to the East Anglia area. Folks like Botulph of Bury, Felix of Durwich, Withburga, Edmund, and Sexburga let us know that this manuscript is written in the general area. No real surprises here; there are a lot of English saints, so May has Dunstan and Aldhelm and Augustine of Canterbury; it’s also got the old Roman and North African saints, so all in all, what you’d expect from a native English calendar.
  • The Psalter
    • The bulk of the manuscript is occupied by the Psalms. This is the start of Psalm 27 (The Lord is my light and my salvation)—as is normal in historiated initials like this one, David indicates his eye referencing the “light” mentioned in the text. The text is clear and well written; verses are indicated by small initials that alternate between blue and gold. The mediant is indicated either by a point or by a punctuation mark that looks like an upside-down semi-colon. There are a few abbreviations but nothing too crazy. Psalms that don’t start with a historiated initial get a large gold one. Clear—easy to pray from.
  • After the initial color and decoration of the beginning of the manuscript, there’s not a whole lot of it in the later section. After the Psalms, the Canticles, Litany, and the Little Offices don’t have a whole lot of decoration to distinguish one from another.
  • The Canticles follow on immediately after the Psalms with no indication of a break. Just like the psalms, you have alternating marginal initials and each new Canticle is indicated by a large gold initial
  • The Litany of Saints
    • After the saints the litany moves into the abs, the pers, and the uts just as ours does
  • The Office of the Dead also contains no clear visual signals that it has started
  • When we finally get to the Little Office of the BVM, we do finally get some splashes of color but instead of the normal sequence of images, we just get some heraldic insignia representing a family who owned the book in the sixteenth century, likely modifying some original images.
  • Finally, the book concludes with the Psalter of the BVM, a Franciscan devotional creation attributed to St. Bonaventure and his circle. With that we do get one more image—and it’s a historiated initial with a man kneeling before the Virgin and child. This is likely the original owner of the manuscript, the guy who commissioned it.
    • This is something I want to comment on: we see this a lot—patrons included in a scene with Christ or Mary or—more normally, Christ and Mary. And, not in this case, but especially in later works, we see them holding the book itself.
    • What these images are getting across is the mentality of the prayer book—the book serves as a vehicle to bring the pray-er into the direct presence of Christ and his mother. This is a powerful and important claim.
  • So—the Carrow Psalter: This is a book that Julian might have seen and it certainly stands as representative of the kind of devotional psalters that were in favor amongst the nobility in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  • Now, we can both compare and contrast that with another Psalter—this is the Burnet Psalter
    • If I had to remark on the differences, it’s that we see the entrance of three big pieces: Indulgenced prayers, Franciscan, and Brigittine affective spirituality.
  • After that we see a shift to a new kind of book which will take these themes and run with them.

2.4 Books of Hours generally

Now—the thing about these early psalters is that they’re big. In form factor, they’re large. The original ones had to be because they had to be big enough for a couple of monks to share them while they were singing in choir. They drop in size as they become books for lay use; so 10 inches by 7 inches is fairly standard for devotional psalters by the end of the thirteenth century but they’re still thick. We see a shift in the fourteenth century in lay spirituality from full Psalters to the Books of Hours which are the direct descendants of the liturgical psalters.

When it comes to contents, the Books of Hours—as the name implies—doubles down on the Little Hours and Little Offices as the primary locus for lay spirituality. Again—there’s lots of variation here, but here are some of the standard contents for a high medieval book of hours:

  • The Little Office of the BVM
  • the Gradual Psalms
  • the Penitential Psalms
  • Litany of the Saints
  • the Office of the Dead
  • additional prayers, devotions, and memorials

They’re certainly spiritually continuous with the Psalters but with three major differences. First, they only have some of the psalms instead of all of them. Second, they’re a lot smaller. These are books for individuals to pray from and with individually. Third, these tend to be highly decorated art objects with full page pictures of biblical events and saints with all manner of additional materials packed into the initials and borders of the pages. These are important devotional objects—but they’re also an important form of medieval bling. They could be hung off the belt in a cloth or a little mesh bag so they could be appreciated and a lady could casually take it out and page through it, showing off the beautiful artistry and fine borders, in a display of not just her piety but also her wealth and good taste. So—in addition to being spiritual texts they were also a form of conspicuous consumption.

2.5 The Loftie Hours, Specifically

Now, there are some really rich and sumptuous Books of Hours. Any owned by Jean, duc de berry qualify for that. I’ll probably sprinkle in some material from the Bedford Hours a little later and show you what that looks like. But not all of these were totally high-end manuscripts. There was some basic stuff too, so I’m going to show you a more simplistic version to start with called the Loftie Hours. This one was written in the mid-fifteenth century—so, probably within 25 years of Julian’s death or so. And it was written in the Netherlands. There are two main ways that we know that. The first is that the calendar is of the Use of Utrecht. The other way we know is because the book is written entirely in Dutch. There are a few reasons I want to show you this one. I’ll give you two right off. First, the artistic style is quite interesting. Second, the particular devotional material pulled together here is very pertinent to our topic and I think connects in some clear and interesting ways to what Julian is up to.

