13 May: Julian of Norwich



I cool my heels in a dank, dark cell
Where half-light becomes my element
God’s plenty in motes, with the music of the bell
A love feast of the penitent.

From: ‘Anchorite at the Gate of Heaven’ by Rosemarie Rowley (b 1942)

I lived near Norwich for several years and worked in the city, which I grew to love. It’s chock full of wonderful historic houses and fifty three mediaeval church buildings, more than any other city north of the Alps. My Grandmother’s ancestors came from North Norfolk and I was fascinated to discover that one of them had been sworn in as an officer of the watch in St Stephen’s parish Norwich in the late 1400s. I like to think that he was a Dogberry sort of character…

In the church of St Julian in Norwich is the shrine of Julian of Norwich – they are not the same person. St Julian was a legendary medieval nobleman who, out hunting one day, spared the life of a deer which then spoke to him and predicted that he would kill his parents. After this happened by accident; St Julian established a riverside inn for travellers, and a hospital for the poor. The church in Norwich on the banks of the River Wensum is dedicated to him.

On the other hand the Lady Julian or Mother Julian as she is sometimes known was definitely real and a fascinating character. She was born about 1342, so is roughly contemporary with Chaucer. We do not know whether she was a nun but we do know she became an anchoress – a person who tied themselves to a particular place – often physically as well as spiritually. There is a suggestion that the illness which lead to her devoting her life to contemplation, may have paralysed her from the waist down. She is the only mystic usually portrayed with her cat - so I warmed to her immediately! Her cell was under St Julian’s Church and so that is the name she became known by. It’s her feast day today.


Mother Julian wrote the earliest book in the English language known to be by a woman – ‘Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love’. She probably wrote it in the 1390s and it was mentioned in the Amherst Manuscript of 1413 when Mother Julian was said to be still alive. At a time when Europe was being decimated by the plague know as Black Death, to write of a loving rather than a vengeful God was rather remarkable, and for a woman to write anything of such quality and intellectual rigour at the time was astonishing.

Julian's theology was radical then and is still radical now. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father; her views have greatly influenced feminist theology and she is now regarded as one of England’s most important mystics.

I’m sure her diet was slight but nourishing – unlike poor old St Guthlac she lived to be quite old, and I think we need another regional speciality but perhaps something rather less ascetic than poor Guthlac’s barley bread.

This traditional Norfolk pie, according to my copy of ‘A Cooks Tours of Britain’ by Michael Smith, was made on the 14th May at the beginning of what was a traditional holiday for maid servants. It could then be eaten cold by the family whilst the maids were off gallivanting. Lady Julian had two maids herself - Alice and Sara, maybe one of them made her this pie.

A Small Pigeon Pie (not a pie of small pigeons)

2 or 3 pigeons skinned
250g braising steak
1 pigs trotter
50g butter
500g good beef or game stock
250g rough puff pastry
1 onion

Brown the pigeons and beef in the butter. Take out and brown the onion. Place in a small casserole with the stock and the pig’s trotter and simmer for 1½ hours. Cool, then take the pigeon meat off the bone. Put all the meat in a pie dish and put a pie funnel in the middle. Season well. Now lay on the pastry – make a little slit for the funnel first. Crimp the edges and then pour the beefy stock into the pie through the top of the funnel.

I have only recently realized that this is what a pie funnel is for…. how silly I am, so an upturned egg cup (my former way of keeping the pastry up in the middle of a pie) would not work here! Egg your pastry and bake at 200c for about half an hour. Now cool and eat cold with pickles. I think this would make a great breakfast dish – but I am a bit of a heathen as far as these things are concerned. My husband loved this and demands another one - hot this time.

"All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."

The Blessed Julian of Norwich (c1343- c1413)

6 comments:

A Trifle Rushed said...

What an inspirational woman, it's wonderful that her writing is still influencing theology today. Jude x

Gerry Snape said...

I love her quote...all will be well etc. It's one of my favourites.I had pidgeon breast in the bar in Donaghadee yesterday...so almost keeping up with you! great post.

thecatalanway said...

Lovely post about two interesting Julians. Is the nobleman the one who has a painting in the woods with the stag appearing like a messenger of god? One of Elizabeth Goudges books is about this. I love her books - is that something else we have in common? And Julian Of Norwich - so often I use her All Shall Be Well prayer. Lovely to learn more about her. Where did you get your pidgeons by the way? K xx

Liz said...

Thank you all. I was really taken with Mother Julian. Muttering 'all shall be well etc' under one's breath at moments of stress can be very helpful! The pie was really good - the beef becomes deliciously gamey. The pigeons came from Kinglsley Village butchers on the A30 ( they are very good for game unlike most of the rest of of Cornwall) I became addicted to Elizabeth Goudge as a teenager, she was a favourite of my Grandmother - I think the reference might be in 'The Herb of Grace' which is my favourite. I'll check it out.

girls who like to gorge said...

FANTASTIC POST! We went to univeristy in Norwich and absolutely love it! I love your foody take on the 14th May and the beautiful city x

Choclette said...

Oh goodness I always learn something from reading your posts. Mother Julian sounds very interesting and as the first woman to publish should be better known than she is. I've never been to Norwich - good to know we have some interesting old towns. I was amazed at how grand York was when I went there last month. Not used to lots of grand town buildings down here.