Guiding the Life of the Recluse From the Literal to the Spiritual

Robert Boenig on Mari Hughes-Edwards’s Reading Medieval Anchoritism

Mari Edwards-Hughes, Reading Medieval Anchoritism
Mari Hughes-Edwards, Reading Medieval Anchoritism: Ideology and Spiritual Practices, University of Wales Press, 2012. xiv + 190 pp. $120 cloth, $40 paper.

Individuals withdraw from society for a variety of reasons. Some medieval people entered a reclusive lifestyle because they found it spiritually uplifting.  Instead of isolating and lonely, to them solitude was a source of comfort and supported an unencumbered existence that allowed them to focus on acts of religous devotion.  Instead of hating the world, these individuals loved it, and in their voluntary isolation from secular society they believed that they were a blessing to it through prayer. In the medieval period as today this was not a monolithic group; religious recluses, or ‘anchorites’ (from a Greek word meaning, ‘to withdraw’), were motivated by different things and even conceived of their lifestyle in different ways. Mari Hughes-Edwards examines how the ideologies of religious recluses, or anchorites, changed during the late eleventh through the mid-fifteenth century.

Hughes-Edwards differs from most scholars of medieval anchoritism, who tend to concentrate on specific texts and specific recluses (an alternative, inclusive term for anchoresses and anchorites). She thus provides a valuable service to scholars interested in recluses, for she carefully charts how the concept of strict, lifetime enclosure changes over time, demonstrating that generalizations about anchoritism must be nuanced, often discarded. In other words, the way late eleventh- and twelfth-century anchoresses and anchorites and the spiritual advisors who wrote guides for their chosen way of life conceived of anchoritism was not identical to the way fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century recluses and their own advisors did. Hughes-Edwards’s methodology involves careful analysis of a number of anchoritic guides written over the course of these centuries. She offers detailed readings of these texts bolstered by frequent quotations, and by the end of the book the reader, in my opinion, is left in agreement with her thesis.

The first text she treats is the Liber confortatorius (c. 1080) by Goscelin, a monk of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, who emigrated to England shortly before the Norman Conquest; it was written for an anchoress named Eve. St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote a series of three letters that give advice to both male and female recluses; their dates are tentative, likely from about 1078 to 1105. In the early 1160s, Aelred of Rievaulx, abbot of a Cistercian abbey in Rievaulx in Yorkshire, wrote his De insitutione inclusarum, later translated into late Middle English (ca. 1430-1440); its recipient was Aelred’s biological sister. Sometime between 1215 and 1230, the early Middle English Ancrene Wisse was anonymously written for three biological sisters; there are a number of variant texts of the Ancrene Wisse, and the work as a whole exhibits some reliance on Aelred’s De institutione inclusarum. The English hermit Richard Rolle, whose life Hughes-Edwards dates, following older scholarship, from 1290 to 1349 (though his birth date has been revised by more recent scholarship to approximately 1300), wrote in Middle English near the end of his plague-shortened life his Form of Living for the anchoress Margaret Kirkby. In the mid-1380s the Augustinian canon Walter Hilton wrote the first book of his Scale of Perfection in Middle English; it is evidently a guide for a specific though anonymous anchoress. Sometime in the late fourteenth century the anonymous Speculum inclusorum was written for a group of male anchorites; its author was possibly a Carthusian monk, whose austere order combined some aspects of anchoritic living with living in a community. Finally, in the mid-fifteenth century the anonymous Middle English The Myrour of Recluses, a loose translation of the Speculum inclusorum mentioned above, was crafted in part to broaden the Latin work’s audience to include female as well as male recluses. Hughes-Edwards divides these texts into ‘early’ and ‘late,’ with the dividing line between the Ancrene Wisse and Rolle’s Form of Living.

Hughes-Edwards highlights themes like enclosure, solitude, and sociability (the interaction of the recluse with those outside her/his anchorhold). Besides introducing and analyzing the texts, she also seeks to place anchoritic spirituality in the larger context of medieval religious ideology, particularly asceticism and contemplative experience – the last a wise alternative to the often misused term ‘mysticism’. This broad contextualizing ensures that this book’s voice will be heard beyond the metaphorical enclosure of thick textual walls.

Hughes-Edwards provides an abundance of textually based evidence about specific details of anchoritic life. Her basic conclusion is that the later anchoritic guides move from the literal towards the metaphorical and spiritual. In short, for the earlier writers anchoritism tended to be treated literally, with the spiritual directors focusing on the anchorite or anchoress maintaining the integrity of the literal enclosure and following the daily routine of prayer and asceticism that would ensure this. Physical chastity is particularly important. But for the later directors the enclosure is more spiritual than literal, with emphasis on the walls of devotion rather than the physical walls of the literal anchoritic cell. Though physical chastity is still essential, it is the ground of a spiritual chastity that is even more important. The daily round of prayers and enclosed activities is not so much the means of keeping the recluse morally safe within the literal walls as it is of fostering devotion and contemplative experience. Hughes-Edwards’s thesis is, I believe, valuable and persuasive. The almost exclusive English connection of the texts she treats, though, necessitates that this thesis be about English anchoritism with important implications for extra-insular anchoritism rather than European anchoritism in general.

Her book offers generous back material – a handy chart offering pertinent information about each of her chosen texts, forty-eight pages of reduced-font notes, an index, and a bibliography of fifteen pages. These numbers indicate how thorough Hughes-Edwards is in her research. There are a few minor issues with her notes and bibliography, though. Occasionally she prefers an alternative to a ‘standard’ text, as she does with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations. I noticed one instance of a scholar showing up with two different first names. (Here is my confession: I am that scholar, appearing as Robert in one entry and Richard in another, my co-edited book with William Pollard; this jolt to my vanity, though, is more than offset by Hughes-Edwards’s gracious treatment of the two works she cites.) Some of the contents of the section containing the notes could also have been handled differently. That section does not have headers indicating the chapter or pages to which the notes on a given page pertain. In the book’s chapters themselves, there are, as mentioned earlier, a wealth of supporting quotations. They are given there in the original Latin and Middle English (the earlier forms of which are sometimes tough to construe), but the translations are buried in the headerless notes. Those needing help with the original languages, most graduate students in particular, would benefit from the placement of the translations immediately under or after the originals in the main text. Over the last few decades, such a format has become the norm for scholarly books – a perhaps lamentable loosening of scholarly rigor, but nevertheless necessary for this and presumably subsequent generations. The other note-related alteration I would have effected would have been to shuffle most of the references to secondary scholarly works to the notes rather than dealing with them in the book’s main text instead. At times, Hughes-Edwards’s monograph reads like a thesis or dissertation would, with the obligatory ‘survey of the literature’ encountered almost on each page. The effect is to clog the book’s valuable main arguments with all sorts of things – some admittedly essential, most tangential.

These very minor quibbles aside, Hughes-Edwards’s Reading Medieval Anchoritism is a useful and persuasive book, impressive in its research and important for subsequent treatments of its subject.