We’re not going to walk through everything here, rather I want us to hit the high points. Let’s start with a look at the contents…

  • Table of Contents
    • Pretty Basic for a Book of Hours
  • Calendar
    • Simple and clear, not nearly as embellished as what we see with others
  • Hours of the Cross
    • The grisaille style: drawn with lamp black then colored in. It’s not because they didn’t have colors, rather, it gives it a certain effect.
    • The first time I saw the deposition in this grisaille style, I immediately thought of Julian’s description of the drying out of the body of Christ
  • Imago Pietatis: The Image of Piety and the Man of Sorrows. We’re going to take this up as a major topic in just a little bit…
  • Last Judgement is in the midst of a set of prayers to Christ
  • The Vernacle—Julian specifically mentions this at the start of the description of the Second Showing in chapter 10
    • She didn’t have to go to Rome or have anyone else go—it’s a very common image in the Books of Hours.
  • The 5 wounds.
  • Office of the Dead
    • This one is pretty tame; there will be some much wilder and more colorful images associated with this later like the 3 living and the 3 dead. (What you are, we were/ What we are, you will be)
    • Reminds me of the Showing of the dead body in Chapter 64. There are many of these: dead bodies with souls coming out of them and also angels and demons fighting over souls that have just left their bodies.

Here’s why this is important. The prayer of the anchoresses, as far as contemporary sources show us, is grounded in the use of the Little Offices as we find them in both the psalters and the Books of Hours. These are their central liturgical texts that they’re praying day in and day out. In the Carrow Psalter the images petered out after the Psalter—with the books of Hours you’re going to see a lot more of images and they are going to be much more thoroughly integrated across the volume and within the text. The images that the anchoresses would have seen in these kinds of books would no doubt have shaped their devotional sense of the life and death of Jesus, specifically, the events of the passion.

2.6 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Ancrene Wisse

One of the surviving sources that tells us about anchorite liturgical practice is the Ancrene Wisse. Written in Middle English sometime between 1200 and 1230 (so—a good 150 years before Julian), the initial chapter of the work lays out the liturgical work of the anchoress.

At the heart of it is the recitation of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, the Office of the Dead, and a set of devotions that draw from the Hours of the Trinity, the Hours of the Passion, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. The Penitential Psalms and the Gradual Psalms are interspersed with liturgical sections meditating on the Passion of Christ giving us, essentially, an Office directed to each of the 5 wounds of Jesus.  The Litany is included as well as the 5 Joys of Mary which is a long and substantial Office in and of itself as well. [See the slides for the layout…]

2.7 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Myroure of Oure Layde

We see a similar—similar, not identical—set up in the Myroure of Oure Layde which was written for the Brigittine Sisters of Sion at Isleworth on the Thames established in 1415, within Julian’s lifetime. John Blunt, the 19th century liturgist and antiquarians who edited this work for the Early English Text Society in 1873, put its composition sometime between 1415 and 1450, most likely in the 1430’s but—again—around the same time period as Julian.

The Sisters of Sion prayed the Hours of the Blessed Virgin together in choir in Latin—but not all of them understood Latin. The Myroure was written to solve that particular problem. It goes line by line through the liturgy, explaining what it means in English and also giving a variety of liturgical and ritual directions complete with reasons why these things are done. Now—many of these are quite fanciful but their purpose is to explain and instruct so that the sisters can pray more profitably.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the Myroure at this point, but I do want to make a few points about it. First, Brigittine spirituality is a major strand of lay English spirituality, especially women’s spirituality. The Fifteen Oes of St. Brigit are going to become huge and they are an important means of affectively meditating on the Passion of Christ and seeing it from the perspective of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Second, note the emphasis on the presence of the vernacular for the understanding of the women. They wanted to make sure that the women understood the Latin texts they were praying so they put it into the vernacular.

I know this seems out of place, but let me jump back to the Loftie Hours for just a moment. When I was looking at this book, thinking about the kinds of images it had, and the liturgies it had, thinking about the fact that it was in Dutch—in the vernacular—I found myself wondering if it belonged to a woman… It really seemed to fit with what we see in the Ancrene Wisse and the Myroure so I approached it from that direction. Well, lo and behold, there’s a partially erased inscription that has been partially reconstructed…

“Hof” means “court” or “courtyard” in Dutch. Who knows if we’ll ever figure out exactly what that means. However—if we’re left free to speculate—might this women live in or by a courtyard because she’s enclosed there? Could this be an anchoress’s book of hours? It’s entirely possible…

3    The Julian Turn

At this point I want to transition into the directly Julian items which means that, I need to make a confession. I am not a Julian scholar. To be totally honest with you, I’ve never read the full Revelations of Divine Love, and the time that I’ve spent with it preparing for this talk is my longest sustained engagement with it ever. Prior to this I’ve read about it and have read a few short excerpts in college and seminary, but not an engagement of this length.

What this does mean, though, is that my encounter with Julian is thoroughly framed by this liturgical background. I’m only coming at it from the lay liturgical perspective. As a result, the major themes that I see coming out of Julian are very much in coherence with the main body of devotional materials I find in the books: A strong emphasis on the Passion of Christ and the way that is bound up with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The consistent emphasis on the Trinity. Things like the Hours of the Trinity and the Office of the Trinity really emphasize devotionally what we’re used to encountering doctrinally. The affective encounter with the Trinity is different from just thinking theological thoughts about it. The Presence and language around the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity that does not get left out in Medieval devotion. We’re kinda scared to talk about the Spirit too much now—I mean, we’re good Episcopalians, why would we ever talk about the Spirit? People who do that are weird, aren’t they?! And also intercession and intercessors and how those fit into the divine economy.

So the way I’d like to proceed is to just start throwing some pictures up here. I’ve got observations on some of them, I invite you to make observations and we’ll keep it fairly free-flowing…

[At this point, this is exactly what we did—looking through a set of images and commenting about them. Broadly speaking, the main topics we covered were the Imago Pietatis and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, Julian’s understanding of intercessors and ways that images in the Books of Hours communicate this concept, images of and devotion to the Wound of Christ and how that connects to Julian’s understanding of the Motherhood of Christ, and—finally—a discussion of the 3 showings of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Julian and how these are part of standard representations of the BVM in the Book of Hours tradition.]