A long time ago, in a small bookshop in Brecon, I came across the first volume in Peter Lord’s magisterial work on the visual culture of Wales. Its subtitle was Medieval Vision, and its cover was inset with a picture of an early medieval stone-carving. I bought the book, and I hold the cover in front of me now: I can see that thick nose and mouth of sandy-gold stone, the lips parted in what might be reproach, or surprise. The book’s contents, of course, were no less surprising, offering as they did an insight into a material (as well as visual) culture that sat upon the fringes not only of Christian Europe but upon the very frontier between the earthly and the ghostly.
But something of that face has stayed with me over the years; that image has become the symbol, in my mind, for the challenges that medieval thought poses to our modern-day brains. That face, so stylised, so luridly unreal, is an emblem for what I’ve come to think of as the threat of revelation: the idea that our normal lives exist only on the sufferance of a higher power, and that, at any moment, we may be called to witness the immense and life-changing strangeness of the divine. That stone face is between worlds, for me, because that is where people of medieval Europe had to be, always ready for the change that would warp them out of the earthly and into the domains of wonder. Even in death they knew that they were just lying there, waiting for the last call to paradise.
And this is what so fascinated me when I first read Edwin Kelly’s manuscript for And After This I Saw. I first came across his work as part of my editing for Lighthouse; they seemed forceful, passionate, electrifying in their willingness to slide between different readings and versions of the text. Here was a writer not only ready to play with the unfamiliar in his texts, but willing and able to make use of his knowledge of a medieval text to imbue that play with a sense of probing, seeking after the nature of human experiences.
For what Edwin was trying to accomplish in his manuscript, it soon became clear, was an examination of the means by which Julian of Norwich came to understand her visions and her status as a visionary. His aim was to show the difficulties that Julian and her later transcribers and interpreters encountered in trying to write of that singular revelatory experience, the ‘shewing’ that Julian found during a traumatic illness at the age of thirty. The text Edwin gave me to render into print was a reflection of that earnest intensity, and the unwillingness of successive generations of writers – from Julian herself down to the late Sr. Anna Maria Reynolds – to abandon language as a tool, despite its inadequacy for describing the will and thoughts of the divine. It was a text beset at every level by spiritual and intellectual trauma, by a doubt that sought the meaning of the faith it wanted so badly to espouse.
This process of rendering was something that we had to approach together; I had to pick a typeface for the project that would convey Edwin’s patient work in re-creating the scribal twists and re-orientations of manuscripts of Julian’s work that he drew on. We settled on the obvious choice, in the end – the IM Fell fonts that we already used in printing Lighthouse, which already had the ‘long’ s and ligatured ‘s’ and ‘f’ glyphs that would emphasise some of the distance and difficulty of the translation process Edwin wanted to capture. We discussed how they would give a concreteness to the ideas of Edwin’s project, and I think in the end we made the right choice: the face’s thickness, and its ‘distressed’ look gives the pamphlet a solidity, injecting a patent materiality into the spirituality of the work that I suspect even a medieval reader could appreciate.
Indeed, as we talked over Skype and the project developed, that one word, ‘distressed’, came to hold a greater and greater sway over the project. When I asked Edwin to write a preface, to introduce the project to a non-specialist reader, he responded cautiously at first, but warmed to the idea as the text’s physicality began to form around him. We worked together to pull that preface into its final form, Edwin writing and writing, me providing feedback and (I hope) encouragement on what was, I think, a challenging process. But through it all Edwin’s tenacity, his unwillingness to succumb to the same platitudes that we sometimes associate with Julian, was paramount.
And then, perhaps two-thirds of the way through the work, he gave me back one of the most brilliant and profound thoughts I have encountered in my time working with medieval texts; I will repeat it here, somewhat out of context, in the sound-stage of its own line, because of what I feel is its immense resonance:
‘What if we thought of God as distress and not as comfort’
Like the stone face on the cover of Peter Lord’s book, that line echoes in me still. It is a line of prosodic force: its form balances the poles of distress and comfort, recognising their separate pulls on our thoughts of a better life. It evokes, too, the sense of that early medieval stone carving in its willingness to be read from either of those poles, for us to see in it both the cry of the distressed, who know still the presence of God, or a word to the complacent, to know that God is truly found in those same experiences of trauma and doubt that Julian described.
There are many moments in the process of editing someone’s work to treasure, and there were many such moments in editing Edwin’s work. But I would edit Edwin’s book all over again just to see that line for the first time once more.
– Meirion Jordan
Edwin Kelly‘s pamphlet is now available through our online store here
Posted 4 years ago