Richard Rolle's Form of Living: A Medieval Guide for an Anchoress

Richard Rolle (1300-1349), English lay hermit and mystic, wrote a number of religious and spiritual works intended for a popular audience. His works can be neatly divided between those written in Latin and those written in English. Rolle was conscious of the fact that only scholars would read his Latin works, whereas the English (that is, Middle English) writings are addressed to a more popular audience, in fact, to women as advice or instruction.

Among the Latin works are scriptural commentaries, treatises, and commentaries on the Psalter. His greatest Latin work is the Fire of Love (Incendium Amoris), which makes explicit arguments for the superiority of the solitary life but is chiefly concerned with mysticism. Fire of Love was also Rolle's last major work in Latin. The English writings represent a shift in style and diction as well as audience. The English works are tightly-constructed moral and spiritual encouragements, culminating in his advice to an anchoress in the Form of Living.

Two famous essays presented to women anchoresses preceded Rolle's work: Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione and the Ancrene Riwle. Both works were couched in an affective piety and offered practical advice. By the time Rolle composed his work, several trends in theology had enriched the notion of private contemplation. Mysticism was of growing interest, and a spirituality centered on the radical concept of deification was debated by contemporary writers on the continent and in England, with Walter Hilton and the anonymous author of Cloud of Knowing as examples.

Most of Rolle's work had pursued a measured mystical theme as well. The blend of practical advice and an up-to-date spiritual methodology characterize the Form of Living. For all that, however, the tone of this work of counsel is neither exuberant, lofty, nor technical.

The Form of Living (meaning the pattern or model of living) was addressed to an anchoress named Margaret Kirkby, a young woman just embarked on the anchoritic life. At the time, Margaret was not a nun, although it is possible that she may have attempted conventual's life briefly. Her association with the town of Hampole has been transferred to Rolle, so that he is sometimes called Richard Rolle of Hampole or "the hermit of Hampole," though he never visited the place. Margaret Kirkby is credited with preserving and disseminating Rolle's works, especially the Form of Living, which he presented to her but less than a year before his death.

The Form of Living

Here is a summary of the twelve chapters of the Form of Living.

Chapter 1
The work opens with an overview of the three kinds of weakness most inimical to a person:

1) lack of spiritual vigor,
2) putting bodily desires into practice
3) exchanging a permanent good for a transitory pleasure

Throughout the essay, enumerations of this sort are one of Rolle's favorite methods of exposition.

Rolle identifies these weaknesses as not merely the bane of worldly people but the temptation of the good, even of the anchorite. However, in combating these weaknesses he advises moderation -- moderation in fasting, prayer, sleep, and clothing. The devil cannot deceive but the outer body, as he does with those who are physically disabled, who are persuaded by external pleasures, or who are tormented by physical suffering, like Job.

Chapter 2

Rolle begins with a long interlocution to his anchoritic reader:

Because you have abandoned the comfort and the pleasures of this world and devoted yourself to the solitary life for the love of God ... after a few years you shall certainly have more delight in being yourself ... than in the possibility of being a lady in command of the population of the whole earth a thousand times multiplied.

It is the first of his simple and direct observations. Here his convictions are clear.

People suppose that we [hermits and anchorites] live in suffering and in a life of privation, but we have more pleasure and more real delight in one day than they have in worldly things throughout their entire lives. They see our bodies, but they do not see our hearts, where all our comfort lives. If they could see the heart, many of them would abandon all they have in order to follow us.

From this introduction, Margaret is clearly a recent anchorite. Rolle deftly merges the value of the reader's anchoritic vocation to the mainstream of Christian thought and to a perennial morality. His vocabulary will represent the religious and devotional understanding of his day while addressing the special concerns of the solitary, especially with regards to temptation.

But Rolle's advice is unique because he himself is a hermit. Thus he warns against ascetic fasts as much as against material comforts. The former "kill with excessive austerity" while the latter "kill you with too little."

