Reading Medieval Anchoritism: Ideology and Spiritual Practicesby Mari Hughes-Edwards
Medieval anchorites embraced the most extreme and punishing form of solitude known to the medieval world—enclosure in the same four walls for life—in order to forge a closer connection with God. As a way of understanding the lives, beliefs, and experiences of anchorites, Reading Medieval Anchoritism explores guides to the anchorite life that were/i>
Medieval anchorites embraced the most extreme and punishing form of solitude known to the medieval world—enclosure in the same four walls for life—in order to forge a closer connection with God. As a way of understanding the lives, beliefs, and experiences of anchorites, Reading Medieval Anchoritism explores guides to the anchorite life that were published in England throughout the Middle Ages. Mari Hughes-Edwards surveys five centuries of the guides’ negotiations of four anchoritic ideals—enclosure, solitude, chastity, and orthodoxy—as well as two vital spiritual practices, asceticism and contemplative experience. The book explodes the long-standing myth of the anchorhold as solitary death-cell, revealing it instead as the site of potential intellectual change and spiritual growth.
Mari Hughes-Edwards is a senior lecturer in English literature at Edge Hill University.
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Reading Medieval Anchoritism
Ideology and Spiritual Practices
By Mari Hughes-Edwards
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2012 Mari Hughes-Edwards
All rights reserved.
Introducing the Guides
The earlier medieval guides
The earliest extant English anchoritic guide, Goscelin of St Bertin's Liber confortatorius, was written c.1080 for the recluse Eve. It is extant in a single manuscript, London, British Library, MS Sloane 3103, of the abbey of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte in Normandy; the mid-twelfth-century work of more than one scribe. Like Aelred's twelfth-century guide, the Liber is a letter and, like the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, it is of such a length that it is subdivided – in its case into four books and a prologue. Book I focuses on complaint and comfort. Therein, Goscelin alleges many grievances against Eve for her 'desertion' of him and of England. These were prompted by her, apparently secret, move to an anchorhold at the church of Saint-Laurent du Tertre in Angers. Book II confronts human sinfulness, the battle against which is cast as the route to spiritual success in the tradition of the ultimate struggle: Christ's Passion. In its context, the Liber argues, every Christian, but especially the recluse, must fight. Book III seeks to inflame Eve's spiritual desires and offers strategies whereby she can conquer the dejection and doubt constructed as inherent to the solitary vocation. Book IV focuses on the importance of humility as a foundation stone for all virtue. Remarkable for its final section, in which a new Revelation-style heaven and earth are imagined at length, eternal perfection (the reward for a spiritual life well lived) is contrasted with the sinfulness of Goscelin's contemporary world and Eve is exhorted thusly, at the guide's conclusion: 'Sic habeas anime cuncta cupita tue' (Liber, p. 117).
In comparison to other earlier medieval guides such as Ancrene Wisse, the Liber has been less explored by scholars. Yet, in terms of the guidance tradition, it is extraordinary, a text written as much for the sake of its author as its recluse, it makes bold claims and 'petit astra quadrigis' (Liber, p. 19). Yet, we do not know whether Eve ever received it, much less that she actually used it as a guide. Otter hypothesizes: 'there seems to have been no reply', but Stephanie Hollis argues that we cannot know whether it was even sent, for although the existence of a continental copy renders it potentially possible: 'There is no evidence that it was known to Goscelin's contemporaries or to later generations'.
