The Medieval Review 11.11.11

Licence, Tom. Hermits and Recluses in English Society 950-1200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 240. $110. ISBN 978-0-19-959236-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Henrietta Leyser
University of Oxford

Tom Licence in his Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950- 1200 has set himself the difficult task of deciding how it was that during the period in question hermits and recluses became such an important feature of English society; unless we can in some measure answer this question there will always be in Licence's view a yawning hole "in our understanding of medieval ideals and thought" (9).

Licence begins his investigation by considering both the early Anglo- Saxon eremitical tradition of the conversion period and the somewhat later European emergence of the "new hermit" whose primary interest was in the renewal of Christian virtues both within and beyond traditional structures. Paradoxes at this point abound: "solitaries" form communities, set out on preaching tours, meddle in high politics. In England to which Licence next turns, the picture is further complicated by the appearance of that unavoidable date: 1066. But whether the hermits of 1066 were disgruntled Anglo-Saxon refugees, fleeing from the new political order, or enterprising holy men ready to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the ambitions of Norman patrons remains a question to which as Licence makes clear (chapter 2) there can be no simple answer.

In chapter 3 Licence turns from the figure of the hermit to that of the recluse. He offers an interesting comparison between the continental, in particular the recluse of the German Empire, and his or her English counterpart. English terminology (until the late eleventh century) is, Licence suggests, much less precise than that used elsewhere; this makes the recluse that much harder to find but it is worth persisting in the search. Recluses--and their patrons--turn out to be a sign of the new prosperity of early eleventh century England. Endowing an anchorhold was in fact just the way for a rich new thegn to mark his arrival on the social scene.

In Chapter 4 Licence considers how indeed it was that anchorites were able to survive. Hermits (or at least those we know about) had comparatively few problems: Godric of Finchale, for example, was famously prosperous. His servants emptied his fish-traps (of salmon and conger eels), milked his cow and took his surplus produce to market. The anchorite's position was more precarious but we still need not imagine penury. Anchorites too had servants and various forms of work helped to sustain them: they could copy or cover books; spin, weave or make gold thread. Parishes, moreover, were seemingly proud of their anchorites and ready with support.

Chapter 5 marks the second part of Licence's book in which he examines the attraction of becoming (or of supporting) a hermit or a recluse. The title of the chapter goes straight to the point: "Eradicating sin, in theory." Eleventh century theologians were deeply exercised by the persistent presence of sin: how, when, where could it best be tackled? In this climate, the exemplary figures were none other than hermits and recluses. But why? Was it because the solitary life presented a sufficiently penitential model of exile?; the most beneficial setting for the purging of sin?; the closest anyone could come in his or her imitation of Christ? Whatever the answer, none of this heightened awareness of sin, Licence argued, has anything to do with any "discovery of the individual"; it is the sense of a "common fallen humanity" (130) which was the spur.

In Chapter 6 Licence moves on to consider "Eradicating sin, in practice." Licence presents a convincing case as to why the anchorite's way of life could be seen as more effective than any other in the contest with the world, the flesh and the devil. No other environment could really compete: here, in essence was purgatory on earth. Moreover, as we learn in chapter 7, anchorites helped others as well as themselves. They acted as models and as intercessors, as specialists in the ways of the devil to whom anyone in need of help could readily turn. So efficacious indeed were anchorites in undertaking this role that many among them were venerated as saints, even within their own lifetime.

Anchoritic sanctity takes Licence to his conclusion. Societies create the saints they need and want; the hermits and recluses of twelfth century England revived an uncompromising model of holiness at a particular moment before the Church had quite worked out how "ordinary" men and women could reach heaven. This was to be the achievement of the thirteenth century; extreme asceticism thereafter became unnecessary, even suspect. The hermit could now become as he does in Licence's last pages, an object of affectionate ridicule.

This is a carefully researched book, full of judicious insight. It should become essential reading for anyone interested in the religious aspirations of twelfth century England.