Tom Licence: Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The appearance of Tom Licence's definitive book on medieval hermits eclipses not only antiquarian surveys and piecemeal treatments but collects research of a century of scholarship in an intriguing narrative filled with historical anecdotes.

Furthermore, the research is presented in a historical context, pursuing the questions and issues identified within the social circumstances of their age, making the complexities of belief, motive, and practice relevant to the times. The panorama of hermits and their social and religious impact is intelligently (and sympathetically) presented in great detail. The book nobly achieves the author's goals of explaining how and why hermits and recluses (i.e., "anchorites") "gained influence in medieval society" and describing their "social functions."

What follows briefly summarizes the chief conclusions of the book's eight chapters. The book's introduction provides a valuable summary of hermit historiography (see Hermitary article) and offers a "definitions and sources" section to define terms and point to important primary sources. Among definitions are:

heremita or eremita: hermit at liberty to move; desert dweller;
reclusa/inclusa: recluse in ecclesiastical withdrawal;
claudio: closed or shut in, like a reclusa or inclusa;
anacoreta (Greek): one who is withdrawn.

Saints Benedict and Isidore distinguished hermits as being in lonely places far from humanity, distinct from the anchorite in a cell. The literature of medieval England used the term anchoreta interchangeably at times. So, too, does Licence.

One of the pleasures of the book is in discovering new terms. Here, at least for this reviewer, are some: assart, quern, autarky, virgate, corrodies, and mixtil.

1. The Anglo-Saxon and European Background. 

This chapter covers two periods: Anglo-Saxon England from 650 to 950 and Europe from 950 to 1100.

A prevailing reverence for hermits existed in Anglo-Saxon England. The 8th century increase in trade, markets, and production was reflected in population growth and increase in religious centers such as monasteries. The famous hermits Cuthbert and Guthlac established the eremitic model as a continuation of the desert model of St. