by Lincoln Jaques
I clamber off the National Express coach, stumbling into a slush puddle. The freezing water instantly numbs my foot. It’s the end of January, but it’s not snowing, yet. The coach driver pulls my luggage out and lets it roll into another slush puddle.
I’ve come up from London, Victoria. I yank my beanie tight over my ears. I haul my wet luggage out of the bus station. A light rain starts to fall. Almost snowflakes but it can’t quite manage it. Just falling slush. Slush everywhere. The wind is something I’ve never experienced, though, slicing through whatever I had on, which was a lot.
Outside the station on a main road, there’s a large roundabout, four roads taking you to the four quarters of the ancient city. A crossroads. The first thing I notice, of any significance, is the medieval wall. Not all of it has survived, and what remains is barely intact, the brickwork resembling the roughened skin of an extinct dinosaur.
The wall was built to enclose the City of Norwich in 1284, but it took until 1343 to complete. It started with William the Conqueror. He recognised the strategic importance of Norwich from the start and decided to build a castle fort there sometime before 1075. The Angles and Saxons and Jutes, not to mention the Normans, had all been through the area already. Now he needed to secure for himself ultimate power, which didn’t hold that long. Nothing does. But inside the walls he built a castle-fort, at first simply a wooden tower with a trench dug around it. Later, though, under the auspices of William’s son, Rufus, it would develop into the fine stone keep we see today.
I sought out my accommodation—The Wedgewood Guesthouse on St Stephen’s Road—and thankfully, things looked up. The rooms were newly furnished and I remember I had a wartime fold-down writing bureau in mine. I spent 10 days at the Wedgewood. At breakfast at the Wedgewood, the proprietor would come down dressed in full waiter regalia, looking like something out of Downton Abbey. We would order from a full menu. Toast would be served with everything, no matter what you ordered. After 10, I found a ground-floor flat in Cricket Ground Road, about a kilometre from the city centre. The rent was cheap. My wife stayed with her mother in Zagreb, while I settled in. On top of the rent, there was Council Tax. On top of that, everything else. The job I got at the University of East Anglia was a good job, but money would only go so far.
We stayed a year in that flat. It had one room with the bathroom off the side. A bathtub, no shower. A seventies three-bar gas fire, inserted in the wall, that needed to be kept on day and night to keep the room above 15 degrees. Barely enough to keep a mouse warm. We pulled the bed down from the wall, like in those old fifties loft apartments in New York. We were on the ground floor, in the foyer next to the building’s main opening, and in the winter, when the wind whipped up during the night, the heavy entrance doors blew open and slammed shut. The day I moved in, I had only my luggage and the bed that folded down from the wall. I walked back into town to the Pound Store. I bought melamine plates and bowls and matching cutlery, a ladle and a whisk, a can opener, plastic buckets, Fairy dishwashing liquid and sponges, a squeegee mop.
When my wife arrived, we went to Argos and flicked through the catalogue and chose a 2-seater couch, a tub chair, and a dining table. The dining table was very good. It came on castors and its sides collapsed down and the foldable chairs fitted into a cavity in the middle. We loved that table, for a good reason: we were pressed for space, and when we retired at night, we collapsed the table and put away the chairs and rolled it into a corner. Then we pushed the 2-seater couch to the side so we could pull down the bed. We affectionately called it the “Set Change”. Those few things, that cost us very little but served us so well, were all we needed for the entire time we were there.
We lived for a year in that place. A man lived in the flat above. He was schizophrenic. I met him sometimes outside the building while I was arriving home from work. He was a lovely guy, always friendly. He had a mauve birthmark that covered half his face. He openly told me that he was schizophrenic, and I admired him for it. He said if I heard things then not to worry. I didn’t worry, but then in the middle of the night I would hear loud voices, as if arguing, and it would get heated, until a loud crash would shake the ceiling when he fell out of bed, which would have smashed him out of his dream. It was him arguing in his sleep. After that, silence, and I would roll over and go back to sleep. I felt for him.
