12.04.24, Matarasso, John of Forde: The Life of Wulfric

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Philip F. O'Mara

The Medieval Review 12.04.24

Matarasso, Pauline. John of Forde: The Life of Wulfric of Haselbury, Anchorite. Cistercian Fathers Series. Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 2011. Pp. 262. ISBN: 978-0-87907-579-8.

Reviewed by:
Philip F. O'Mara
Independent Scholar

It seems odd to refer to the impulse to adopt an eremitical life as a movement, but medieval hermits and anchorites were so numerous and well regarded that the term may impose itself. John of Forde, who was to become the abbot of one of the largest Cistercian monasteries in late twelfth-century Britain, wrote a biography of Wulfric, an almost contemporary anchorite, and Pauline Matarasso has provided a readable translation of this uncommonly well-documented example of the calling, based not only on the single printed edition of the Latin original (a new edition of which is in preparation), but also with attention to the four surviving manuscripts (all, remarkably, from John of Forde's lifetime). The volume, part of the continuing project of translation of the major texts of the first generations of the Cistercian order--a series that already includes John's eighty sermons on the final verses of the Song of Songs (trans. Wendy Mary Beckett)--concludes the publication of the works of John of Forde, and enables readers to reach an understanding of his personal situation as monk, scholar, and abbot. A good read throughout, and a good reference, the book is welcome.

Wulfric of Haselbury (b. ca. 1090) indulged during his first years in the priesthood in hunting and other minor dissipations, but after a conversion experience grew more faithful to his duties and intense in piety. Appointed to serve the church in Compton, a village in the south of England, by the lord of the manor, William FitzWalter, his dependence on that nobleman and his family was lifelong. In about 1124 Wulfric decided to enter the anchorhold, a small apartment attached to the church building on another of William's manors, that of Haselbury, and he remained enclosed there until his death in 1154, devoting himself chiefly to solitary prayer. His austere way of life was not fiercely so by twelfth-century standards; his fasts were strict, and he wore both a hairshirt and a coat of mail, a hauberk some of whose metal links he removed so that he could more easily kneel, and presented as gifts for friends. He had contacts of many kinds with the world. He earned a little by copying manuscripts and relied for food on a daily pittance bestowed on him by the nearby Benedictine abbey of Montacute, whose monks mistakenly anticipated that his remains, a sure draw for pilgrims and donors, would come to them after his death.

John of Forde, Wulfric's Cistercian biographer, was for a while the confessor of King John, one of the most uncomfortable royal appointments possible for an observant monk. He did not know Wulfric, but the village of Haselbury was not far from the abbey of Forde; writing in the early 1180s, John was able to consult several people who had known Wulfric, including monks at Forde, and to talk with people who had heard stories of his life in the anchorhold from witnesses. Testimonies were gathered from lay people, the local poor and (in modern parlance) the middle class, as well as aristocrats. He relied, it seems, only on tales that came to him at first or second hand. Of his informants, three were particularly helpful: Brother William, the hospitaller of Forde, who had often visited Wulfric; Osbern, the pastor at Haselbury and the son of Brihtric, the pastor before him who had been Wulfric's closest friend; and Walter, a monk of Glastonbury and a son of Wulfric's patron William FitzWalter. John had only one written source by an abbot of Waverley, who had been converted from a violent evil life after conferring with Wulfric. Eventually a single tale about Wulfric, contributed by another monk, Hamo of Woburn, was added to John's work.

The narratives, presented with little attention to chronology or thematic sequence, are often of intrinsic interest; John of Forde was a good judge of a memorable story. Predicting religious vocations and a longed-for pregnancy, and praying for Bernard of Clairvaux to be forgiven a grave fault and for the healing of a local tradesman's wife, Wulfric had a variety of adventures that were perhaps typical of the successful anchorite. He was for a while acutely troubled, whenever he had to use the latrine, by sexual temptations, an item of extremely frank character that proves typical of the approach of his biographer. Wulfric prayed in English, demonstrated faith and simplicity, took cold baths at night and devoted much of the night to the chanting of the entire Psalter and to silent devotion. On occasion he left the anchorhold proper to celebrate Mass in the church, or to pray there, but he did not travel, preach, write anything of his own, or seek to draw crowds--although he did send occasional messages to other anchorites and to persons who needed counsel or warning. He was assured in his role, but authentically humble. He took part, like other anchorites, in the commerce of the place, perhaps in an important way for the local peasantry and townspeople. A messenger bringing him a gift of bread kept some of it for himself and found it turned to stone, but Wulfric restored it after telling the thief what he had done and eliciting confession and repentance. There are more sensational tales, such as the healing of a blind man whose eyes had been cut out as a punishment for crime, but these are few; John was no more skeptical about miracles than other contemporary chroniclers, but he did not search out such material or poach them from other hagiographies. Wulfric's situation, associates and character form a convincing and consistent picture, although the biography--clearly composed with a view of obtaining Wulfric's canonization--failed in its object.

