Originally published: 05.08.15
The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.
In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:
“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”
No. No, this is Not Right.
Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.
Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, living in a tiny cell and in a culture where you write things out longhand, rewrote her entire book in order to make it clearer. Judith Butler is the sort of person whose rewritten introduction to Gender Trouble is so obfuscatory it requires its own explanatory notes.
Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, if Margery Kempe applied to be her grad student, would leave you in no doubt of the power relationship. She’d have Margery meet her for coffee and she’d let Margery fangirl at her, and she’d write her a list of books to read. And Margery would go away thinking they’d had a real meeting of minds, but she would also instinctively know never to send Julian her rough drafts at 11pm with I just sorta wanted to know what you think of this emails. Julian would write quietly professional references for Margery.
Judith Butler is the sort of person who would take on Margery Kempe as a grad student and talk about her to you in your supervisions, so you ended up knowing more about Margery’s sex life than you wanted to know, and wouldn’t be able to look at Margery over coffee because Judith would have told you about that embarrassing time at the departmental party when John and Margery were having a bad time. Then you’d see her pop up on facebook telling Margery she’s questioning the practice of masculinist oppression with her new relationship status. She’d encourage Margery not to bother redrafting her thesis. Just hand it in! Tell them the letters are not shaped or formed like other letters, but self-constructed in a dialogic matrix of anti-universalising commentary on being and becoming! Margery would never get a postdoc and would languish on the fringes of academia wondering where it all went wrong and whether Judith really meant it that time they both got tipsy and Judith admitted yes, sometimes I think it might just be the patriarchy that’s the problem too.
But the main thing (as anyone who works on medieval religious culture knows) is that Julian, and Margery, and Richard Rolle, and pretty much anyone who was writing at all, makes Judith Butler look about 600 years out of date. Butler’s big issue is gender essentialism, by which she means, what does it mean to be a ‘woman’, who gets to be in that category, how is it socially constructed and why does it continue to be an important concept.
You might expect that Julian, writing in late medieval England, would think about gender as a binary thing, an innate and fundamental difference between men and women. You do find bits of her work where she associates femininity with the body and the emotions, with nurturing and caring. Christ, writes Julian, is mother-like in that Christ “ is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh”. Christ took on ‘sensuality’ – not the modern word, but the medieval word meaning senses, feelings, capacity to experience bodily and emotional life – and this act of mercy towards humanity is a maternal act.
But Julian doesn’t just imply that the loving and nurturing elements of life are innately feminine. In medieval interpretations of sexual reproduction, the female role is simply to carry and nourish the foetus – medieval science taught that the actual spark of human life, the soul itself – came from the man. This basic axiom gives rise to a web of misogynistic implications, from the idea that creative genius is innately male, to the idea that women are vessels for life rather than active participants in its creation. You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of it: it’s the idea that lies behind contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric and the pervasive belittling of intellectual women alike. And Julian utterly rejects it.
“I … accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.
We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. The Father is enclosed in us.”
Here, Julian is trying to get at what Butler would call epistemology: the study of the truth of things. But her image of enclosure is maternal – she’s explaining the relationship of truth to human understanding in terms of pregnancy, of containment of one body within another enclosing body. And yet, you notice that while God is imagined as a maternal figure who encloses humanity and gives meaning to humanity’s understanding of ‘substance’, of human nature, humanity is also pregnant with God, enclosing God, sensing God as a woman feels the kicks and movements of a foetus in the womb.
This is part of Julian’s highly radical imagery of space, which famously includes her vision of the entirety of creation pictured as if it were a tiny thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. But, while her ideology of space is radical because it invites us to confront our ideas about magnitude, it’s also radical because it forces us to think about how somatic experience measures what we think about truth and gender. Julian’s experience is deeply rooted in her female body, and the language she uses to grapple with epistemology is something like a questioning version of écriture féminine, female writing. She imagines God as female and male, and human struggles to conceptualise God as a process that overspills the cultural boundaries of masculine and feminine activity. But she’s also incredibly simple and direct about the limits of understanding, and that’s where I think she and Judith Butler would never see eye to eye. Julian knows when something is too big a concept to reduce, and she doesn’t try to speak around the issues.
I’m not seriously trying to argue that Julian of Norwich can be separated from the profoundly misogynistic world of late-medieval England, or that she invented gender fluidity, the concept of performativity, or any other buzzwords of the Judith Butler fan club. The point, really, is that the idea of challenging a fixed, static, binary model of gender is, in itself, a piece of ahistorical arrogance on the part of scholars. Medieval interpretations of what we might call ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ or ‘gender identity’ are hugely varied, hugely nuanced, and hugely incomprehensible to us now. We can find ideas that seem to confirm our prejudices – stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ – and we can find ones that seem, excitingly, to suggest twenty-first-century sensibilities trapped in genderfluid, queer, non-binary medieval bodies. But we’re being wise after the fact. Before we start assuming it’s new and exciting to ‘trouble’ stable conceptions of gender, we need to question whether it’s already been done.