Research feature: In contemplation of wellbeing

Dr Hannah Lucas in Newnham College library. Photo by Dasha Tenditna

Newby Trust Research Fellow Dr Hannah Lucas explores what we can learn from medieval contemplative practice to support wellbeing and bring calm to our fast-paced lives.

Alone in her room and poring over texts, Dr Hannah Lucas can feel very connected to the lives of medieval women who withdrew from society to contemplate life, love and higher powers. The experience of lockdown added an extra dimension to her understanding of their cloistered lives, as she studied reading communities and contemplative practice through the writings of women. Hannah’s research is focused on how contemplative texts can inform critical practice, drawing on devotional writing, meditation and prayer. She makes a compelling case for the value of revisiting medieval literature as we face contemporary challenges to wellbeing.

‘Lots of medieval texts talk about the process of reading and understanding. The principles they cover – the need for attention; emphasis on process rather than outcome; a meditative approach to working – still seem so relevant. There’s a real need to find practices that will allow us to cope with the challenges of our fast-paced world, where there are so many distractions to attention.’

Her interest began as an undergraduate at Oxford, studying an optional paper on Therapeutic Reading in Middle English Literature. She came to Cambridge to study
for an MPhil in Medieval Literature in which she studied Syon Abbey, a convent on the River Thames where the sisters were dedicated to reading, meditation and contemplation. Being in a religious community or giving your life to the church was the only way women could enjoy the opportunity to engage in deep reading and
advanced theological learning at the time.

Although that sounds like a blissful life in many ways, the order also placed great emphasis on austerity alongside scholarship. Such deprivation was taken to an extreme by Julian of Norwich, the subject of Hannah’s DPhil back at Oxford. As an anchoress, Julian lived confined to a cell attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich, to dedicate her life to God. After making a full recovery from an illness she wrote an account of the divine visions she had seen on her sickbed, now known as Revelations of Divine Love. This manuscript is the oldest surviving text by a woman in English.

‘I became intrigued by the way her visionary experience was connected to her experience of illness,’ says Hannah. ‘She offers an understanding of wellbeing that goes
beyond physical health. It made me consider the relationship between contemplation and wellbeing, proposing spiritual seeking as a means to being “wele”.

‘Julian’s use of language really resonated with the themes of wellbeing I was encountering in my readings of twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy, from Heidegger onwards. There’s the language of being at home in the world; Julian theologises about Christ as our homely home and sees God as her family.
Her whole revelation is about love and she focuses on the nurturing God. It’s affective too, with attention to her emotional response to Christ.’

Hannah’s dissertation brought Julian’s texts into conversation with a post-Heideggerian phenomenology of health, to think through Julian’s insights into what it means to be at home in the world, and to live and die well. Writing it felt particularly resonant during the pandemic. Julian, who is believed to have lived from 1342 to around 1416, had been isolated at a time when the plague ravaged the country.

‘It felt extremely relevant as I was in my own “cell” writing about Julian’s experience of illness and the pandemic of the Black Death; that made me feel more connected to the texts. She was describing a world that was in many ways so different to ours, but the text still offers insights very close to home and the veil felt very thin at that point. History felt at once very distant and very nearby.’

‘She offers an understanding of wellbeing that goes beyond physical health. It made me consider the relationship between contemplation and wellbeing, proposing spiritual seeking as a means to being “wele”.’ Dr Hannah Lucas

Hannah is now looking more broadly at the nature of wellbeing and the value of reading for wellbeing. She is particularly considering contemplation as an everyday,
in-the-world practice, stretching beyond peak experiences like divine visions or revelations; and is exploring how medieval writers show that concentrated attention can dramatically shift the lived experience of, for instance, pain and illness. She is examining how such practices might inform a theory of individual and communal wellbeing that could be put into practice, and sees a link with mindfulness and the scientific benefits of broadly contemplative practices – though she is also interested in the
historical and theological specificities of these texts, and the problems with taking them out of context.

Throughout her work Hannah has also been interested in subjectivity and where academic research interests begin. She was born in Botswana and spent her early years there, before her family moved to the Cotswolds, where she attended school in Cheltenham – a journey she feels likely influenced her writing on the idea of being at home: ‘These lived experiences orient us towards certain ideas.’

It’s been a pleasure for her to come to Newnham, after exploring female communities for so long: the College with its history felt like the perfect place to continue her work. She joined as Newby Trust Research Fellow in autumn 2022. ‘It is such a privilege to be having conversations over lunch with fellow researchers, who are so welcoming and with such a strong ethos of community and camaraderie. The JRFs are all doing very different things, but it’s great to have a community of people at the same career stage. I’m a tutor and postgraduate mentor too so have that connection with students, which is very valuable. It’s great to contribute to a College that puts an emphasis on the wellbeing of its members. I am very grateful to Newnham and to the Newby Trust for supporting my research.’

  • Newnham College would like to thank the Newby Trust for the endowment which has made this Research Fellowship possible. There is more information about the trust at This feature first appeared in the Roll Letter 2022-23, published January 2024.