115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Word Made Visible: Linguistic Ways of Seeing in Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love

Jessica Zisa, University of California, Santa Barbara

As Julian of Norwich relates and interpreted her visions, her ocular experiences are enclosed in language that allows her rhetorical mobility. This paper will address the affective knowledge accrued through Julian’s sense of sight, which allows Julian’s own formation of self to take shape in A Revelation of Love without dangerous interpretation. 



Through the lens of affect theory, this paper will consider how Julian of Norwich’s sense of sight, as constituted by and through her own experience of language in the revelations, allows movement between the rhetorical effects and affective registers of the gendered body. There are three ways of seeing in her visions: bodily, ghostly, and letters or words, although the borders are not distinct as they often overlap through the text. Julian also alternates between the use of beholding and seeing to describe visionary experince, depending on the nature of her sight. Sarah McNamer suggests in Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion that Julian’s usage of beholding or becleping reveals “a fourteenth-century assumption that to ‘behold’ is to see empathetically because it is also ‘to hold’ : to hold with the eyes” (136). This language of sight allows us to further posit the affective formations of the feminine subject that take shape in Julian’s visions as she moves to see and translate her sight through various frames. 

I will argue that, while sight is being interpassively bestowed to Julian through the Other, Julian’s sense of sight allows her to form her own affective knowledge of the divine as well as her own subjectivity through language, while ever so slightly mobilizing gendered rhetorical effects of the female body. Given the instability, extreme censorship, and cultural anxiety that surrounded language in this pivotal period of English literary history, Julian navigates, like her fourteenth-century contemporaries, a fine line as sight and the interpretation of such visual experiences have the potential for disorder, especially when recorded in the vernacular. I will further contend that Julian’s expositio of sight and affective knowledge reflects a rhetorical strategy that allows her a shield of sorts as she fashions her own vernacular theology through the act of writing.