Biographical information about Eve is scarce. Hollis suggests she was 'of noble family, the English-born daughter of a Danish father and a Lotharingian mother', possibly the niece of Herman, bishop of Ramsbury and Sherborne. She may have been born in 1058, was perhaps seven when she was dedicated as a child oblate to the Wilton community in 1065, perhaps twenty-two when she became a recluse if 1058 really is the year of her birth, and she died in 1120. It is not certain that she was a nun prior to reclusive enclosure. We do not know what motivated that enclosure, although Hollis argues that Eve 'did not find Wilton conducive to a life of contemplation', citing Hilary of Orléans's commemorative poem, which hints at Eve's spiritual discomfort there. Otter argues that Eve had 'a predecessor at Angers who recruited her and introduced her to the anchoritic life' (Otter, p. 113, n. 10). Hollis remarks: 'At Angers Eve joined a small community of recluses attached to the church ... Some ... twenty years later – she moved to the church of Saint-Eutrope, where she was joined by her niece Ravenissa'. At Saint-Eutrope she seems to have shared her solitude with the male recluse, Hervé of Vendôme, one of the supporters of Robert of Arbrissel, who himself, as Dyan Elliott notes, was 'repeatedly accused of sleeping alongside his female followers'. It seems that Eve repeatedly shared her solitude, with both men and women. Her relationship with Hervé evokes obvious comparisons with the intimacy that Goscelin claims he himself shared with Eve, although it is too extreme to conclude, as Elliott does, that 'Eve, despite her spirited show of independence in unilaterally leaving England ... could be perceived as merely exchanging Goscelin for Hervé'. If nothing else, this overlooks the twenty years of solitude Eve negotiates in-between the move to, and her departure from, Angers. The relative scarcity of biographical information increases the unwise temptation to read Goscelin's guide as biography, as in Daphne Stroud's conclusion: 'For Eve's early life at Wilton the only reliable source is the Liber' and her certainty that where Hilary of Orléans's evidence conflicts with Goscelin's 'it must be rejected'. This is exactly the kind of submission to Goscelin's textual authority that he hoped his guide would persuade Eve herself to make. Yet Hollis rightly warns the reader about Goscelin's 'tendency to projection'. This guidance writer has an unusually strong vested interest in constructing his apparent familiarity with his recluse. Part of his attempt to reconcile himself to her loss involves the negotiation of the only connection between them that is now possible. The spectre of their former intimacy enables Goscelin to stake the only claim to Eve he can now make: that of her anchoritic guidance writer.
More is known about Goscelin's own life. Born in northern France, c.1040, he was originally a monk of Saint-Bertin, the Benedictine abbey in Saint-Omer. Flemish by birth, he relocated to England prior to 1065, possibly as early as 1058. Part of Bishop Herman's household, he was, Hollis notes: 'foremost among the authors who recreated the Anglo-Saxon past for the Norman regime'. He was an accomplished hagiographer. Joseph P. McGowan notes Goscelin's responsibility for many vitae, notably those of Hildelith, Mildred, Æthelburga and the bishops Laurence, Mellitus, Justus and Deusdedit. Speculation exists that Goscelin met Eve as chaplain to the nunnery at Wilton or was even her childhood tutor. Engaged by the Wilton community to write the Vita and the Translatio of their patron saint Edith (c.961–84), he was certainly involved in the business of guiding and celebrating the women of Wilton before he wrote his Liber. By the time he did, he had been forced to leave Wiltshire by Herman's successor and by c.1090 was permanently resident at St Augustine's, Canterbury, and died c.1114.
Goscelin was exiled then, both from Wilton and from Eve, at the time he wrote the Liber and finished his Legend of Edith. His guide, therefore, potentially seeks to reunite him with both. In it, he declares that he wishes Eve had never become a recluse; the only guidance writer to claim that he has lost personally because of anchoritism. He alone resents his recluse's choice, preferring for her a vocation that could have safeguarded their contact: 'sed hoc alibi quam hic et alia cupiebam uia ... cenobialis columba, non turtur solitaria, aut, si malles, turtur fieres in patria ... Vt nos minus desolationem plangeremus, te proxima' (Liber, p. 36). The closest later guidance writers come to this is, as chapter 5 will show, the later medieval guidance writer's certainty that spiritual salvation is not only to be found in the vocation (Rolle and Hilton write extensively of the value of secular life). Even the later guidance writers, however, are certain that anchoritism is the best vocational choice for their specific reclusive charges.
