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 Most of the latter are translated here for the first time, and a significant proportion are taken from previously unpublished sources.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.
A selection of sources that traces the progress of an anchoritic vocation from its first stirrings up to formal profession and enclosure. The sources span the full chronological range of the volume, from twelfth to sixteenth century, and include legal and administrative documents, liturgy and less formal works of guidance.
The sources selected for this section illustrate various aspects of the material life of anchorites in their cells. They include evidence for the size, design and furnishing of the reclusory; the provision of food and other necessities, including the role of servants; and patronage in a range of forms, from occasional and customary gifts to bequests in wills, and from a variety of patrons, ranging from ordinary local people to nobles such as Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.
This section provides some insights into the daily routine of anchorites. Whereas most of the sources for Chapter 2 are administrative, the focus of this chapter is primarily on anchoritic rules and works of guidance, including the complete text of a rule for a monk-anchorite of Bury St Edmunds and excerpts from the fifteenth-century Speculum Inclusorum. Topics covered include food and drink, clothing, speech and silence, manual labour and other pastimes, and the reception of visitors. There is also a consideration of some anchorites’ visions that may be compared with those of Julian of Norwich.
In theory, an anchoritic life should have been ended only by death, though in a few cases recluses left their cells prematurely. The last of the sections dedicated to anchorites alone focuses on the end of anchoritic life. Images and reminders of death surrounded the anchorite in his or her cell, and formed part of daily observance. The chapter also includes examples of solitaries preparing for their old age and death, whether by alterations to their domestic arrangements, or by the making of a will. Examples of failed or interrupted anchoritic vocations include the intriguing case of the last anchoress of Whalley (Lancashire).
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.
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.
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.
The section examines the fate of hermits and anchorites during the religious changes of the Reformation period. Some hermits were outspoken critics of the Dissolution. Others were caught up in its process, though the vocations were never officially abolished. Some individuals attempted to maintain their previous form of living, in at least some of its aspects, with varying degrees of success, into and beyond the 1540s. But by the end of the sixteenth century, hermits and anchorites were already part of the medieval past that was in process of being constructed as an object of study by early modern antiquarians.