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Julian of Norwich: Original Crazy Cat Lady?

Have y’all heard of anchorites and anchoresses? Neither had I until Paddy and Plunkett took a tour of Norwich back in July! The lads introduced me to this super interesting topic and to Julian of Norwich–prime material for some semi-obscure herstory, methinks.

Their title derived from the Ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to retire’ or ‘withdraw’, medieval anchorites were kind of like hermits. But instead of retreating to a hobbit hole in some peaceful hamlet for a bit, anchorites withdrew from society permanently in dreadful little cells annexed onto churches. After being given their last rites, anchorites were walled up in their reclusories kinda like Fortunato in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’!

caskofamontillado

Unlike unfortunate Fortunato, however, anchorites’ enclosures were usually generously equipped with at least two windows: one tiny window (called a squint) looking into the church with a view of the altar and a second window looking onto the outside world. As Paddy and Plunkett learned, anchorites would receive the public via this second window, dispensing spiritual advice and council to the common man. I suppose it was also through this opening that they collected their food and passed their waste. Multipurpose orifice!

Reclusory
An anchoress thrilled with her squint.*

But hold up! Why do I keep referring to ‘anchorites’ when this role was primarily taken on by women known as anchoresses??? Yep, that’s right! Career opportunities were seriouslllllllllllllllly limited for women in the Middle Ages, especially those who were unwed/not nuns. If you failed to get thee to a nunnery or find a husband, your options were pretty much witch or anchoress. Both jobs appeal to me, if I’m honest… but frequent painful death by hanging or burning as a witch makes me feel like maybe anchoress was the way to go? Bring on the bricks!

Besides the obvious benefit of having stone walls separating you from other horrible humans ensuring that you never having to make up an excuse for why you can’t attend a social event, the other excellent thing about being a medieval anchoress was not having to (literally) rub shoulders with all the disgusting plague-ridden villagers. Sign me up.

black_death
Typical view from an anchoress’s window.

This brings me to celebrity anchoress and original crazy cat lady, Julian of Norwich. We don’t know a whole heap about her–including her name (as ‘Julian’ was the name of the church in Norwich where she was enclosed)–but what we do know is pretty fascinating.

julian

There are no records of Julian’s life prior to her enclosure, but it has been surmised that she was born in 1342 and spent most of her life holed up in this church in Norwich. There is evidence to suggest that she lived at least into her 70s, no doubt well-surpassing the average lifespan of her fellow poxy, plague-tokened Norwichians.

Black-Death
Norwichians

In 1373 at the age of 30, Julian fell gravely ill. Whilst in the throes of this illness, Christ came to Julian in a number of a visions. Julian managed to pull through, and out of these visions, she penned a book called Revelations of Divine Love.  Julian’s bestseller is thought to be the first (existing) book to be written in English by a woman!!! Furthermore, Revelations represents a feminised vision of God, referring to Jesus as a ‘mother’ figure.

Revelations of Divine Love
And look – you can buy it on Amazon!

If all this wasn’t cool enough, Julian also appears to be strongly associated with cats… though I suspect that this is something we have imposed upon her, rather than actual fact. In my image search, I noticed that Julian is often depicted holding a cat. Looking further into this (for obvious reasons), I only see a few crummy sources without references that seem to be feeding off each other (like, using the exact same words to state the exact same ‘facts’)–talking about Julian and her beloved feline companion who lived with her in the cell. I don’t doubt that Julian probably had a few kitty visitors in her 70 years, but she’s not actually the ‘Patron Saint of Cats’ (as touted on Pinterest and Etsy), and I don’t believe she had one single beloved 50 year-old cat companion. In the seemingly age-old inseparability of single (‘insane’ and ‘witchy’) women and cats, I think that artists have mythologised her into a cat lady.

Julian of Norwich
Smug Julian
julian-2
Ohhhh ‘dame’ Julian … fancy!
julian-3
1970s Nun Julian
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ceramic Plate Julian

These look to me like fake-medieval paintings–what do y’all think? Especially since people used to paint cats (and babies) like this:

Old Cat Paintings
‘Uhhhh what does a cat look like? Augh, screw it, I’ll just give it a sad hooman face.’

But my favourite rendering is this one possibly made using clip art/Microsoft Paint and featuring Julian holding a bonbon with Jane and a bongo drum in the background:

julian-of-norwich-cat-hazelnut
(I’m so mean–someone probably worked really hard on this.)

However, this cat thing–if true–really drives home Julian’s idyllic circumstances. She’s almost as enviable as Eleanor of Brittany! Alas, I can only dream about a life where I don’t have to ride a bus and four trains per day and work in an office with deplorables–a life where I ne’er have to leave four walls and cat cuddles… and I could write a novel about the visions that would inevitably come to me from lack of sunlight and exercise. Of course, I’d be in a constant state of constipation, too embarrassed to deliver my poo out the window to a servant. But that seems like a small price to pay for the freedom of being closed off from all the wide world.


It’s been awhile since we’ve had a Weekes Word, especially since B neglected to provide one as requested on the St Michaelmas post (he’s not welcome in my enclosure!). This word seems to be most frequently linked with tarot cards these days (and specifically refers to a priest/religious leader from the Eleusinian cult in Ancient Greece), but it can be used in a more generalised sense as below.

Hierophant: a person who interprets sacred mysteries or esoteric principles. Ex: Despite not necessarily being in possession of the skills of a hierophant, Weekes felt that she would be an ideal candidate for Local Anchoress, and she updated her CV accordingly.

xWG // @dazeandweekes // @weekes


Works Cited

“About Anchorites.” Hermits & Anchorites : About Anchorites, hermits.ex.ac.uk/index/anchorites.

