Very little is known about Julian's life. Even her name is uncertain; the name 'Julian' is generally thought to have been derived from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, to which her anchorite's cell was joined. 'Julian' was, however, a common name among women in the Middle Ages and could possibly have belonged to the anchoress as well as to the church.
Julian's writings indicate that she was probably born around 1342 and died around 1416. She may have been from a privileged (wealthy) family residing in or near Norwich, at the time the second largest city in England. At least one source considered it likely that she received her early education with the Benedictine nuns at nearby Carrow.
Plague epidemics were rampant during the 14th century and, according to some scholars, Julian may have become an anchoress unmarried or, having lost her family in the plague, as a widow. Becoming an anchoress may have served as a way to quarantine her from the rest of the population. There is scholarly debate as to whether Julian was a nun in a nearby convent or a laywoman.
When she was 30 and living at home, Julian suffered from a serious illness. Since she was presumed to be near death, her curate came to administer the last rites of the Catholic Church on 8 May 1373. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed. Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb, but as she gazed on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over the next several hours, she had a series of sixteen visions of Jesus Christ, which ended by the time she recovered from her illness on 13 May 1373. Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened (although the text may not have been finished for some years), in a version of the Revelations of Divine Love often known as the Short Text; this narrative of 25 chapters is about 11,000 words long.
Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390s, Julian began to write a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as The Long Text, which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,500 words. This work seems to have gone through many revisions before it was finished, perhaps in the 1410s or even the 1420s.
The English mystic Margery Kempe, whose autobiography is thought to be the first written in English, mentioned going to Norwich to speak with "Dame Julian" in around 1414.
Adam Easton's Defense of St Birgitta, Alfonso of Jaen's Epistola Solitarii, and William Flete's Remedies against Temptations, are all referred to in Julian's text.