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'COURTESY' AND 'HOMELINESS' IN THE REVELATIONS OF JULIAN OF NORWICH

SISTER ANNA MARIA REYNOLDS, C.P. 


n his stimulating book on Jane Austen's language, Mr Norman Page writes, 'Surely the colour and flavour of a text are determined not by the exceptional words, unless these words taken together form a large class, but in the main by the common words used by the author, the words used by him over and over again?'(1) The remark serves as an apt introduction to the purpose of this essay, in which I intend to look closely at two sets of words used by Julian of Norwich. My aim is to recapture what Mr Page describes as 'the precise sense of the meaning carried by these words for the writer and her contemporaries,' and in the light of this knowledge to identify our responses to the truth which they enshrine.

Even a casual reading of Julian's book makes one aware of the frequency with which the words courtesy and homeliness, with their derivatives, are used in the Revelations: their constant recurrence indicates that these two sets of words, the warp and the woof of her writing, express key-concepts in the anchoress' experience of God.

The provenance of the two qualities is very different. Courtesy is a word whose ramifications and overtones embrace the social, moral and literary history of Western Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth century: the world of troubadors, minnesingers and writers of romance, the world of the Roman de la Rose and the Courts of Love. It was a leisurely, aristocratic world, where courtoisie governed the whole pattern of social intercourse and relationships between men and women and between men and men.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries courtoisie had been closely connected with the convention of Courtly Love. According to Richard Barber:

By the end of the thirteenth century the Minnesang had disappeared into contests of technique on the one hand and social satire on the other. The amours which had inspired the lyric poetry of chivalry and the social convention of love attached to it, were becoming discredited. But the idea of 'love-service' survived well into the fifteenth century, long after the social and poetic impulses which gave it life, had died out. The decline was so slow, almost imperceptible, so that accepted ideas of knightly society as to love in 1250 would have been perfectly understood in 1450.

Towards the middle of the fourteenth century in England, chivalric fashions were set almost entirely by the French, and the virtues of prowess, loyalty, largesse, franchise and courtesy were held above all to mark the good knight.(3)

Its characteristic and permanent traits are listed as follows by a modern scholar: By the fourteenth century courtoisie had become synonomous with curialitas, the nobilitas morum , 'the cardinal virtue, so to speak, of the chevalier, the embodiment of the social and ethic ideal of chivalry.'(6)

This aristocratic genealogy of courtesy, with all its associations and resonances, is clearly brought out in the fourteenth-century English alliterative romance (whose author was a contemporary of Julian) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this poem, according to one critic, 'the central interest is not the Green Knight but Gawain and the cortays Arthurian civilization he represents'.(7) Gawain is shown to be not only a brave man but one who is invariably well bred, polite and urbane in conversation and behavior, deferential to all women, tactful, gentle, modest and self-effacing. His cortayse is implicitly contrasted with vilaynye, the behaviour appropriate to a vilain or peasant. Indeed, the courtly code is so important to Gawain that he goes against his conscience rather than rebuff a lady - noblesse oblige.

Julian's use of the courtesy concept subsumes and sublimates all these earlier connotations: lordship, prowess, fidelity, gentleness, generosity, and service. The Christ of her experience is Lord, All-Mighty, All Wisdom, All Love:

He is the glad giver who, with supreme tact, He is the knight par excellence, who, deprecating his great deeds, He manifests the welcoming joyfulness characteristic of the perfection of chivalry: There is a divine munificence in his working: Knightly pity is transformed into divine compassion: And again: He is the personification of fidelity and trustiness: But this courteous Lord of might and majesty is also the Lord who condescends to treat with his own creatures as with an equal: Homely and homeliness have no such distinguished and scintillating history as courteous and courtesy: their associations, literary and social, are at the opposite end of the knightly spectrum - the equivalent, in fact, of vylanye in knightly estimation.

The words derive, of course, from home, of Old English origin, and though in modern English homely and homeliness convey a mild suggestion of patronage and in their meaning of 'plainness ', and 'simplicity', in Julian's day the usual meaning of homely was 'familiar'; or 'intimate'. The word homeliness occurs in Rolle and is used of Christ by Wyclif with the sense 'familiar'. Significantly, these words do not occur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Indeed, there appears to be no literary precedent for Julian's coupling of homeliness with that of courtesy ; the words belonged to different worlds and had less in common that have the connotations of 'nature' and 'nurture' for present-day readers.

