This source book offers a comprehensive treatment of the solitary religious lives in England in the late Middle Ages. It covers both enclosed anchorites or recluses and freely-wandering hermits, and explores the relation between them. The sources selected for the volume are designed to complement better-known works connected with the solitary lives, such as the anchoritic guide Ancrene Wisse, or St Aelred of Rievaulx’s rule for his sister; or late medieval mystical authors including the hermit Richard Rolle or the anchorite Julian of Norwich. They illustrate the range of solitary lives that were possible in late medieval England, practical considerations around questions of material support, prescribed ideals of behaviour, and spiritual aspiration. It also covers the mechanisms and structures that were put in place by both civil and religious authorities to administer and regulate the vocations. Coverage extends into the Reformation period to include evidence for the fate of solitaries during the dissolutions and their aftermath. The material selected includes visual sources, such as manuscript illustrations, architectural plans and photographs of standing remains, as well as excerpts from texts. Most of the latter are translated here for the first time, and a significant proportion are taken from previously unpublished sources.
The introduction places the sources that follow in the rest of the book in a broader historical context, including a sketch of the history of the solitary lives in the West from biblical times to the Reformation, and the development of hermits, anchorites, and monks, as distinct categories of vowed religious. Focusing on late medieval England, it considers the solitary lives alongside other ‘semi-religious’ vocations, the popularity of the vocations across the period, including questions of the class and gender of hermits and anchorites, and developments within the vocations between 1200 and the end of the Middle Ages.
Solitaries inhabited the margins of the medieval religious establishment, and this was a source both of cultural power and prestige, and of vulnerability. The section includes individuals of evident charisma and popular appeal, some of whom received official approval and encouragement, while others were denounced as heretics; some exploited their popularity for gain, and some for criminality.
In the first half of the period covered by this book, hermits were often criticised for the unstructured nature of their life. In the late Middle Ages, mechanisms were developed for the regulation of the vocation. The section includes evidence of procedures for the approval of would-be hermits, and liturgy and documentation around their profession and registration. It also includes examples and excerpts from late medieval hermits’ rules that shed some light on their expected way of life.
This section provides a survey of the wide variety of forms that the hermit life could take, and the kinds of tasks with which hermits might occupy themselves. The majority were involved in public works of some kind, including the making and maintenance of roads, bridges, chapels, lighthouses. The chapter also details the sources of support for their way of life: although endowed hermitages and other forms of long-term support were not unknown, most hermits relied on indulgences, tolls, casual alms and begging. Glimpses of hermits’ piety include evidence for pilgrimage and a hermit’s meditation.
This chapter contains an introduction and a selection of translated and annotated texts on associational life. The diversity and economic hierarchy of the medieval town created a social environment in which there could be no natural community. Many guilds, however, attracted a social range of members, as diverse individuals and groups perceived advantage in fraternisation with significant others. More diverse, flexible and indeed voluntary than the professional associations of craftsmen, the guilds or fraternities of the medieval town brought together men and women working in various crafts, to serve ends which included both mutual insurance and public charity. The most common aim was to cultivate in the individual member a sense of moral responsibility and openness to mutual charity in relations both with the brothers and sisters of the society, and with other townspeople. The references to the jurisdiction of the guild in disputes involving townspeople hint at an authority which emerges more explicitly in later ordinances of 1486.
This chapter contains an introduction and a selection of translated and annotated texts on economic life. A long tradition has seen the medieval urban craft worker as an isolated figure, and as one who was tightly regulated by what has sometimes been called the 'structure' of the crafts. Young women were bound apprentices as well as men, and indeed women are found across the entire spectrum of the medieval urban economy, although it is hard to assess their relative prominence in any particular area. London custom, which appears to have had an influence on that of other English towns, permitted a single woman or a widow to conduct a business in her own right, as a femme sole.
The records sampled in this chapter demonstrate the partially successful attempts of urban councils and officials to establish and to implement norms of good practice for building. It also demonstrates the process to foster a more inclusive sense of collective responsibility for public spaces, for common interests in food supply, water and health, and for the quality of life in the town. Life at close quarters, industrial sounds and at the same time a pervasive flavour of the farmyard characterised the streets of the medieval town. It is illuminating to consider the range of urban and environmental matters for which city rulers were willing and even anxious to take responsibility. The provision of a town cross was a public work with both practical and symbolic purpose. These and the efforts to provide uncontaminated water were significant contributions by town councils to the enhancement of the quality of life.
As much as it was a tangible construction of stone, wood and plaster, the medieval town was an idea in the minds of its inhabitants and of its visitors. Mythologised or romantic as they might be, ideas of the town's prestigious origins and present eminence influenced the ideals and actions of its population. The sources gathered in this chapter include examples of the currency and expression of such ideas. They also exemplify some of the ways in which a distinguished history and idealised image of the town circulated and became embedded in local culture. Liberally strewn with allusions to the antique world of Rome, William fitz-Stephen's text joins Christian hagiography to a classicising emulation of pre-Christian writers in the praise of cities. At the end of the period the celebratory allusions to the history of Exeter and of Bristol come from civic officials: a mayor and a town clerk.
The introduction situates the extracts within the larger context of European urban history, and against a wider chronological backdrop. The traces of medieval urban experience are to be found in a great variety of historical sources. New scholarship in the related fields of social history and the history of gender relations, economic history and the history of religion has also brought fresh evidence and new questions to the particular context of urban studies.