20.02.03 Gunn and McAvoy (eds.), Medieval Anchorites in their Communities

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Steven Vanderputten

The Medieval Review 20.02.03

Gunn, Cate and Liz Herbert McAvoy, eds. . Medieval Anchorites in their Communities. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge : D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. xiv, 254. ISBN: 978-1-84384-462-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Steven Vanderputten
Ghent University
steven.vanderputten@ugent.be

In the introduction to this fine collection of case studies, editors Cate Gunn and Liz McAvoy make a strong case for an approach to medieval anchoritism that explicitly considers the phenomenon's embedding in and interaction with the social environment. As is currently the case with many other domains of the study of medieval asceticism and religious withdrawal, the traditional view of anchorites as essentially self-centred individuals who sought spiritual perfection through a state of radical withdrawal is currently up for revision. That revision, the editors argue, derives from an overwhelming body of evidence that lays bare a double paradox in standard accounts of the phenomenon. Solitaries were looking to transcend the self, not embrace it; and many of them sought and found solitude within communal settings.

To resolve these that double paradox, Gunn and McAvoy suggest two approaches. One is to study the relationship and interactions between the solitary and their social environment or (as they call it) "community." And another is to pay closer attention to how both medieval practitioners and outside observers understood the anchoritic phenomenon and how they imagined the affective and bodily expressions of solitaries helped shape communal configurations of piety. The purpose of this volume, then, is to explore the range of interactions of, and relations of mutual interdependence between, anchorites and various communities. The selected papers reflect the editors' deliberate choice to focus on the potential of cross-disciplinary approaches and on studying lesser-known sources and contexts.

The first contribution, by E. A. Jones, considers the understudied phenomenon of anchoritic settlements inside castles, looking at known examples to discover the exact relationship to the other--practical and symbolic--functions of these sites. Jones admirably illustrates how the presence of solitaries and the spaces they inhabited in these aristocratic environments could simultaneously serve as a critique and a reinforcement of secular power. The next three chapters all relate to the interactions of anchorites with religious communities. Cate Gunn relies on written and geophysical evidence to investigate the permeable boundaries between the life experience and spirituality of regular inmates at a Benedictine institution, Colne Priory, and its in-house anchorite. Sophie Sawicka-Sykes looks at visions of the interactions between solitaries and heavenly communities. Finally, Andrew Thornton re-examines the tenth-century Grimlaicus, a handbook for solitaries that derives from the Rule of St Benedict: Thornton reinterprets the text, convincingly so, as a manual for cenobites who wished to practice self-withdrawal.

The second major section of the book is on interactions with lay communities. Clarck Dreishen presents compelling evidence on how late medieval nunneries, by framing themselves as "anchoritic intercessors," justified their role in contemporary society and advertised their services to a lay audience. In her study of anchorites and the lay public in the late Middle Ages, Michelle Sauer explores what she calls "mutual contractual obligations" and "transactional inclinations." She charts intriguing inroads into a new sociological discussion of the relational aspect of the solitary life: it is perhaps the most compelling paper in the entire volume, and the one that most clearly invites further research for both England and other parts of the medieval world. Clare Dowding looks at the anchoritic phenomenon from the perspective of an entire parish in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while James Plumtree relies on the case of a false hermit in Fisherton to highlight the very thin boundaries between solitary, lay, and clerical lifestyles. He fruitfully speculates on the conclusions we must draw from this as regards the social role and identity of known solitaries. Finally, Godelinde Perk, in a very subtly argued chapter, reveals how Julian of Norwich deftly navigated orthodox and rather less orthodox discourse communities in her social environment, and played a mediating role between them.

The final three contributions explore the nature and contents of texts deriving from, or ideologically linked to, the Ancrene Wisse. Catherine Innes-Parker looks at the circulation of the Wooing Group texts, which she shows extended much further into the secular world than previously thought. Diana Denissen explores fourteenth-century reform trends in the Wooing Group. And finally, Dorothy Kim's paper is concerned with images of Jewishness in the Ancrene Wisse and associated texts. Although there is no question that these papers bring much that is new to the table, their connection to the central topic of the volume is sometimes less obvious.

When pressed to mention a point of criticism, this reviewer would say that the introduction and especially some of the case studies could have given more attention to a significant body of relevant scholarship in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and a host of other languages. The collection does an admirable job of revealing to the reader a wide range of approaches, contexts, and sources for studying medieval anchorites in their communities. At the same time, it (unintentionally) underplays the linguistic diversity of current research; its diverse chronological and social scope; and the immense, and as yet unexplored, potential of comparative research for different regions of the medieval West. But this must be be forgiven when bearing in mind the collection's deliberately modest ambitions. Publications building on this fine collection, which is bound to become a standard reference in future research, will further enrich the discussion to include all these perspectives.

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