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The Neglected Intelligence of Chicken Scratch: Glossing in the Amherst Manuscript

A woman on her sickbed. After three days of illness. Paralysis taking hold. Near-death. “Hafe died” (f.101v). A crucifix held out before her. A gory simulacrum of Christ. In this ill-stupor, in the carnal display of the crucifix, the half-dead woman saw His agony come to life. Saw the blood dripping from His wounds in real time. Saw Christ in the vision-flesh comfort her tenderly. A quasi-hallucinogenic scene (Julian of Norwich 1). The experience would lead to a series of visionary revelations, which the woman would recount in her Revelations of Divine Love. And they would shape her personal theology of God as an unconditionally loving and maternal entity.

The half-dead woman? Julian of Norwich. A visionary, eventual anchorite, and radical thinker. Her writing of this mystical experience was at the time intensely controversial. She was a woman (already an issue) writing of her direct encounter with a gendered God (God as Mother) that challenged contemporary theological hermeneutics. See, the populace of later medieval England tended to foreground the fear of Hell over the love of God in their biblical interpretations. So here we have Julian, a woman, a proto-feminist, promoting radical theological ideas. Were her writings made public, she was bound for the stake. So, it’s a marvel that we still have access to her writings. Were it not for a group of continental Benedictine nuns who treasured and surreptitiously disseminated the work, we would not know of this insane-yet-brilliant Julian (The Search for the Lost Manuscript n.p.). And it’s even luckier that the short version of her work has been digitized at the British Library in the Amherst manuscript (Add MS 37790): a 15th century anthology of theological works centered around contemplation. 

This manuscript is precious—both in that it contains Julian’s Revelations (a text that barely survived) and in its inclusion of Big Name authors, namely Richard Rolle. Richard Rolle was the crème de la crème of mystical writers in later medieval England; “the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century equivalent of a bestselling author” (Cré 11). So what is this less popular mystic Julian, with once dangerous ideas, doing with the likes of Richard Rolle? The little fish with the Big Name? Well, an anonymous annotator helps us with this question. As we will see, the annotations in Julian’s text illuminate her ascending authority. The textual engagement shows the newfound gravitas ascribed to her name and work. And we’ll discover how one might use this gravitas to validate prejudices.

Although some consider annotations damaging, for our purposes they add dimension to this manuscript. For one, if we understand the glosses as an instantiation of a medieval audience’s perspective, they give us insight into how a medieval reader would consume this manuscript and perceive its authors. For instance, there are just as many annotations in Richard Rolle’s texts as in Julian’s text. The audience at the time—likely a Carthusian audience—was attending to Julian’s ideas just as much as hot-shot Big Name Rolle (Cré 251)… Well, to a certain extent.

Rolle and Julian do experience different levels of treatment in this anthology’s original production. Rolle’s text De emendatione vitae includes more paratextual features. He gets a longer, rubricated incipit (see Figure 1). More paraphs peppered throughout. Julian gets a less glamorous display: just some decorated initials, some flourished cadels. She does get an incipit, but it’s shorter and not rubricated (see Figure 2). So, yes, there are differences. But these differences are minimal. And in secondary consumption, Rolle and Julian receive the same audience attention as we see in the glosses. The annotator scribbles Rolle’s texts just as much as Julian’s. The annotator takes Julian just as seriously as Rolle. Despite the disparity of popularity, both authors are attributed authority. Both legitimized. Both attended. The equal amount of scribbles tells us so.

Manuscript with long, rubricated incipit
Figure 1: Add MS 37790, f.1r.  Image description: Rubricated incipit of Richard Rolle’s De emendatione vitae. Image courtesy of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts collection
Manuscript with short, unrubricated incipit
Figure 2: Add MS 37790, f.97r. Image description: Small, unrubricated incipit of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Image courtesy of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts collection

But more than showing the equal authority attributed to each author via audience perspective, the glosses also show the functionality of Julian’s text. We see this in the annotator’s emphasis on damnation, punishment, and other fear-inducing theological features. For instance, “purgatorye” is a recurring annotation (see Figure 3). And its presence on folio 109 recto speaks for itself. In this section, Julian writes about Sin as negation. Sin, synonymous with “paine,” is that agony associated with distance from God. Sin is “that paine” in which a person “has nought his God.” Thus sin is the pain of lack. Of godlessness. And for Julian, even in godlessness, even in “oure sinne,” Christ’s “love es [not] broken to us” (f.109r). Sin provides an opportunity for redemption, to reconnect with ever-loving Christ and graciousness. Because Julian heralds love, ultimately. She interprets Sin through the lens of love (Julian of Norwich 2). But rather than focus on this more optimistic element, the annotator focuses on the initial posit: purgatory. Thus, the text unwittingly supports the annotator’s preconceived perspective. A conflict between author-intention and textual-function emerges…

Manuscript with nearly illegible glossing
Figure 3: Add MS 37790, f.109r.  Image description: Gloss of “helle” and “purgatorye” in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Image courtesy of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts collection

We see this also on folio 101 verso, where the annotator glosses about doomsday. Julian, believing her death to be imminent, writes that Judgement takes place not after but immediately in death. Thus, the annotator makes note: “domesday is when a man dyeth” (f.101v) (see Featured Image). He is interested in the parts of the text that align with the current dominating cultural-theology: a theology that privileges the fear of Hell over the love of God. And in evoking damnation and our inevitable Judgement at doomsday, he affirms this normative theological interpretation. In this way, Julian’s text functions again to back confirmation bias. The text unintentionally supports the annotator’s preconceived beliefs, theological hermeneutics, and prejudices. And Julian’s ascending auctoritas only encourages his prejudices, legitimizes his interpretation, despite her textual intention to present a radical theology of the loving God. Hence, the manuscript’s functionality (as manifest in the annotations) of supporting normative hermeneutics contradicts Julian’s intention of promulgating the novel ideal of the loving Mother God.

So why care about all this? Well, it shows just how valuable chicken scratch can be, shows the significance of so seemingly minute an action. It shows how glosses reveal the biases of the annotator, how they encapsulate features of the historical imagination and cultural perception of certain authors. From the scribbles of that anonymous annotator, we better understand the perspective, interpretation, and biases of late medieval culture. We understand Julian’s rising cachet. We understand the fear of purgatory. We understand the perennial struggle between textual intention and function. And we get it all from a few squiggles…


British Library, Add MS 37790. Digitised Manuscripts,

Cré, Marleen. Vernacular Mysticism in the Charterhouse: A Study of London, British Library, Ms Additional 37790. Brepols, 2006. 

Julian of Norwich. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love. Edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins, Brepols, 2006. 

The Search for the Lost Manuscript: Julian of Norwich. Directed by Sally-Anne Lomas, starring Janina Ramirez, BBC, 2016.

Featured image: Add MS 37790, f.101r. A manuscript folio with the gloss “domesday is when a man dyeth”