Rude Strength

[T]he bleding continued a while til it migt be sene with avisement. And this was so plenteous to my sight that methowte, if it had be so in kind and in substance for that tyme, it should have made the bed al on blode and a passid over aboute.1

This passage, which I affectionately refer to as "the bloodbath scene," is from Julian of Norwich's description of Christ's bleeding during the Crucifixion as it was revealed to her in the Fourth Showing. While none of her renderings in A Revelation of Divine Love lack graphic specificity, I cite this passage as a particularly obvious example of Julian's penchant for enthusiastic description. Having received the vision while she lay ill, Julian suggests that, if it were present in actuality as it was in the Showing, Christ's blood would have saturated the bed she was confined to and overflowed. By allowing vision to spill into reality, Julian makes a crude but carefully wrought mess that I offer to you as an example of "rude strength."2
Rude strength is a term I learned from Walter Pater, who used it in 1873 in his volume of essays titled The Renaissance to describe the essential quality of art in the Middle Ages. A fairly ingenuous first-year doctoral student, I read Pater's description and recognized precisely that quality of the literature of the Middle Ages that I find so compelling. Soon enough, however, it became clear that "rude strength" was not something Pater meant as a compliment; he was giving a description of medieval artistic efforts I have since learned that many who champion the Renaissance are apt to give. What Pater was identifying was a lack?a lack of conscious aesthetics, of a "purely artistic quality."3 The Middle Ages, in his estimation, produced art that was unpolished, roughhewn. I disagree with many of the conclusions Pater comes to concerning medieval art, but I still believe it has rude strength. I am amazed that he could so misrecognize a virtue for a fault.
When Pater considered the rude strength of the Middle Ages, he surely did not have Julian of Norwich in mind, but I did?specifically, I had in mind the bloodbath scene and its direct, determined treatment of its extreme and gory subject. The virtue of this passage, I think, is its persistence, its insistence on explaining the mess it describes. It is, to borrow from the aesthetic approach of another era, the overflow of powerful feeling recollected with dogged determination. A Revelation of Divine Love is rife with these kinds of descriptions; Julian?s analogies, explanations of her emotions, and theology are all related with the rough eloquence of exigency and furor. This is a story, the language of A Revelation of Divine Love demands, that needs to be told. Knowing that we have Julian's descriptions through a scribe only increases their imperative tone for me; behind the words I can hear her perseverance and caution. "I have something to say," I hear Julian of Norwich say between the lines of The Showings, "and I want to get it right." That is the virtue of her text, its rude strength.
I am quite familiar with this virtue; I grew up reaping its benefits. My father, along with his four brothers and sisters and my grandparents, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950's from a small village in Italy. My mother was raised in the house adjacent to the tavern her parents owned and operated, and in which I myself spent a lot of time, when I was young, visiting my grandparents. What this means is that I grew up listening to people for whom, for one reason or another, language was often difficult, cumbersome, but who nonetheless had a lot they wanted to say.
These people were poor, uneducated, and foreign to the language they were speaking, or drunk, or simply speaking in the unaffected, slipshod discourse used by the working-class folks I grew up around. I listened to the stories my father's sisters told me, in awkward, broken English, about their lives in Italy. I sat with my seven year-old legs dangling from a barstool in the tavern drinking strawberry soda pop and overhearing conversations between my grandparents' patrons?it was there, in fact, that I heard my first bloodbath narrative when a steel worker explained a car