Elizabeth Robertson has argued that Goscelin's contradictory narrative unwittingly fashions Eve as the perfect anchorite. She has severed temporal ties in order to pursue her vocation, despite the consequences for those left behind. It is unfortunate that we know so little of the experiences of the families and friends of anchorites and of the potential effects their vocational choice may have had. Otter suggests that Goscelin's consequent turmoil prompts him 'to write himself free from Eva'. Yet this is not what he does. His narrative attempts rather to drag Eve back to him: 'post querelam discessionis commendatum, admissum, susceptum, respice tecum assidentem, ausculta tecum sermocinantem' (Liber, p. 34). He seeks their reconnection, not their disconnection. For this reason, judging by the length of his guide, he seems also to have found it hard to stop writing. To do so is to admit defeat; to lose Eve again. He tries, at length, to re-enclose Eve within the walls of his own words, but her migration to France places her permanently beyond his reach – unless she chooses to accept him as guidance writer. He has no interest therefore in the wider, incidental reclusive audience envisaged by many of his guidance-writing successors. Other readers are unwelcome; condemned as 'uentilator et cachinnator impurus' (Liber, p. 26). Goscelin's chief interest lies in persuading Eve into their new relationship and himself into his new role. Yet this new identity is precarious. Built hopelessly upon the foundations of an older one; when one collapses all collapse:
dum scribo, grassans dolor non potuit dissimulari; cecidere manus et usus scriptorii; rugitus et eiulatus inuasit me; corrui coram altari tui Laurentii ... clamabam frequens in diluuio lacrimarum quasi inter ictus et uerbera Domini ... et cum eiulatu ... intonui ... Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis ... Magnis clamoribus infremui ... Repetens ergo interruptam inter-rumpente luctu loquelam (Liber, p. 27).
The Liber often reads more like the (albeit one-sided) narrative of parted lovers than parted spiritual companions. Otter calls it 'an account of a deep, desperate, only half sublimated love'. Its 'erotic valence' may, she argues, be read in the context of the Ovidian paraclausithyron. Yet, Hollis declares it 'innocent of the knowledge of Ovidian amor', focusing instead on the doomed context provided by Abelard and Heloise's later love story, itself sublimated into Abelard's guidance of the sisters at the abbey of the Holy Paraclete. Hayward goes further back, to Roman times, arguing for Eve and Goscelin's place in a tradition of writing about friendship stemming from Cicero, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Boniface, Alcuin, and Anselm. More contemporary contexts are to be found in the spiritual intimacies of Christina of Markyate and the hermit Roger, of Christina and the Abbot Geoffrey de Gorran, in the bonds between Robert of Arbrissel and his followers and in the correspondence between Peter Damien and Agnes. Elliott argues nonetheless that 'the frantic tenor' of 'Goscelin's relentless focus on Eve is something of an anomaly', even among these examples. Chapters 2 and 3 below will show in more detail that this renders Goscelin's guide one of the very snares from which he argues Eve must free herself.
Eve's silence has inspired some critics to defend her passionately. Stroud declares that Eve 'pursued her vocation in ever-increasing holiness', ascribing any sinfulness in their relationship to 'Goscelin's own barely contained passion'. Others have defended Goscelin instead. H. M. Canatella argues vehemently that the guide reveals 'not a self-sublimated love between a religious man and woman but rather a friendship', non-sexual and purely 'spiritual ... ennobling Goscelin himself and Eve in return'. As Yet, since there is little unequivocal evidence for either position, Hayward is right to challenge criticism which seeks only to define the nature of Goscelin's devotion and to ask: 'What element in the text accounts for ... the need to discuss this?' She argues for a return to the text itself as remedy, Yet it is the text itself that prompts critical fascination with its forbidden possibilities; and wonderment at Goscelin's veiled self-castigations: 'Et que meis debebantur sceleribus, hec separationis tormenta' (Liber, p. 27). Otter rightly reminds us: 'For every passage that seems to hint at a guilty sexual relationship, there are others that speak against it', and Goscelin's penitence makes 'equally good sense if they refer to guilty desires rather than a love affair' (Otter, p. 11). Yet, his tone frequently reads, nonetheless, like that of wronged lover:
Omnia tempora tempus suum habent ... Habuimus nos quoque nostra tempora. Satis inuicem uidimus, satis collocuti sumus, conuiuati quoque et epulati, sollemnizati et iocundati satis ... si modo quicquam satis esse posset caritati ... Nunc, inquam, tempus eundi in fletus (Liber, p. 42).
