Janina Ramirez on Julian of Norwich

We know very little about Julian of Norwich. You can tell this a few minutes into Janina Ramirez’s documentary on the fourteenth-century mystic. She travels to the British Museum to see a crucifix in the style of one Julian might have seen when she had the kind of visions written about in Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman. The link to Julian’s work is just as tenuous as it sounds.

The programme does not discuss much about the contents of the book. There are a couple of interviews with academics who underline the significance and excellence of Julian’s work. Rowan Williams (remember him?) pops up to give a theological perspective. Apparently Julian of Norwich’s work is not naively optimistic; instead she just believes that God will make everything alright in the end. I am guessing that the work is a little bit more sophisticated than this and difficult to summarise for an post-teatime documentary on public broadcasting.

When you get to the rather desperate seeking out of the cross, twenty minutes in, you wonder just how Ramirez is going to stretch this documentary out for an hour. Instead the programme becomes a fascinating study of preserving and recording texts in an oppressive society.

Ramirez does not mention the existence of the shorter fifteenth-century Manuscript edition of Revelation of Divine Love. This is in the British Library and was preserved by a group of Carthusians in the Amherst manuscript. Perhaps mentioning that the text was preserved by a group of boring old men would not fit with the narrative Ramirez wants to put across, of inspirational women keeping this text alive across the centuries in the face of the crueller forces of history.

First, a group of nuns copies the manuscript but this got lost in the dissolution of the monasteries. Then a group of nuns in Cambrai, northern France, preserved the manuscript, but had to flee because of the French Revolution. The modern version which is still printed today comes from Grace Warrack, who spent a month copying from a seventeenth-century edition, which was itself a copy of the medieval version of the text. It’s acts of perseverance from brilliant individuals which have preserved this important book today and which are justly celebrated in this documentary.

The moment Ramirez finds the anonymous graves of 1500 “martyrs”, including some nuns from Cambrai who were killed by the revolutionaries, is one of the best moments in the documentary. It feels like something you would see in one of the genocides of the twentieth century, rather than in France over 200 years ago.

We may think that issues of mass graves or book burning are no longer relevant today. Sadly, the action of Isis in Iraq and Syria show that there are still those who want to destroy the past and obliterate texts which they disagree with. Ramirez’s documentary is definitely worth seeking out on iplayer over the next twelve days. It is a reminder of the importance of not forgetting our past, and ensuring that through private acts of devotion, inspirational messages can be spread to the next generation.

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