Title Background

Julian of Norwich and <i>Piers Plowman</i>: The Allegory of the Incarnation and Universal Salvation.

Julian of Norwich and Piers Plowman: The Allegory of the Incarnation and Universal Salvation.

Teaching Julian of Norwich in an undergraduate survey course can be more successful if she is linked with another major writer for purposes of comparison. L’s visionary text is an ideal subject for such a comparison. An idea for teaching is to assign one passus, B.18, from PPl and one passage from Julian’s long text, chapter 51. The Harrowing of Hell scene from PPl is self-contained and very lively, and gives a good sense of the poem while containing some of its most vivid passages. It is a particularly difficult passage, but one that can excite strong student reactions, and is included in the Norton Anthology in Talbot Donaldson’s fine translation. Julian’s chapter 51 is the longest chapter in the Showings, and is central to the meaning of that text (though it is not included in the Norton Anthology and would have to be provided to students as a supplementary assignment—I would recommend Elizabeth Spearing’s excellent Penguin translation). It is the vision of the lord and his servant who falls into the ditch, a vision that Julian says she did not know what to make of at first and did not include in her earlier, short text. She included it in her revised longer text in 1393 only after contemplating it for twenty years.  The two passages may be compared in a number of ways: both are visions, one presented as a ‘fictional’ dream, the other as real. Both are presented as ‘enigmatic’ visions in that their ambiguity must be interpreted in order to understand their meaning. Both depict an allegory of the incarnation of Christ, and both deal with the act of salvation itself and its meaning. Questions that both texts deal with, and that might be posed to students before they read the texts, are as follows: How exactly did the ‘Fall of man’ affect human beings’ relationship to God? Why precisely did Christ become a human being, and what does that mean with regard to human beings’ current relationship to God? What does ‘salvation wrought by Christ’ mean to Christians? What does it mean to non-Christians? The answers implied by Julian and L very often agree with one another, and at times may seem quite unorthodox in the context of fourteenth-century Christianity.