The homeliness of God is a paradox which filled Julian with astonishment and delight:

What this homeliness of our Lord involves is carefully explained by Julian: Homeliness, therefore, implies nearness - more, an active, loving presence to us and in us on God's part; not the aloofness, formality and reverence of the courteous knight, but the closeness, warmth and tenderness of the loving mother whose service is always 'nearest, readiest and surest'.

Julian actually uses the words 'God is our Mother' and expounds the implications of this (ultimately scriptural) image with a wealth of detail:

The fusion is complete. Courtesy and homeliness become one in the single daring image, 'our true Mother, Jesus'. Only in Christ, Redeemer as well as Creator, can the qualities both of the perfect knight and of the perfect mother be combined.
 
It remains now to see what the response of good souls should be to the courteous and homely action of God in Julian's words:
It is his office to save us. It is his worship to do it and it is his will that we know it. For he willeth that we love him sweetly and trust in him meekly and mightily. And this showed he in these gracious words 'I keep thee full surely'.


Early on in her book Julian had given us a reason for this trust in God, his courtesy and homeliness :

Later, she makes clear that our attitudes to God should also reflect the courtesy and homeliness with which he treats us: She goes on to say:


She adds, however, a timely warning:

Such loving, reverent dependence is very pleasing to God: In other words, to quote a modern spiritual writer, we must be willing to live the following truth: When we are weak, then we are strong, provided we are firmly fastened to God: this is the supreme message of the Revelations. Characteristically, Julian expresses it in concrete terms which recall the 'unless you become as little children . . . ' of the Gospel: We have come a long way from the convention of the Courts of Love and the sophistication of the Roman de la Rose; yet Julian was a product of the age and of the culture which revelled in both. She understood her world, however, saw what was good in it but realized, too, that it had gone astray in divorcing human from divine love.

Julian's special blessedness lies in this, that she learnt from experience that Divine Love embraces, enriches and ennobles human love:

Perhaps this message too, is of particular significance for our own day: 'He that has ears to hear, let him hear'.
 

Sister Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P.
Cross and Passion Convent
22 Griffith Avenue
Marino, Dublin 9
EIRE


Notes

This essay was first published in the Fourteenth-Century English Mystics Newsletter, 2 (1979), 12-20, and is republished with the kind permission of that Journal's editors and of the author.
1. Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (Oxford, 1972), p. 56.
2. Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry (London, 1970), p. 78.
3. Gervase Matthew, 'Ideals of Knighthood in Late Fourteenth-Century England', Studies in Medieval History , ed. R.W. Hunt (Oxford, 1948), p. 360.
4. Barber, p. 148.
5. Quoted, A.J. Denomy, 'Courtly Love and Courtliness', Speculum 28(1953), 48.
6. Denomy, p. 48.
7. A.C. Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry (London, 1964), 38. See also J. Lafitte-Houssat, Troubadours et Cours d'Amours (Paris, 1966), Ch. IX, 'L'Amour courtois: ses caractères'.
8. Quotations from the Orchard edition of the Revelations, ed. James Walsh, S.J. (London, 1961); Penguin edition, ed. C. Wolters (London, 1966), offers a completely modernized text.
9. Watchman Nee, Changed Into His Likeness (London, 1971), p. 82.

See also:
Sister Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P., Some Literary Influences in Julian of Norwich;
Sister Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P., The Passion in Julian of Norwich;
and The Julian Summit
 
 

Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love , definitive edition and translation, Firenze: SISMEL, 2001, available from SISMEL or from Julia Bolton Holloway. Scholar/ Contemplative/ General/

To see an example of a page inside with parallel text in Middle English and Modern English, variants and explanatory notes, click here.


 

To order Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translation, ed. Sister Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P. and Julia Bolton Holloway (ISBN  88-8450-095-8), 848 pages, 18 full colour plates of the manuscripts, from University of Florence, SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2001, 191 euro, e-mail
galluzzo@sismel.itaor Julia Bolton Holloway 



  Sister Anna Maria Reynolds C.P. is the greatest editor Julian ever had. During the war years she was transcribing the extant microfilms with a microscope, a word at a time, for her Leeds University MA and Ph.D. theses. Subsequent editions are based on her meticulous work. Now in her nineties, blind, frail, she has created a fine CD in which she discusses Julian with total recall of the text. It can be obtained for 12 euro from her at Cross and Passion Convent, 22 Griffith Avenue, Marino, Dublin 9, EIRE.

 


 
 

JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2017 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY  || JULIAN OF NORWICH  || SHOWING OF LOVE || HER TEXTS || HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME ||  ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN  ||  BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE  || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER || ITS SCRIPTORIUM  || AMHERST MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS, BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY ||