Today In Fact, 8 May

A 14th century feminist, and the Red Cross. There was a woman called Julian whose feast is celebrated today. Julian of Norwich started getting visions when she was about 30 years old in 1372. She was recovering from an illness and living in England during a very troubled time in English History. The plague was rife across Europe. The Hundred Years War was in full swing against the French. There were a series of violent peasant revolts across the land. The Scots were at war and the Welsh were fighting alongside the French. Near the end of Julian’s life, the War of the Roses began which was a bitter civil war fought between Yorkists and Lancastrian barons. It was not a good time to be living in England.

Julian, when she recovered from her illness, had a small room built on the side of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich and she lived there for the rest of her days as an anchorite. Her writings and visions are powerful testimonies to a sort of feminist spirituality that speaks to our age. Julian talked of Christ as mother. She saw no evil in God but only among humans. Julian of Norwich lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty.

The saying, “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, which Julian claimed to be said to her by God Himself, reflects her theology. It is one of the most famous lines in Catholic theological writing and is one of the best-known phrases of the literature of her era.

Julian’s theology that evil sprouts directly from the hearts of men speaks directly to the story of the founders of the Red Cross. Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss from Geneva was born today in 1828. He was a visionary who happened to do banking in his youth. Visionaries don’t make good bankers. Dunant was no exception.

During his many business travels, Dunant arrived on Solferino on the evening of June 24, 1859, on the same day a battle between the French and Piedmont-Sardinians had occurred nearby. Thirty-eight thousand wounded, dying and dead, remained on the battlefield, and there appeared to be little attempt to provide care. Shocked, Dunant took the initiative to organize the civilian population, especially the women and girls, to provide assistance to the injured and sick soldiers. They lacked sufficient materials and supplies, and Dunant himself organized the purchase of needed materials and helped erect makeshift hospitals. He convinced the population to service the wounded without regard to their side in the conflict coining the slogan “Tutti fratelli” (All are brothers).

Dunant wrote of his experiences and later met with a prominent Geneva citizen, Gustave Moynier. Dunant’s vision was to start an international organization that was neutral and provided care for wounded soldiers. Dunant and Moynier, with others started the Red Cross Society in 1863.

Moynier was the pragmatist and Dennant was the visionary. It was never going to work. The two became enemies, Moynier ensuring Dennant was isoloated and removed from the Red Cross and tried to write him out of the history of the society. Dennent’s banking business floundered and his friends deserted him. The strict Calvinists of Geneva could not forgive a man who was no good with money. He lived in penury for years. However some did remember Dennant. In 1901 he was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize. Moynier was never given that honour.

The two never reconciled. Moynier died two months before Dennent. In the final years of his life, Dennent suffered from depression and paranoia about his many creditors and his nemesis, Moynier. In his final years, he spurned and attacked Calvinism and organized religion generally. His last words were: “Where has Humanity gone?”

Perhaps Mother Julian would have soothed Dennent with this reflection:

“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. God is the ground, the substance, the teaching, the teacher, the purpose, and the reward for which every soul labours”.

Doug Racionzer (with a full archive at