Morning Songs in the Night

God sings the same chorus over and over—even during the blackest of plagues. /

Just outside my house, there’s a bird that sings throughout the night. She sings like a morning bird. Though surrounded by darkness, she sings as though there is light.

Night descends on us in many forms, some more horrific than others. Imagine you’re lying in bed, desperately ill. You have been coughing and vomiting for days. You’re convinced you only have a short time to live. For good reason: Hundreds of people in your village and tens of thousands throughout the land—people and animals—have already died after showing these symptoms. John Kelly described such a moment from 500 years ago: “For a brief moment in the middle of the fourteenth century, the words of Genesis 7:21 seemed about to be realized: ‘All flesh died that moved upon the earth.’”

The name of his book tells us what he was speaking of: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. And yet, during “the most devastating plague of all time,” a night of unimaginable darkness, one woman heard the morning bird sing.

Her name was Julian of Norwich. We know very little about her—even her name is a guess, taken from the church where she lived in a monastic cell. A close reading of her writings suggests that she was probably born around 1342 and lived into her 70s. She likely came from a wealthy family in Norwich, the second largest city in England at the time.

The bubonic plague was tragically common during her lifetime, killing 50 million people in Europe, some 60 percent of the entire population. Julian may have lost her whole family in one epidemic, and may have suffered from the plague herself at age 30. Whatever she actually ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 20 / April 16, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 20: Language, Ants, and Julian of Norwich

  2. O for 7,000+ Tongues to Meep

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word birthed many more. /

  3. A Bizarre and Mighty Civilization

    And it’s made by leafcutter ants. /

  4. Naming the Animals

    ‘Until he named the cow cow, no one slept standing up’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff /

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