Accordingly, if we want to be properly regulated, we need to put ourselves in a good middle way, and in such a way that we can eliminate our vices and keep our flesh under control, but nevertheless in such a style that is robust in the service of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 3
Rolle extends the observation that outward appearance and public display of piety does not assure holiness, but that only those who "follow Jesus Christ in voluntary poverty, and in humility, in love and in patience" can begin to be reckoned devout.

Chapter 4
The anchorite should "turn absolutely" to Jesus, like fire climbing upwards and consuming the self. The anchorite should reflect on four things:

1) the short duration of life
2) the uncertainty of the soul's end
3) the need to answer for one's life spent
4) the great joy of those who persevere

Chapter 5
A renewed exhortation to avoid "unwise austerity" and "excessive self-denial."

Chapter 6
A pure heart is ready to understand four things:

1) what things corrupt
2) what things purify
3) what preserves purity
4) what induces submission to the will of God

 Rolle then catalogs the things that corrupt with regard to: 1) inner feelings, 2) speech, and 3) actions. Sins of the inner feelings comprise a traditional lists of sins, often psychological shortcomings of vacillation or reserve, pride or arrogance. The list of sins using the faculty of speech include everything from irreverence to gossip to vulgar comportment. Sins of action, too, are wide-ranging, from dissipation to fashions, plus sins of omission.

Three counteractions to the sins of feeling, speech, and action are: 1) contrition, 2) confession, and 3) satisfaction. The last is addressed by prayer, fasting, and acts of charity.

Rolle makes the preserving of purity a high priority for the anchoress. Purity of feelings is preserved by focusing thought on God, by controlling the five senses, and by engaging in useful occupation. Purity of speech is preserved by awareness of what one says, reticence in speaking, and an absolute repugnance toward lies. Purity of action is preserved by contemplative reflection on death, by the avoidance of bad company, and by moderation and self-restraint in food and drink. Rolle develops several paragraphs to the subject of food and drink, emphasizing his sense of balance. He adds useful advice about the praise of others which, however flattering, cannot have any weight because flatterers do not know the inner life of the person.

And do not give any weight either to their praise or their criticism, and reckon it of no significance if they are speaking less well of you than they did, but do reckon it significant that you should be more ardent in loving God than you used to be. Now I will give you a warning: I am certain that God has no perfect servant on this earth who has not some enemies, because only total worthlessness has no enemy.

To bring the will into conformity with God's will, Rolle says that three things are relevant: 1) the example of holy men and women, 2) the mercy of God, and 3) the joy of the kingdom of heaven.

Chapter 6 concludes advice on the active life, what actions and behaviors pertain to the anchoress. Clearly it is not the very practical advice of his predecessors but points to the spiritual and even mystical direction of the second half of the essay. The remaining six chapters, following the structure of Aelred and the Ancrene Riwle, address aspects of the contemplative or inner life, detailing the love of Jesus. Here Rolle is on comfortable theological ground, and applies his mystical insights to the very process of nurturing a spiritual life.

Chapter 7
"Different people in the world have different gifts and graces from God," writes Rolle, "but the special gift of those who lead the solitary life is to love Jesus Christ." Although this is enjoined on all Christians by fiat, Rolle sees the solitary as far more likely to be able to cultivate the right sense of devotion and ardent prayer necessary to foster this disposition.

Chapter 8
Three degrees of love of God are:

1) insuperable
2) inseparable
3) singular

Insuperable love is robust and constant, and no temptation, sorrow or calamity can overcome it. Inseparable love of Jesus not only echoes the scriptural commandment to love God with the whole heart, mind and strength. Inseparable love implies a fixed confirmation and in-dwelling presence of God. "Singular love is love wherein all comfort and consolation are excluded from the heart except that of Jesus Christ alone." Rolle describes inseparable love as "hot," like a fire burning the soul, so that "your soul is loving Jesus, thinking Jesus, desiring Jesus, breathing only in its desire for him, singing to him, catching fire from him, resting in him."

As mentioned above, in introducing the second half of the Form of Living, Rolle's description of the three degrees of love is founded on mysticism. But he presents it in a very practical manner, and that his strength.

