Chapter 2: Reflection 18 – Compassionate Solidarity

When reading of Julian’s “wilful” desire for the “gifte of a bodily sicknes,” one is struck by the level of specificity with which she details the type of illness she desires. As mentioned above, she wants the malady to bring her to the point of death, but her additional specificity is striking: “In this sicknes I desired to have all maner of paines, bodily and ghostly, that I might have if I should die, all the dredes and tempests of fiends, and all maner of other paines, save the outpassing of the soule.” 1 For Julian, living when and where she did, this could not have been in any way a naive petition.

It is sometimes difficult for the modern reader to imagine, let alone comprehend, the extent to which death and its associated rituals were a part of everyday medieval life. This would have been particularly true during the prolonged period during which pestilence, or more rightly, waves of pestilence, beginning with “The Black Death,” ravished the population of England for a period that spanned the entirety of Julian’s life. 2 Scholar Robert Gottfried reports that the plague reached England in 1348 and Norwich in January of 1349, and it lasted until the spring of 1350. Professor Gottfried also states: “Of all of England’s regions, the most severely afflicted was East Anglia,” the area of the country where Norwich is located. The professor reports that at the time of plaque’s arrival, the population of Norwich was between 10,000 and 12,000 persons and that the initial wave of plaque claimed 40% – 45% of the secular population and 50% of the clergy. He continues, “It is likely that for all of East Anglia, plague mortality approached 50%, ranking it with Tuscany and parts of Scandinavia as the European areas most devastated by the Black Death.” 3 Finally, Professor Gottfried goes on to state: “Plaque would recur every few years for the rest of the fourteenth century and all the fifteenth century, and initiate an era of depopulation that would last until the sixteenth century.” 4

While it may seem inappropriate and unscholarly to speculate, since we know so very little about Julian’s life, it is difficult to imagine that Julian had not been present during the sicknesses and at the deaths of a number of people, some of whom may have been very close to her, by the time she consciously formed her desire for a “bodily sicknes.” In the same way, it is difficult to imagine that the specific conditions for which she longs – “all maner of paines, bodily and ghostly,” “all the dredes and tempests of fiends,” and “all maner of other paines” – do not somehow capture something of what she witnessed others experiencing. And finally, it is difficult to imagine how attending such raw and consuming affliction would have affected the keen, compassionate, and clear-sighted woman we encounter in A Revelation. In this way, Julian’s desire can be seen a fervent willingness, grounded in a resolute solitary, to pass through intentionally what she saw others experience and suffer without choice. This would be consistent with the tender concern Julian expresses in her text for her “even-Christians” or fellow-Christians in her writings. 5 Scholar Grace Jantzen writes:

[I]n asking for severe physical illness [Julian] is surely also seeking greater solidarity with suffering humanity, identifying simultaneously with the suffering of Christ and of humankind, and thus able to mediate his compassion. The extent of her concern for her fellow-Christians becomes more and more apparent as her book proceeds; from the outset, she is willing to develop experiential empathy with their sufferings, thereby sharing with them as Christ shared. Julian was aware that identification with Christ must include identification with those for whom he suffered, and hence with their suffering; her prayer for illness represented a willingness to share the pains of the dying in such a way that her understanding and compassion for them would increase and she would be purged of any self-centeredness in her responses. 6  


  1. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, lines 22-24, page 127.
  2. The bacteria that cause plague are Yersinia pestis. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports: “Plague symptoms depend on how the patient was exposed to the plague bacteria. Plague can take different clinical forms, but the most common are bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic … Bubonic plague: The incubation period of bubonic plague is usually 2 to 8 days. Patients develop fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, painful lymph nodes (called buboes). This form usually results from the bite of an infected flea. The bacteria multiply in a lymph node near where the bacteria entered the human body. If the patient is not treated with the appropriate antibiotics, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body. Septicemic plague: The incubation period of septicemic plague is poorly defined but likely occurs within days of exposure. Patients develop fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and possibly bleeding into the skin and other organs. Skin and other tissues may turn black and die, especially on fingers, toes, and the nose. Septicemic plague can occur as the first symptom of plague or may develop from untreated bubonic plague. This form results from bites of infected fleas or from handling an infected animal. Pneumonic plague: The incubation period of pneumonic plague is usually just 1 to 3 days. Patients develop fever, headache, weakness, and a rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and sometimes bloody or watery mucous. Pneumonic plague may develop from inhaling infectious droplets or may develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague after the bacteria spread to the lungs. The pneumonia may cause respiratory failure and shock. Pneumonic plague is the most serious form of the disease and is the only form of plague that can be spread from person to person (by infectious droplets). “Plague – Symptoms.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on 1.18.23 from:
  3. Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: Free Press, 1983, pages 65-66.
  4. Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: Free Press, 1983, pages 130. Table One below gathers Professor Gottfried’s data so as to provide an outline of plague devastation in England during Julian’s lifetime.
  5. Regarding Julian’s relationship with her “even-Christians,” Sr. Margaret Palliser, writes: “We have the fruit of Julian’s labor in the book which reflects what she felt to be her mission: to comfort her ‘even Christians” by sharing with them the message of her shewings.” (Margaret Ann Palliser, O.P., Christ, Our Mother of Mercy: Divine Mercy and Compassion in the Theology of the ‘Shewings’ of Julian of Norwich. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1992, page 3.) And Professor Denys Turner reflects: “Julian’s text itself enacts what it is about: it is addressed as a form of solidarity in love to her evencristen just as it is about that solidarity in love.” (Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, page 74.)
  6. Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. New York: Paulist Press, 1988, page 61.  

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