12.05.07, McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms

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Cynthia Turner Camp

The Medieval Review 12.05.07

McAvoy, Liz Herbert. Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space, and the Solitary Life. Gender in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. xi, 201. ISBN: 978-1-84384-277-4.

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Turner Camp
University of Georgia

Scholars of medieval anchoritism will be familiar with Liz Herbert McAvoy through her studies of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe as well as her contributions to and editorship of several volumes on medieval gender, experience, and anchoritism. These earlier studies dealt with female space and embodiedness, with normative and monstrous gender positions, and with the longue durée of the medieval anchoritic tradition, topics that Medieval Anchoritisms extends significantly. Different portions of the book appeared in prior essay collections, but this work is more than the sum of its parts, for McAvoy has synthesized these ongoing interests to produce a holistic examination of how male and female writers work within and against the dominant feminization of solitary ascetic space.

In Medieval Anchoritisms, McAvoy argues for reading the anchoritic life as "a vocation particularly haunted by a femininity that was often reified and just as often subliminal," a gendering of the calling--and the space that defined that calling--that haunted the discourse of the male recluse and would be, in time, embraced and modified by later female anchoritic writers (7). In McAvoy's study, the enclosed, solitary "desert" of the cell, a traditionally feminine space of seclusion and renunciation, must be re-negotiated in every anchoritic text: by monastic writers seeking to preserve the male solitary's masculinity within the anchorhold's feminizing space; by male writers imagining enclosure as a protection for the otherwise- monstrous female body; by female anchoritic writers who refashioned the cell as a space enabling a female imaginary; by chorographers who imagined the female anchorhold as stabilizing a dangerously fluid Welsh March geography.

In her explication of gendered anchoritic space, McAvoy turns to poststructuralist feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva as well as theorists of space like Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault. One of the strengths of McAvoy's work is her sensitive use of écriture féminine as a heuristic for examining a discourse that, as she shows in her first chapter, was rooted in patristic concerns about the feminizing potential of eremitic renunciation. By considering how these texts discursively produce ideal subject- positions for their anchoritic readers, McAvoy performs a historically informed explication of the latent, suppressed, overt, or deflected fears concerning normative gender roles and gendered spaces. McAvoy's use of poststructuralist feminist criticism is supple, nuanced, and ultimately enlightening. Through this lens, McAvoy not only finds that which one would expect such an approach to unearth (i.e., Cassian's insistent gendering of the male recluse as a miles Christi, the Ancrene Wisse's creation of a "monstrous" female body to be contained by ascetic practice)--but also uncovers the unexpected (a Carthusian identification of the male recluse with female harlot desert-saints; Goscelin of St Bertin's self-emasculation in the face of Eve's absent, enclosed body) in ways that prevent any simplistic reading of anchoritic discourses of gender and space.

As may already be clear, the book's other major strength is its scope. McAvoy ranges widely over the literature of enclosure and solitude, drawing from both well studied and lesser-known (sometimes unedited) texts in roughly chronological progression. She begins with patristic and early monastic treatment of male eremiticism as an extension or perfection of cenobiticism, examining the gendered imagery in John Cassian's Collationes, Benedict's Rule, and the tenth- century Regula solitariorum by the German monk Grimlacus of Metz. This focus on male eremitic practice is continued in the second chapter, which considers the presence (and sometimes absence) of the "spectral" feminine in English advice to later medieval hermits: The Reply to a Bury Recluse, Aelred of Rivaulx's De institutione inclusarum, and the Speculum inclusorum, possibly written originally for Carthusian recluses and later translated (partly for a female audience) as the Myrour of Recluses. The third chapter moves into male-authored treatises written (at least ostensibly) for female anchoritic readers, as McAvoy pairs her treatment of the Ancrene Wisse and related texts with a consideration of Goscelin of St Bertin's Liber confortatorius written for (although not necessarily received by) Eve, a nun of Wilton who retired to a continental anchorhold. This chapter functions as a pivot-point in the book. Goscelin's inversion of typical gender roles culminates the earlier section on the construction of masculinity in the face of potentially feminizing enclosure, while the Ancrene Wisse's polarization of the female body as both abject and transcendent, and of the cell as the site of contest between these two states, establishes a discursive norm against which McAvoy reads the female-voiced anchoritic texts in the subsequent chapter.

That fourth chapter covers texts and concerns most commonly encountered in the criticism: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the question of how the devout woman writer can "avoid male interpellation,...achieve endorsement and...gain ultimate authority" by refashioning established discursive practices (114). Pairing these familiar (and arguably "special case") texts with A Revelation of Purgatory, recently identified as the work of a fifteenth-century Winchester recluse [1], allows McAvoy to argue that late medieval female anchorites had established a discursive space and devotional language that resisted the abjecting imagery of the Ancrene Wisse. Medieval Anchoritisms ends by moving away from the ideal subject-creation of the earlier chapters to the creation of a stable geographic and social space in the anchorholds of the Welsh marches; both writers (like Gerald of Wales, Lucian of Chester, and the Chronicle of Lanercost) and rulers of this contested space imagine female enclosure to "anchor" a stable national and spiritual identity within a borderland otherwise characterized by flux.

This critical approach to these widely ranging sources is coupled, on the one hand, with deep explication of select passages. McAvoy's close reading of the Liber confortatorius and its negotiation of Goscelin's carnal and spiritual desire for the absent, superior Eve, for example, was for this reader one of the book's most compelling moments precisely because it displayed the interpretive suppleness of McAvoy's chosen critical approach. Her detailed assessment of the (ungendered) horrors of purgatory in A Vision of Purgatory is similarly effective; its distance from the Ancrene Wisse's tendency to make monstrous the female body, when paired with Julian and Margery's feminizations of the divine, makes persuasive McAvoy's claims that late medieval anchoritic discourse fully enabled the female "gaze" or subject-position. On the other hand, McAvoy balances her poststructuralism with forays into the historical situations behind certain (often less broadly studied) texts. For instance, she contextualizes the Letter to a Bury Recluse within its manuscript witnesses and within the practice of monastic ludi or retreat at satellite granges. Her fifth chapter on the recluses of the Welsh marches looks in detail at the sociopolitical relationship between Wales and England alongside the discourses of nationalism and identity instability (drawing on the work of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen) circulating in these borderlands. As such, McAvoy's book both depends on and complements more historically framed studies, such as Ann Warren's historical and documentary work on English anchoritism. [2]

McAvoy's use of poststructuralist feminist theory to unpack this wide range of texts will not appeal methodologically to all readers, and the study's weaknesses are those endemic to this theoretical approach: a dependence on oppositional binaries, a reduction of all experience to discourse, and a tendency to make diffuse rather than precise, exact claims. Yet these weaknesses are mitigated by her supple, non-dogmatic treatment of such a diverse range of texts and by her ease of movement between "theoretical" and "historical" approaches (demonstrating indeed that there need not be any opposition between them). Scholars of both male and female anchoritic life will welcome McAvoy's compilation and synthesis of concepts she has aired in other contexts, and those interested in poststructural feminist criticism will find much to admire in her work.



1. Mary C. Erler, "'A Revelation of Purgatory' (1422): Reform and the Politics of Female Visions," Viator 38.1 (2007): 321-83.

2. Ann K. Warren, Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

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Author Biography

Cynthia Turner Camp

University of Georgia