“About Julian of Norwich.” About Julian of Norwich | The Julian Centre, juliancentre.org/about/about-julian-of-norwich.html.

Images

*From Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol. 72r. By permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College Cambridge.

23 thoughts on “Julian of Norwich: Original Crazy Cat Lady? Leave a comment

  1. OMG, I am going to have to change my usual response to “How is your daughter in England? (You know, the youngest daughter who is a renegade and alternative type?)”. Parentheses my addition not what anyone would dare ask. Anyway, my reply will be “Oh, she’s doing great! She quit her awful job to become an anchoress!” Great read, btw

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  2. A very interesting read, but just the thought of being an anchorite almost gives me a claustrophobia-induced panic attack. I can’t even imagine living like that, especially before indoor plumbing and the internet.

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  3. This was *fascinating*. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of anchoresses before. And I will echo Mike’s sentiments — while I’m sure the solitude could be comfortable at times, could you really imagine living out your life (much less a week!) in a stone cell with only two little windows providing any glimpse of the external world?? I found the anchoress with her squint picture similarly disturbing and intriguing. Thank you for constantly bringing these medieval peculiarities to my attention.

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    • I mean, I’m sure I made it sound a little worse than it actually was (some of them even had little gardens!)…. but really, it would be fiiiiiiiiiiine! The windows would basically be like TV, and I’m sure they had someone to bring them wine–what more could you want?! 🙂

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  4. Fascinating! And thanks for the shout-out to Paddy and Plunkett… They really only dipped the very tips of their paws into the life of Julian before Paddy spotted something shiny and ran off! I can definitely see the appeal of anchoress-ing though – especially if cats are involved. Speaking of which, GOD those mediaeval cat paintings are bizarre! Surely cats weren’t so rare and exotic at the time that artists couldn’t borrow one and paint it from life?!

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    • Thank YOU for bringing Julian to my attention! I’m afraid Paddy wouldn’t make a very good anchorite, but something tells me he’d be fine with that. Hahahah those paintings crack me up! Like… how can you not know what a cat’s face looks like and therefore need to paint a furry human face?!? But it’s the same with pretty much all of the medieval paintings of Christ as a baby–as if the artists have never seen a nude baby in their lives. Which, I guess, is possible (more possible than never seeing a cat, I suppose) … but still, you’d think they’d want to get baby Jesus correct and therefore do their homework! Anyway, thanks for stopping by during your busy week!!!

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      • Yeeeeah, Paddy’s more of an anchorman than an anchorite! I thought I heard somewhere (good referencing, Helen) that the reason baby Jesus looks like a miniature adult in mediaeval paintings was to show that he was different from the offspring of regular folks. And since he was the only baby who was being habitually painted back then, that’s maybe why we end up with this impression that medieval artists had no idea what babies looked like.
        The human-faced cats are still unforgivable though… 😳

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      • You are so right. Though dubious of Middle Age artist knowledge of baby anatomy, deep down I figured that since medieval baby Jesus is so often depicted as svelte and weirdly muscular, it might have something to do with him being an Idyllic Super Baby. I should have investigated this suspicion sooner because there are several interesting facets to this trend that I think merit further research! Thinking about it, medieval artists subscribing to the concept of a homunculus Jesus makes total sense–even just considering later depictions of the Christ child that might look more like a real babies, but still (usually) seem to have wisened, knowing faces expressing adult comprehension. So it also makes total sense that these depictions, stemming from spiritual notions of Christ being always fully formed, would rub off on depictions of other babes. There doesn’t seem to be much material readily available on the subject, but I’ll be on the lookout in the future! In any case, it has made for a diverting morning contemplation–thank you! Sigh, now I’d better get back to ‘work’ (insert eye-rolling-emoji not available on work computer).

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      • What a super-interesting topic! I reckon any time you spend working and not looking into this would actually be time wasted! Hey, I have another crackpot theory about Jesus as Idyllic Super Baby (great band name, by the way. You should write that one down) – most surviving art at that time was religious, right? And presumably done by people, mostly men, in religious orders… So maybe there is an element of “I really don’t know what a human baby looks like” because contact with them would have been rare, or even impossible! 🤔🤔🤔

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      • Totes! That’s what I meant when I said it seems way more likely that an artist would have never seen a nude baby vs a cat. Even if they had a wife and babe of their own, they wouldn’t have been dealing with changing diapers, I expect–but surely there have always been cats galore roaming around. Perhaps they are trying to cover their baby-ignorant backs with the homunculus theory! I’m sure it must be a combination of all these things!! Good detective work, Team Idyllic Super Baby!!!

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  5. All I’m thinking the entire way through this is, “Egads what must it smell like?!” I mean, not that medieval folks were super picky about stench, but c’mon, you’re literally sh*tting where you live. And I doubt the authorities are feeding in a garden hose once a week to wash out you or your (very) humble abode. In truth, i hope Ms J didn’t have a cat, because I know just how pungent those little critters can be….and those cats in the paintings probably smell even worse because they are clearly some freakish hybrid created by a Middle Ages version of Dr Moreau to deliver horror to all the senses of unsuspecting anchoresses.

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    • Hahaha I know, I thought the same thing about the cats–but surely you could just usher them out the window and be like, ‘Go do your business out there, kitty!’ I mean…… I would just NEVER be able to go to the bathroom in this situation. Like–what about the window into the church?? Does she just pull a curtain and then the congregation is like, ‘Oh, Julian must be taking another shit!’ and then she has to pass it out to some poor servant in a little bowl. Nope. No no no no.

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