Academic journal article Magistra

Only the Lonely: The Solitary Life in Richard Rolle's the Form of Living and Julian of Norwich's a Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and a Revelation of Love

Academic journal article Magistra

Only the Lonely: The Solitary Life in Richard Rolle's the Form of Living and Julian of Norwich's a Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and a Revelation of Love

Article excerpt

One of the key shared experiences of the anchoritic and eremitic vocations is adherence to a life of solitude. Yet whilst hermits, who were almost always male, were individuals licensed to the solitary life in a ceremony of dedication but free to "roam at will," anchorites, who were more often than not women, were enclosed in a cell having undergone a ceremony that emphasized their death to the world. The question raised here is to what extent did the differing, and largely gendered, experiences of solitude inform the language used by writers of devotional and anchoritic literature in fourteenth century England, such as the group known as the Middle English Mystics.

For the context of what is offered here as a rudimentary exploration of this question, two writers only will be compared, a hermit and an anchoress. It will examine the ways in which the language of solitude is constructed in the short treatise Richard Rolle ostensibly wrote for a woman about to enter the anchorhold, The Form of Living, and Julian of Norwich's visionary experiences recorded in the two texts generally referred to as A Revelation of Divine Love. It seems clear that both writers drew heavily on their own personal experiences of the solitary life, as well as from anchoritic and scriptural traditions, to produce their texts but do their vocational differences translate to how they construct solitude within their texts?

The solitary religious life was a notable religious phenomenon in medieval England. Withdrawing from the world into the singular reclusive life became an established religious institution governed by vows and rules, and its adherents were encouraged, applauded, and supported by both society and church.1 Rotha Mary Clay's still influential work on the hermits and anchorites of medieval England documents some 650 solitaries active from the twelfth through the early sixteenth century and also records significant evidence to suggest a constancy of patronage for solitaries from all levels of society throughout this period.2

Indeed, by the fourteenth century hermits and anchorites were widespread in England, and significant texts on both the anchoritic life and the contemplative life in general had already been produced. Examining the social significance of the eremitic movement in fourteenth and fifteenth century York, Jonathan Hughes discovered that, throughout the fourteenth century, recluses were prominent as counsellors of the laity, providing personal spiritual guidance to all levels of society. Their operations increased lay participation in the contemplative life, especially when they provided vernacular contemplative literature.3 Both Rolle and Julian were thus able to continue and expand this textual tradition in what Nicholas Watson has described as "a nation-wide explosion of vernacular theology."4

According to the Latin vita that outlines Richard Rolle's early life, he was a young man in a hurry to become a practicing solitary.5 Having fled what he considered the worldly horrors of university life at Oxford, he returned home to Yorkshire where the wife of a wealthy landowner agreed to provide him with his first reclusive abode in her house. From this early domestic cell Rolle moved several times before settling at the priory in Hampole in North Yorkshire where he lived until his death in 1349. His life was dedicated to producing a vast body of work in both Latin and English in which the solitary life is one of the central concerns.

He was also somewhat of an eremitic renegade and writes of his frequent clashes with local clergymen who disapproved of the zealous and unorthodox ways of the self-styled hermit. In one text, he is even forced to invoke the early Church eremites as a precedent when he is criticized for apparently not maintaining a fixed abode.6 Yet despite these personal difficulties, throughout his corpus Rolle insists that the solitary has a much greater chance of becoming one of the perfecti. …

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