“Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” wrote Julian of Norwich in the closing years of the 14th Century.
Even the briefest of readings of the history of the times through which Julian lived would leave a reader in no doubt that here words were an extraordinary statement of confidence. Julian’s childhood memories would have been filled with a sense of darkness and foreboding rarely paralleled in the seven centuries since..
Julian was born around the year1342. Five years later, in 1347, the Black Death, a devastating bubonic plague swept through the continent of Europe. The estimates of how many died vary widely, but historians agree that in the four year between 1347 and 1351, the pandemic killed between one-third and two-thirds of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351.
It is hard now to even begin to imagine what a sense of terror the Black Death must have 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 for those who remained? Who knew when the plague might return to claim the lives of those who had survived?
In a time when literacy was rare, (and material to read was even rarer, Gutenberg’s development of the printing press was still a century away), there would have been little to challenge whatever thinking gained credence in a community. It was a time when rumours, stories and superstitions took a vice like grip on people’s lives. The memories and the tales of the Black Death would have left everyone living in a state of constant uncertainty. The slightest infection someone suffered might have brought fear and terror on a community.
To have publicly questioned one’s faith, or to have questioned the teaching of 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. Yet there must have been questions in the minds of many of the people about why a loving and merciful God would visit such a plague upon his people.
Julian would have surely grown up with questions even in her own family about the nature of the world in which they lived. Julian’s response to the despair of the time, to the questions raised by the times through which she lived, was that faith must persist because, even in the face of uncertainty, all shall be well.