The religious conflicts of Tudor times and the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651, which were followed by the bleak years of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, contributed to English thinking that was deeply sceptical towards religion and towards exclusive claims. The determination not to allow religious conflicts was fertile soil for the rationalism of English thinkers in the Eighteenth Century. England became a place of individual freedom of conscience. Sometimes, though, it can seem that the baby might have been thrown out with the bath water, that confidence and optimism were thrown out with fear and fatalism.
An icon of Mother Julian of Norwich beside the altar of a medieval church prompted the thought that her positivity would be welcome six centuries later. “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, wrote Julian in the closing years of the 14th Century. It was an extraordinary statement of confidence from a woman whose childhood memories would have been filled with darkness. Julian was born around 1342, in 1347 the Black Death, a devastating disease swept through Europe. Estimates of how many died vary; it is believed that the pandemic killed between a third and two-thirds of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351. Even the Great Wars of the Twentieth Century brought no comparable loss of life.
It is hard to imagine what terror the Black Death induced in the minds of those who survived. If millions of people, including family, friends and neighbours, could be swept away in such a short time, what might the future hold? In a time when literacy was rare, (and material to read even rarer), when rumours, stories and superstitions took a vice like grip on people’s lives, memories of the Black Death would have left everyone living in a state of constant uncertainty, the slightest infection would have brought fear and terror on a community. The “fake news” of the Twenty-First Century is mild in its influence compared with the superstition which gripped the imaginations of the people of Julian’s time.
There would have been no opportunity to have expressed doubts publicly. To have questioned one’s faith, or to have questioned the Church, in such times, would have brought down the charge of heresy upon one’s head and the prospect of being burned at the stake. Privately, individually, people would have grown up with questions about the nature of the world in which they lived.
Julian acknowledges the grim reality of the times, but believes all shall be well. Her sanguine mood would be welcome now.