Laura Dzubay: Coming to terms with Middle English literature

Sunday, December 10, 2017 - 4:17pm

I wasn’t always the type of person who liked reading really old texts. I was one of those people who thought that most of the “classics,” with a few exceptions, were boring. I’ve always loved reading and writing, of course, and I had planned on being an English major long before I got to college. But when my high school English teachers would assign books like "Beowulf" and "Middlemarch," as weird as it might sound, it would often be hard for me to muster up any real interest.

I’ve gradually found, though, that whether or not I appreciate a text has a lot less to do with whether or not it’s old, and more to do with what it is and how I come across it. (“How I come across it” is my subtle way of saying that not all of my high school English teachers were excellent motivators) I do actually like a lot of classic literature. My gateway book was “Catch-22,” and within the past few years I’ve found myself getting really impassioned about writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, more than I really would have expected of myself toward the beginning of high school.

It makes sense, then, that college should introduce me to a ton of amazing historical writers whom I may not have given as much of a chance when I was younger. Recently, my thoughts have been stuck on one of these writers in particular: Julian of Norwich.

I first learned about Julian of Norwich last year, and recently revisited her in my Horror Literature class (which I would highly recommend). To me, Julian is a prime example of the ways in which writing both intersects with history and stands outside of it, depending on how you look at it.

Julian of Norwich lived in England in the 14th century and wrote a series of revelations, or “shewings,” that are now considered to make up the first known English book known to have been written by a woman. The shewings documented a series of visions she had at the age of 30, when she took seriously ill and thought she was on her deathbed. The visions, which she described vividly, included a bleeding crucifix and several images of Jesus Christ. Julian would go on to become an anchoress, meaning that she secluded herself from society, voluntarily and completely, as an act of devotion to her Christian faith. Anchoresses were rare and venerated, and the amount of personal conviction that it took to decide to become one meant that they were deeply respected.

The history of Julian’s life is very interesting, from her detailed visions to her life as an anchoress. Her writing itself is also incredibly visual and eloquent. Middle English writing may feel distant or foreign to us instinctively, which in some ways I think is justified — I, for one, had never heard of anchoresses before I learned about Julian, and I’d never really read anything older than Shakespeare. I’m also not Christian. It would make sense, then, for all of this to feel somewhat alien to me at first glance. But early texts such as Julian’s provide us with one of the most straightforward keys to better understanding not only what people’s lives were like during the Middle Ages, but also how they thought and what was important to them. As the oldest published work written by a woman and one of the oldest works of English literature in general, Julian’s revelations is a crucial piece in the never-ending puzzle of understanding our own history and our own nature. That’s what I love maybe more than anything else about literature, what gets me so excited about it: The idea that because somebody cared enough about something to write it down, you have a kind of opportunity to meet that person, even from miles and centuries away.