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McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed., Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed., Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, Woodbridge, Boydell, 2010; hardback; pp. xiii, 241; R.R.P. 50.00 [pounds sterling], US$99.00; ISBN 9781843835202.

Hermits and anchorites were familiar figures in the landscape of medieval Europe. Liz Herbert McAvoy, a leading scholar in the field of anchoritic studies, has brought together essays by nine scholars to illustrate the central role played by religious solitaries in Europe during the Middle Ages. The geographic spread of 'Europe' in the title comprises the Low Countries, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and the British Isles. The collection's focus on anchoritic practice in a comparative perspective is particularly welcome, reflecting a 'new liaison and dialogue' (p. 3) between Anglophone and European scholars researching eremitical forms of religious life.

The contributors explore the 'multiple nature of medieval reclusion' (p. 2), outlining how eremitic practice gradually developed into the two distinct but overlapping categories of hermits and anchorites. Whereas hermits withdrew to isolated locations and maintained freedom of movement, anchorites were enclosed in cells, where they tended to remain for the rest of their lives. The essays highlight a shift in the gender of solitary practitioners over time. In the earlier period, hermits were more likely to be men, whereas from the eleventh and twelfth centuries women outnumbered men as anchorites, especially in the urban centres of later medieval Europe.

The contributors vary in their approaches. Whereas Anneke Mulder Bakker (Low Countries) and Pauline L'Hermite-Leclercq (France) present broad-ranging, theoretically informed overviews of research into anchoritic practice that raise broader issues and questions for the field in general, other contributors concentrate more specifically on aspects of eremitic life for a particular region. For example, Mario Sensi (Italy) adopts a very broad definition of anchoritic practice, locating the eremitic impulse as part of the broader lay penitential movement. He includes lay religious women (known as pinzochere) in his discussion of recluses in later medieval Italian cities. Anna McHugh and Liz Herbert McAvoy seek to uncover evidence of anchoritism in Scotland and Wales respectively. Both find evidence for eremitic practice, almost predominantly male hermits, and McHugh concludes that the female anchorite was 'virtually non-existent' (p. 193). Whether these conclusions reflect the lack of evidence of the practice, or the absence of the practice itself, remains difficult to determine with any certainty. Such analyses of why anchoritism lacked practical and cultural support in these less populated regions offer instructive insights into how economic, social, and political circumstances influenced opportunities for, and forms of, religious expression.

Methodologically, this collection is particularly strong. Much of what we know about anchoritic practice and the religious and cultural attitudes that enabled it derives from narrative sources, such as saintly vitae. The contributors blend analysis of hagiographical texts with archival research into wills, charters, municipal records, and archaeological evidence to balance the ideals portrayed in literature with evidence of practice, presenting a finely grained picture of the spiritual and social roles of recluses, how their lives were financed, and how they were enmeshed within and supported by their communities.

The editor's primary aim--to present a comparative collection as a resource for teaching--has been met admirably. Several chapters could be set as reading in undergraduate courses, and graduate students and researchers seeking an orientation to the field in general, or an overview of anchoritic practice within a particular geographic region, will find much of value in this collection.

Julie Hotchin, Independent Scholar, Canberra
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Author:Hotchin, Julie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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