I completed my first failed novel in that place. I worked at the university all week, and at weekends and any spare time I had, I sat at the multi-functional moveable table and wrote on a Sony laptop, like a possessed literary wannabe demon. I think I wore out the keyboard on that laptop. I almost had a nervous breakdown in that place. My wife escaped often to the fantastic Millennium Library, Norwich’s world-class public library. I know now she was trying to escape me, and my rapture. We all have regrets, and for me that is one of them: we lived in a beautiful town and I was blind to it. That is the writer’s curse; you need to be aware of everything around you, yet you notice nothing, becoming so absorbed in your work.
We’d lived in Norwich for a few months, when a nagging feeling started to take hold. I remembered, some time before arriving in Norwich, when I was doing some research about our new home, reading about a strange woman who lived here sometime in the Middle Ages, who took vows as an Anchoress, and spent her life walled up in a cell attached to a small church within the old part of the city. As we know, the Middle Ages were not a great time to live through. There wasn’t much to be joyful about. It’s no wonder people who were serious and level-headed about their faith, yearned to escape, and to dedicate their lives to quiet contemplation. This was why, amongst all this going on, Norwich holds a fascinating story of one woman’s struggle and redemption to come to understand her God. And she did all this while living through one of the deadliest pandemics in history.
In 1343 (the same year as Geoffrey Chaucer), a girl was born in or near Norwich. We don’t know her real name; we only know that she adopted the name Julian from the church—St Julian’s of Norwich (there were a few saints called Julian)—where she later became an Anchoress. Several years later, the first wave of the Black Death (aka Bubonic Plague) washed up on English shores.
She obviously survived the first wave of plague, for when she was still a young woman of 30 (although she wouldn’t have been considered young on 14th century standards), she fell ill, and was confined to bed. There’s speculation that she could have contracted some form of the plague. In any case, her condition worsened, and a priest was called to give extreme unction. By this stage, she was completely immobile, not even being able to move her eyes. All hope was lost for her to survive. As the priest held the crucifixion up before her, Julian’s (we shall now refer to her by her adopted name) eyes flickered to the cross, which no doubt had Christ pinned to it. The cross started bleeding before her, and this sparked a series of revelations, or “showings”, over the next five hours, 16 revelations in all. These may have been mere illusions brought on by the fever, but the fact is to Julian they were real, immediate, moving and transforming. But never frightening. She revelled in these visions. This was her answer to what may have been many previous years of devotion. At last, God was rewarding her, choosing her as a vessel to bring a message to the world. And she took it seriously.
Julian came out of her coma, much to the surprise of everyone. She’d been to the brink of certain death and come back again.
She immediately scribbled down some jottings about these Showings. These rough notes, which were to become “The Short Text”, were to be the start of a long spiritual journey for Julian. Over the next 15 years, she couldn’t shake the visions. She would have thought about them every day, contemplating their meaning, fearful that she wasn’t understanding them fully, that she’d missed some finer points. Eventually, after going through a series of rigid interviews and tests, she convinced the local Bishop to allow her to become an Anchoress. She chose St Julian’s Church, near the old port on the River Wensum. After a ceremony that would have resembled a funeral, she would have been led into the small Anchor hold at the back of the church, where she would have disappeared through an opening into the dismal shadows of a cell no more than 12 square feet, after which the opening would have been bricked up.
There she was to remain for the rest of her life, never allowed out once, on the pain of death. If she did try to escape, she would have been captured, brought back to the cell, and burnt in a symbolic gesture to commit her to the fires of hell. As I mentioned, it wasn’t a pleasant time in history.
St Julian’s Church sits midway between King Street and Rouen Road, nestled amongst used car dealerships, factories, abandoned industrial warehouses, struggling cafes, and an immense open-air carpark. Next door, they’ve demolished the building, nothing but an empty lot. In Julian’s day she would have been able to look out her one tiny window across to the River Wensum, which elbows its way inland just where the Church sits. In the 14th century onwards, for 500 years, Norwich was an important trading city, particularly in textiles and wool from the Norfolk farms. She would have been able to see all the many boats coming into dock on the Wensum, arriving from the Northern countries, from Flanders, all key trading nations keen to do business with Norwich. She would have been able to see across to Dragon Hall, the place where merchants disembarked from their ships and went to pay their taxes and complete their deals.