The anchorite's several contacts with Stephen of Blois and other members of the royal family involved both commendation and rebuke; these and his other occasional encounters with the great, in some of which he demonstrated courage and independence of judgment--as when he correctly predicted the failure of the second Crusade--receive much attention, but John shows that Wulfric's life was chiefly spent among local people of obscure station. Edifying narratives, presented economically and with a minimum of devout commentary, make up most of the biography. They indicate, as Matarasso argues, sincere spirituality and an increasingly salutary local influence over time. Wulfric's mornings were spent advising and blessing visitors, apparently a daily custom, the stories that imply such a frequency being therefore a sign that John of Forde, unsurprisingly, learned the most about Wulfric's last years. The biographer's tone is reverent but he admits to a few puzzles, especially instances of great severity on Wulfric's part, as when he refused to accept a visit from a man whom he regarded as an unrepentant sinner, and to whom he declined to give a word of advice or exhortation. John much prefers the material that came to him in reports of the "long and happy conversations about blessed Wulfric" (185) that occupied the travel of some of his fellow monks.

As the production of a Cistercian abbot, the work is predictably saturated with scriptural references, often brief and ornamental, often adapted to the situation without regard to the original context, and occasionally illuminating. In the prologue and the first ten chapters there are one hundred and ten biblical allusions. The Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles are found most frequently among New Testament books, but Paul's Epistles are also present. From the Hebrew scriptures, the Psalms and the Song of Songs appear most frequently, but nine other books are also part of the texture. Such use of biblical terminology is normal in Cistercian writings of that age: a "Note on Scripture" (235) unpacks references that will not always be obvious to modern readers.

John would certainly have expatiated on Wulfric's mystical experience and teaching if there had been much to say. There is a single mention of ecstatic prayer, a brief report of a supernatural experience bestowed on Wulfric one night before St. Michael's altar in the Haselbury church. It is revealing, in view of the attempts at strict enforcement of clerical celibacy in the early twelfth century, that Wulfric was on cordial terms all his life with Brihtric, the married priest who was Haselbury's pastor, and that when he received a vision warning him that he had to confess a serious sin, the one grave fault for which he had not sought forgiveness, he turned to another nearby married priest, Segar, all four of whose sons were eventually to enter Forde Abbey, as his confessor in this emergency. This is a surprising element of the social circumstances of this anchorite's vocation.

Wulfric's means of support included gifts of fish, of money (some stolen by a servant), books and a fine book cover. The Abbey of Montacute, which had promised to provide him with a daily meal, sometimes neglected the duty. One of Matarasso's few significant omissions is that she fails to indicate whether a sojourn of almost thirty years in an anchorhold was noteworthy for the time. Several centuries later, Julian of Norwich appears to have survived much longer, but it may be that most anchorites were elderly when they entered upon this form of life. Perhaps Montacute had expected a rapid return on its investment. The monks were determined enough to possess Wulfric's remains as to employ physical combat for them, but the victor was the church of Haselbury, where Wulfric's body was interred, at his request, in such secrecy that knowledge of the precise location died with those who buried him.

Few towns had anchorites of Wulfric's prominence. The work makes clear the intricacies of the connections, some of which were bonds of intimacy, among grandees of various levels, the local population, and a church such as that of Haselbury, whose pastor was presumably chosen by the lord of the manor with little or no reference to the bishop, but who, once installed, had many obligations to the people of the area. Brihtric was apparently both personally devout and an effective pastor. The family ties of such a priest could extend to local monasteries. Several monks of Forde were friends, apparently uncritical friends, of the married priests in the region, but they were predictably closer to Wulfric, whose austere way of life would have been of obvious merit in their eyes.

Wulfric's reputation spread widely and lasted untouched by scandal through many years. One legend, locally popular for several centuries and collected as folklore in the early twentieth century, is here published in an appendix. It cannot be directly linked to John of Forde's writings; apparently it survived among a few clerical families, although it has only slight religious relevance.

Pauline Matarasso is an expert translator and her version reads smoothly. When in two places the original is exceptionally difficult (and probably corrupt) she provides the Latin text in footnotes. Her long introduction covers a variety of issues that require attention, including the relations of monastic houses and individual monks with anchorites; the roles of the local lord in the lives of small-town clergy; oral tradition; royalty and its relationships to Wulfric; and the implications of such issues for an understanding of village life of the time. Footnotes clarify the text and suggest issues, especially in rural history, that are likely to repay research. The bibliography is extensive, including even unpublished dissertations, and helpful for any study of anchoritic and (more generally) eremitical life in the high Middle Ages. Matarasso observes that Cistercians including St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry, and Aelred of Rievaulx all wrote biographies; there are English translations of St. Bernard's Life of St. Malachy (by H.J. Lawlor and Robert T. Meyer) which do not appear in the bibliography, but this is the only notable omission observed. The treat points of philology, geographic and historical references, and puzzles, almost all minor and already solved; e.g. a variety of early reports, some involving wonder-working, of Wulfric's penitential use of a hauberk and of his willingness to give away some of its links (223-224). The book is enjoyable, informative, perceptive and likely to encourage further research.

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Philip F. O'Mara

Independent Scholar