The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbour, but it was too late: the Black Death killed more than 50 million people in Europe—almost two-thirds of the continent’s population.
The bacillus travelled from person to person through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats. Both of these pests could be found everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships — which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another. The plague reached England in 1348, when a ship bearing plague left Bordeaux, and arrived around May 8th, in the southern English town of Melcombe Regis, part of present-day Weymouth: the epidemic broke out in mid-June. A ship that left King's Lynn in 1349 introduced the Plague to Norway.
Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites; and shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people.
The plague never really ended and it returned with a vengeance years later. But officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa were able to slow its spread by keeping arriving sailors in isolation until it was clear they were not carrying the disease—creating social distancing that relied on isolation to slow the spread of the disease.
JULIAN OF NORWICH was born around 1343, into this world where the plague was to reach catastrophic heights, where the collapse of trade and commerce devastated global economies, where life was less-certain than death. The difference now is the hope we can place in medical science, which we are confident will eventually see us through to a future healthier period of living. Not so the fourteenth century!
On the 8th May 1373, Julian of Norwich was thirty years old, suffering from what was considered to be a terminal illness. On that date she experienced a series of sixteen visions, revealing to her aspects of the love of God, as she lay dying in the presence of her mother and the priest who had administered the last rites.
She recovered, and became an "anchoress", walled into a small room with one window looking into what is now known as St Julian's Church in Norwich,and one window onto the world, from where she is known to have provided spiritual advice to many, from bishops, to royalty as well as to "ordinary" folk. Following her recovery, she spent the next twenty years of her life pondering the meaning of her revelations, and recorded her conclusions in what became the first book written by a woman in English, The Revelations of Divine Love.
Julian spoke of an all-loving God at a time when people interpreted the plague as God's judgement on an immoral and Godless society. She spoke of warmth and of hope, and described God's actions, not in terms of "masculine" judgemental retribution, but of God who always shows "Motherly" care for His creatures.
"Our true mother, Jesus,
he who is all love, bears us into joy and eternal life; blessed may he be!
So he sustains us within himself in love and was in labour for the full time
until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievous sufferings
that ever were or shall be, and at the last he died. And when it was finished… he had born us to bliss…
The mother can give her child her milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly
with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself… He sustains us most mercifully
and most graciously…
The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast,
but our tender mother Jesus,
he can familiarly lead us into his blessed breast
through his sweet open side [that bled on the cross for us],
and show within part of the Godhead…
the joys of heaven, with spiritual certainty of endless bliss;
and that was shown in the tenth revelation [to me and]
in the sweet words where he says, “Look how I love you,”
looking into his side and rejoicing.
This fair, lovely word “mother,”
it is so sweet and so tender it [is most truly] said of him…
To the nature of motherhood belong tender love, wisdom and knowledge…
The birth of our body is only low, humble, and modest
compared to the birth of our soul… [and] it is [Jesus] who does it…
All the debt we owe, at God’s bidding,
for his fatherhood and motherhood,
is fulfilled by loving God truly;
a blessed love which Christ arouses in us. (Divine Revelations, pages 141-142.)
COLLECT FOR JULIAN OF NORWICH
Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching, who through your servant Julian revealed the wonders of your love: grant that as we are created in your nature and restored by your grace, our wills may be made one with yours, that we may come to see you face to face and gaze on you for ever; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
A PRAYER OF MOTHER JULIAN
“In you, Father all-mighty,
we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ,
we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit,
is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing;
for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace
all shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.”