Julian lived in her cell for more than 40 years. An extremely long life for her time. The plague hit another four times. Outside her cell, she would have heard the chaos of life: calls for families to bring out their dead; prostitutes plying their trade; seamen drunk and disorderly; regular fights and murders; the dead, disease-ridden bodies piling up, the carts coming along to collect the carcasses and take them to mass graves. Not to mention the rioting of The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 over extreme poll taxes, which came right to her door. But she remained steadfast and safe in her Anchor hold, protected by the sanctity of the church.
On a bright Spring day, we set out on foot to visit St Julian’s. I escaped my writing and was thankful for it. Luckily, from our street, there was a steep alleyway that cut down through some housing estates and alighted at the river. Across the river was a Chinese buffet where we’d regularly go for Sunday lunch. We walked up the river, roughly following King Street. Across the river was an industrial park with a Boots, a Next clothing store, an Argos and a big yellow Morrisons supermarket. We pass the Novi Sad friendship bridge with its link between Norwich and Serbia. We eventually veer away from the winding river and head inland, through the estates and industrial areas. At last, we come to St Julian’s Lane, the narrow lane named after its Church. The first things I see are the Cherry Blossom trees in the yard. Approaching the church itself, my heart sinks: we are too late. The Church looks too new, the facade too clean, the pebbled surface too shiny and “modern”.
In 1942, Britain sent bombers on a ferocious campaign to blitz Germany. They targeted the Lübeck port, managing to practically destroy the port and city. In retaliation, Hitler ordered a counterattack. Technology wasn’t what it is now, with Google Maps and GPS. Instead, Germany turned to the Baedeker’s Great Britain tourist guides, to help target significant towns and cities. One of those was Norwich. On 26 & 27 April of that year, Germany held air-raid campaigns that wiped out much of Norwich, including most of the original St Julian’s Church. The Church was faithfully restored in the 1950s, but the damage was done. Today a newly reconstructed Church stands here, complete the Julian’s cell. Inside is painted in a very Anglican white, in keeping with the reformation. Gone are the elaborate paintings and icons and candelabra and incense burners that would have once decorated the nave pre-reformation. Instead, now behind the altar is a plain wooden cross, with the carved Christ that doesn’t look like too much thought has been put into it. There’s a small altar to Julian herself, a stone relief, again with a crucifix (echoing her fixation on the bloodied crucifix as she lay dying, and apparent throughout the church by the sheer number of crucifixes), complete with the words: Here dwelt Mother Julian, Anchoress of Norwich c. 1342 – 1430, Thou art enough to me. Tea light candles sit in small red glass containers, meant for offerings (20p to light one and say a prayer). A plain wooden door, made of oak, from memory, leads into Julian’s Anchor hold. But it was locked on the day we came. A brass plate simply read: Mother Julian’s Cell, On the site of the original Anchor hold.
We only know what her life was like here from the few clues she wrote herself, and from other writings, such as those of Margery Kemp, another famous but questionable medieval mystic, a contemporary who visited Mother Julian here at her cell. We know from records of the day, and from other Anchoress guides such as the Ancrene Wisse, that daily life would have been tough, but not unbearable. She would have been allowed a squint, a small window looking into the church, so she could partake of mass. Another window where food could have been put through, and waste taken out. Another important window, which as mentioned, faced out to the world, hers looking to the River Wensum, onto King Street, the busiest thoroughfare in Norwich at that time. This would have been covered, though, with a black cloth, through which followers coming to seek spiritual guidance could communicate to her. The Ancreen Wisse advises that Anchoresses use their windows sparingly. But there is also a number 1 job requisite: to give religious counsel to the community. She no doubt had a basic bed of straw, at least. Perhaps somewhere to write, and some writing materials and books. She definitely had a copy of the Ancrene Wisse, and of course we assume a bible. We know she had a maidservant, Sara, who would have lived in an even smaller cell attached to Julian’s. It goes without saying she needed to adhere to the three rules of poverty, chastity and to keep to her cell. She could only talk to men if chaperoned, and even that was frowned upon. She could make lace, but not elaborate lace. Nothing could be elaborate. Julian could not keep pets, except for a cat, to help ward off mice, but here again there is no evidence to say she kept a cat in her cell.