He is petulant too:
O quotiens Egidam tuam beatam pensabam, que te ut ar(c)tius diligebat, ita et loci et sexus unitate presentialiter sibi confouebat! Sed ecce sua sollemnia in merorem et solitudinem sunt conuersa, quanquam adhuc eo sit beatior quo abeunti potuit uale dicere (Liber, p. 45).
Whatever the real nature of the relationship between Goscelin and Eve may have been, this guide stands as testament to the strength of one man's devotion to one woman and on one point his narrative insists: she left the convent and the country without informing him of her intentions. In part, therefore, the Liber seeks not to support anchoritism but to rail against it. This points us to a glorious problematic: this, the first extant example of the English anchoritic guidance genre, forces a widening of that genre. Chapters 2 and 3 will show that this guide functions as the very kind of intrusion of the personal past upon the anchoritic present that the tradition usually encourages its recluses to avoid. This first guide, on one level, functions as a threat to the vocational success of its intended recipient. Its writer is concurrently the reinforcer of Eve's anchoritism and its bitterest critic. Ultimately, Goscelin may seek a measure of acceptance of Eve's 'defection', fashioning his sorrow as the ground of her spiritual growth. Yet, the vehemence of his loss is never fully eradicated and reading his guide as anchoritic guidance remains a difficult, if rewarding, challenge.
Yet, the Liber was not only inspired by Goscelin's devotion to Eve. It must also be understood as part of what Michael Frassetto terms the consciousness of a 'millennial generation', stretching across the eleventh century, motivated by the millennium of the Incarnation in the year 1000 and the millennium of the Passion in 1030. It is also, as Canatella argues, reflective of 'an internal dialogue' sited within the earlier medieval 'discovery of the individual'. Moreover, this guide is motivated by new cultural understandings of Christ, reflected in reformative drives such as the 1031 peace council of Limoges and the involved programme of religious transformation inspired by apocalypticism in anticipation of the later Gregorian reforms. Goscelin's guide then is not only a personal document. It is, as Hollis argues, also at 'the forefront of cultural change', truly a 'notable harbinger of the "twelfth-century Renaissance"'.
These wider cultural contexts are also relevant to the anchoritic guidance of the Burgundian churchman, St Anselm of Aosta (1033–1109), author of the Monologion, the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo, amongst other texts. From humble beginnings as a reluctant Benedictine monk (he reputedly found it difficult to choose between coenobitism and eremitism), Anselm later became prior and abbot of Bec and, in 1093, succeeded Lanfranc to the archbishopric of Canterbury. By the time he authored the three Latin letters for solitaries to be explored here, Richard Sharpe argues that 'he was an established author, whose books were known in monasteries scattered over much of France'. Anselm wrote many letters and Richard W. Southern identifies London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 59, as the largest collection of those composed from 1070– 1109, arguing for the manuscript's original provenance as Christ Church Canterbury, where it was begun c.1125–30, possibly as a posthumous Anselmian memorial. Scholarship is divided over Anselm's potential involvement in shaping the collection of his correspondence prior to his death; debate that goes right to the heart of critical estimations of Anselm's episcopal leadership. Colin Gale summarizes the controversy thus:
Some scholars [e.g. Walter Fröhlich] have argued that Lambeth MS 59 bears witness to Anselm's attempts to ... manage his reputation as a scholar-saint and to downplay his involvement in the messy, murky world of ecclesiastical politics. Others [e.g. Sally Vaughn] ... that behind a carefully nurtured image of simple holiness and profound thinking lay a deceptively astute political player.
Excerpted from Reading Medieval Anchoritism by Mari Hughes-Edwards. Copyright © 2012 Mari Hughes-Edwards. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Mari Hughes-Edwards is a senior lecturer in English literature at Edge Hill University.
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