Friday, May 26, 2006

Medieval mystics with musical connections


Today we literally follow an overgrown path down a narrow alley in search of a remarkable woman. She was the author of, what is believed to be, the first book written by a woman in the English language, and a thinker who is now venerated alongside such great medieval mystics as Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Antwerp.

After years of blight following severe war damage the area around St Julian's Alley in Norwich is once again a vibrant area. The surviving medieval houses are beautifully restored, new town houses and apartments are filling the vacant lots, entry-phones and security alarms are de rigeur, and the pavements are lined with BMWs and Range Rovers.

Things were very different in the 14th century. St Julian's Alley was within the medieval city walls, and the prosperous port with its thriving wool trade with Europe was a short distance away. The prosperity which made Norwich England's second city after London was celebrated in a profusion of churches, no less than 22 monasteries and convents, and the construction of the magnificent Norman Cathedral.

One of the many churches, St Julian's, was in a narrow alley leading from one of the main thoroughfares, and was one of 37 churches in the city with an attached anchorage; this was a small cell built against the wall of the church in which an anchorite or anchoress followed his or her vow of living a solitary existence. The anchorage at St Julian's was occupied by a woman, and, as was the tradition, the anchoress took the name of the church, which explains why many people today still think Julian was a man. My photo below shows the rebuilt anchorage on the east wall in the peaceful churchyard surrounded by the bustle of the city centre.


Julian of Norwich had a mystical revelation in May 1373 when she was critically ill. Following her recovery she wrote The Revelations of Divine Love over a 20 year period living as an anchoress. Julian was a contemporary of Chaucer and wrote in Middle English which means all today's editions are 'translations'. A pioneering edition published in 1901 brought her writings to popular attention, and their importance was confirmed by a Penguin edition in 1966. The Revelation of Divine Love is now regarded as a spiritual classic throughout the world, and has never been out of print over a 106 year period.


Julian's cell was destroyed during the Reformation, and the church was severely damaged by a direct hit by a bomb in 1942. After the war the church was rebuilt, and the cell was reconstructed on foundations discovered during earlier excavations, and my photo above is of the shrine in the cell. The restoration of the church, which is still accessed by the original narrow alley, was inspired by the sisters of the Community of All Hallows, Ditchingham. Today Julian's cell, the main church, and the nearby Julian Centre draw pilgrims from all around the world, and there is a flourishing contemplative Order of Julian of Norwich in Southern Wisconsin.

Now playing - Roger Mayor's choral work Julian - Mystical revelations. Hildegard of Bingen is the medieval mystic with the musical reputation, but Roger Mayor's 2002 composition is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue with its settings of Julian of Norwich's writings. There is an excellent commercial recording made in Norwich Cathedral with the fine Keswick Hall Choir and soloists conducted by John Aplin. Norfolk based Roger Mayor (above) studied under Dr Paul Steinitz, and is best known for his sacred compositions. The hour long Julian - Mystical revelations is more Rutter than MacMillan, but the tuneful score does an excellent job in bringing Julian's writings to a new audience. The CD is available from Prelude Records.

* Revelations of Divine Love can be read online via this link.

* Follow this link for the Penguin edition of Revelations of Divine Love.
* In Search of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn (Dartman, Longman & Todd ISBN 0232518408) provides an excellent introduction.
* Julian of Norwich shrine website via this link.
* Fiona Maddock's Hildegard of Bingen - the Woman of Her Age is highly recommended. (Image ISBN 0385498683). This is the book that inspired contemporary composer James Wood's exciting, and avant garde, choral work that I wrote about in Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt.
* Canticles of Ecstacy is a wonderful CD of Marian antiphons, sequences and responsories sung by Sequentia. The Hildegard industry was started by Hyperion's A feather on the breath of god, read Paying the piper for an interesting slant on that best-selling recording.

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to The music of Taizé

1 comment:

Pliable said...

Nice to see Julian of Norwich featuring on the wide-ranging ANABlog