3 November 2017

Book Launch Blog Tour: Heroines of the Medieval World, by Sharon Bennett Connolly

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Book Extract on Julian of Norwich from Chapter 2: Heroines in Religion:

The religious life was not the exclusive domain of royal and noble ladies. It also provided a refuge for widows and elderly women in search of calm and peace at the end of their lives. It was an alternative to marriage, and childbearing, for women and girls from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the cloistered life was not the only path for a woman who wanted to devote her life to God. One such devotee was Saint Julian of Norwich, an anchorite and mystic who lived in a cell at the parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich. Her life was remarkable in its simplicity, devotion and spirituality, and because of her writing. Having survived 600 years, her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the earliest surviving of its kind – a book written in English, by a woman. She is renowned for her words ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’ which still offers hope and encourages positivity today.

Julian’s true identity and origins remain obscured. It is possible that Julian took her name from the church in which she lived, St Julian’s, however, it may have been hers from birth. Although Julian was not a common name for a woman at the time, it was not unknown. It may even be a derivative of Juliana, a more familiar woman’s name. However, there was a contemporary of the same name, Julian of Erpingham, who was from one of the foremost noble families of Norwich in the 14th century. Julian of Erpingham has been suggested by Father John Julian as a possible candidate for the identity of Julian of Norwich. She was the sister of Sir Thomas of Erpingham, who had been a friend of Edward III and later fought at Agincourt in 1415. Julian of Erpingham was married twice; her first husband died in 1373, and her second was dead by 1393. She had at least three children, with a daughter already married and the youngest possibly fostered out by the time Julian entered the Church. If Julian of Erpingham and Julian of Norwich are one and the same person – and this is far from certain – the legacies from her two husbands would have helped to pay for Julian’s upkeep once she had dedicated herself to God.

It is also possible that Julian had been a nun at the Benedictine priory of Carrow, which was close by and had an affinity with St Julian’s Church. She was probably from a well-to-do, if not noble, family as she seems to have had some level of education; given that she could, at least, read before she became an anchorite. However, we simply do not know enough about Julian’s early life to positively identify her origins. Although Revelations of Divine Love is considered autobiographical, it concentrates on her spiritual journey, as opposed to her physical life. We can glean some insight, if not a great deal, from the information she gives at various points in her text. For example, we know that Julian was born in the second half of the year 1342, as she mentions in her writing that she received her visions in May 1373, when she was aged thirty-and-a-half.

In that month Julian suffered an illness so serious that her life was despaired of. Whether it was the Black Death, prevalent in England since its first major outbreak in 1348–9, or some other disease, as her illness progressed she was paralysed to the extent that she could barely even move her eyelids. She was given the last rites and she wrote of how the priest ‘…set the cross before my face and said, “I have brought you the image of your maker and saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it.”’ Julian wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that she had wanted to have a life-threatening illness, which would bring her close to death, but from which she would be saved. Maybe she believed it would bring her closer to God? Whatever the reason, her illness brought on a series of visions in which she encountered Jesus Christ and his mother the Virgin Mary. The sixteen visions were to form the basis for the direction of her spiritual life and for her book, charting her struggle to understand the divine. Julian wrote two versions of Revelations of Divine Love; the Short Text is believed to have been written soon after experiencing her visions, though it took several years to complete. The Long Text – which is six times as long – is more contemplative and appears to have been a constant work-in-progress in her later years.

Although her near-death experience directed her later life, it was only many years after her illness that Julian entered her cell as an anchorite. The exact date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been in the 1390s that her enclosure may have come, possibly after the death of her husband or family members. The life of an anchorite was a strange, solitary existence in which the person was physically cut off from the world, while still being a part of it. It was a life that could be followed by a man or woman, but was one which could not be lightly taken on by the anchorite themselves, or by the Church at large. Not all were suited to the life and a person wanting to profess themselves as an anchorite had to go through a rigorous process to assess that suitability.

Sharon Bennett Connolly
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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly was born in Yorkshire and studied at University in Northampton before working at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She has been fascinated by history for over thirty years and has worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Best known for her fascinating blog History ... the Interesting Bits she began focusing on medieval women and in 2016 her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World was published by Amberley Publishing. Sharon is now writing her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018. Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits

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