But Julian had much to keep her occupied. As the last brick was cemented into place, she started work on expanding her notes she’d hurriedly made years before on her visions. This took up the remainder of her time in the Anchor hold, her life’s work. As pandemonium reigned outside for the next 40 years or so, Julian quietly and consistently wrote and refined her “Showings”, from that night, many years ago, when Christ and the Mother Mary revealed themselves to her.
The Revelations of Divine Love—the name that was eventually given to the full text — was controversial and would easily have been viewed as blasphemous in the wrong hands. For starters, it was the first text written in English (albeit Middle English) by a woman. Then there are the big concepts expounded: of unconditional love, and of a feminine God, being amongst the most important.
Julian saw love, God’s love, as all invasive, as being in everything around us, every object, and particularly within us. God is not a mere figure who sits up there in the sky, but is always present, always with us, inside us. We are just blind to that love. As Janina Ramirez explains in her book Julian of Norwich, “… he [God] has always been present in everything, and has always been imparting unconditional love, but our own blindness has made this difficult to see”. Ramirez goes on to give a beautiful outline of a parable Julian uses, that of Master and Servant. The master looks upon his servant not with a harsh eye or a judgemental tone, but with a tenderness, a compassion. If he sends the servant on an errand, and in his haste to fulfil his duty and to do right by his master the servant falls into a pit (signifying The Fall) and hurts himself, and fails to carry out his task, then the master doesn’t punish him, but rather he rewards him for his staunch devotion to his master, recognising that the servant was only trying to do good. Deep within this, as Ramirez points out, is the idea of universal salvation. Julian is teaching here a more tolerant stance than the church of the 14th century would allow.
The next idea of Julian’s was perhaps the most controversial. God is Father and Mother. This is a radical statement even on today’s standards, let alone in the stoic, God-fearing crowd of the Middle Ages. For as Ramirez points out, this was no metaphor used to emphasise the traits of a loving God; Julian really meant that God was a Mother to us all. She goes deeper, using the womb as an all-encompassing love, being wrapped in the womb, enclosed in God’s eternal love. The bond between us and God is as strong as that between a child and its mother. Julian uses these images of a Mother God regularly throughout the Revelations. You may sin, you may fall from grace, you may scrape your knee against the everyday temptation of sin, but a Mother will forgive you, take you back into her arms, for we are all an integral part of that enclosed bond. It harks back again to the parable of Master and Servant; except now, Julian wants us to replace this with Mother and Child.
After a year, my contract with the university ended. We left our small flat with its weak gas heater that still left the toes and fingers frosty. But I remember, after visiting St Julian’s, sitting again for long periods of time, hacking away at that first novel. I’ve published a lot since then, and gone on to have some successes, but never that first novel I wrote in Norwich. As they say, it takes several attempts at a full-length work to strike gold. And also something about putting in 10,000 hours to become skilled at anything. Well, I haven’t struck gold, but Julian taught me the value of being enclosed in your own private space, left alone to ruminate on your project, be it in a 14th century Anchor hold with mice nibbling at your toes and the plague raging outside, or a 21st century cold ground-floor flat in Norwich, with the winter closing in and the snow inching its way up the glass doors, an unfortunate soul experiencing night terrors upstairs and a door banging open and shut in the foyer.
Julian died after a long life lived, wondering if what she was doing was worthy, whether the world would ever get to read and feel what she experienced and felt. She died, as far as we know, never showing anyone a draft of her writings. It still took until recently for her to start being recognised, in the last 300 years, but only for the established church to really sit up and take note in the last one hundred or so. I wonder if my early attempts at writing will be consigned to the slush pile of history, an electronic scattering of papers that someone someday will perhaps stumble across and see its value. Only time will tell.
Lincoln Jaques holds a Master of Creative Writing from Auckland University of Technology. His poetry, fiction and travel writing has appeared in journals and collections in Aotearoa, Australia, America, Ireland and Asia. He was a finalist and Highly Commended in the 2018 New Voices Emerging Poets, the featured poet for the Spring Edition of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s magazine a fine line, and a 2020 Vaughan Park Anglican Retreat Centre Residential Scholar / Writer. He lives in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.