In the first degree, the person says that she is "languishing with love." In the second degree, the person says, "I am sleeping but my heart is awake." In the third degree, the soul is like fire and like a nightingale, says Rolle. He offers this analogy: the first degree is like the stars, the second degree like the moon, and the third degree like the sun.

Chapter 9
The name of Jesus must be affixed to the heart, recommends Rolle. The name of Jesus must be thought of "continually and clung to devotedly." His comments in this chapter are suggestive of a discussion of the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Christianity and of the methodology of continuous mindfulness of the name of Jesus. The Orthodox concept of deification of the individual also has its counterparts in the mystical theology of this period in Europe, which inspire Rolle, though it was never fully developed in the West because of its challenge to official theology.

Chapter 10
This chapter extends the idea of love of Christ with a series of truisms about love. Here is a noteworthy selection:

Love is a virtue which is the most proper affection for the soul of man. Truth may exist without love, but it cannot be of any use without it. Love is the perfection of scholarship, the strength of prophecy, the fruit of truth, the spiritual strength of sacraments, the confirming of intellectual knowledge, the wealthy of the poor, and the life of the dying.

As Rolle puts it, God is light and burning light illumines our reason. This burning ignites our yearning so that we can desire nothing but God. Meekness makes us sweet to God. Purity joins us to God, and love makes us one with God.

Rolle then asks (and answers) three questions about love: 1) What is love? 2) Where is love? and 3) How am I to love God? Love is the heart, he says, and God is loved in the heart, strength, and soul. Rolle poses a fourth question: How might one recognize the state of love and charity. He offers seven criteria:

1. when craving for the acquiring of worldly things is obliterated
2. when one experiences a burning desire for heaven and the sense that the world has
    nothing necessary
3. when one notes a change of speech from worldly subjects to speech about God
4. pursuit of activities of spiritual benefit
5. when that which was intrinsically difficult becomes easy
6. a boldness of mind to endure worldly sorrows and afflictions
7. an exultation of the soul despite worldly anxieties

A fifth question is posed: What circumstances best enable the pursuit of the love of God whatever the situation? This is the heart of the issue of choosing what is today called a life-style. Rolle does not have to recommend the solitary life explicitly but to describe it precisely, as he does in this excellent phrase: The circumstances that best enable the pursuit of the love of God is the situation of life that best allows you "to be in the greatest physical and spiritual repose and to be least preoccupied with any demands or concerns of this world."

Chapter 11
Although Rolle probably composed the several paragraphs of this chapter on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, they were not originally part of the Form of Living and were added posthumously, perhaps to complete the structure of twelve chapters divided into six.

Chapter 12
Rolle returns to the contrast of active and contemplative. The active life requires a keen sense of God's will and commandments and the performance of the seven (corporal) works of mercy . The contemplative life consists of meditation on the scriptures and performing external devotions (hymns, prayers) at one level but ultimately entails devoting the self to God. The love of God projects into the spiritual realm, where love of God becomes the sole focus of life.

Here Rolle completes his advice to the anchoress:

Well now, Margaret, I have briefly outlined for you a "Pattern for Life," and described how you can reach perfection, and love the One to whom you have given yourself. ... If it helps you and is useful to you, thank God, and pray for me.


Richard Rolle simplified the growing complexity of scholastic and mystical theology in his day and presented it to a broad audience of lay people in his many essays. The Form of Living concentrates this knowledge and insight for anchoresses, but the themes and recommendations are universal for Christians and others. As a hermit, Rolle knew that the solitary life best provides the opportunity -- even for the simple layperson -- to pursue the task of spiritual development. The Form of Living is a classic summary of all the spiritual potentials that a solitary of whatever background or intellect can develop, of the life of spiritual contentment that a solitary can achieve.


Richard Rolle: The English Writings, translated and edited by Rosamund S. Allen. New York: Paulist Press, 1988; Selected Works of Richard Rolle, Hermit, translated by G. C. Heseltine. London, New York: Longmans, 1930; The Fire of Love and the Mending of Life, translated by M. L. del Mastro. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1981; The Fire Of Love, translated by Clifton Wolters. Harmondsworth, Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.