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Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200.

Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200. By Tom Licence. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 240. $110.00.)

Hermits are probably the category of medieval religious men and women with whom we moderns can, at least on the surface, most readily associate. We know, or think we know, what hermits are; we might even know people we think of as being hermits. The individualism and downright eccentricity of some of the hermits and recluses in Tom Licence's book appear on one level to confirm this view. In contrast with cloistered monks and nuns, who led ordered and structured lives in which the keynote was subordination of the individual will to the observance of the Rule under a Superior, hermits were often rebels, prophets, or subversives. For this reason, historians have been tempted to examine the phenomenon of eremitical monasticism as a function of social change.

The pioneering work on late Roman religion by Peter Brown (the "holy man") stimulated medievalists to think about the roles played by recluses and hermits for local communities and the significance of solitary religious as emblems of authority or, conversely, as rejecters of ecclesiastical order. Licence acknowledges the importance of such approaches, but although he has much of interest to say about the practical business of being a hermit in medieval England, he prefers to treat the popularity of the eremitical life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as primarily a spiritual rather than a sociological or political phenomenon. In doing so, he foregrounds recent interest among historians in sin and penance as modes of understanding eleventh-century mentalities. The so-called "crisis of cenobitism" in the late eleventh century, he suggests, may in fact have been a crisis of conscience. Licence proposes a threefold interpretation of anchoresis--the state of living a solitary religious life. Up to ca. 1100, he argues, hermits chose anchoresis as a satisfactory penance for sin; in other words, it was a life choice thought to ensure salvation after death. From the twelfth century onward, however, two different models coexisted. On the one hand, the hermitage was "a purpose-built factory for purging sin" and anchoresis a preliminary penance for the purgation of the soul likely to follow after death (121). On the other, living an eremitical life was also a way of becoming Christlike. Both of these interpretations indicate that eremitism should be seen as reflecting and helping to shape wider spiritual developments in Christian society.

Hermits were not societal dropouts but part of the cutting edge of the church. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in northern England, where it was the activities of hermits that breathed new life into a monastic scene that, despite its glorious heritage, had all but vanished by the 1070s. One of the paradoxes of eremitism as a phenomenon is that, whether one is thinking of recluses shut into cells abutting parish churches of anchorites in remote wildernesses, hermits needed the world. They either needed patrons to support them, as Geoffrey of St. Albans did Christina of Markyate, or land to cultivate for themselves. Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century entrepreneur of the eremitical life on Wearside (County Durham), built up a twenty-acre estate of mixed crops to support his hermitage. Along with his namesake Godric of Throckenholt, as well as Christina of Markyate and Wulfric of Haselbury, he is one of the outstanding characters of this book. With the exception of Godric of Throckenholt, these have long been known to historians, but Licence deserves our thanks for providing clear, insightful, and elegant analyses of their lives and state of mind.

Andrew Jotischky

Lancaster University
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Author:Jotischky, Andrew
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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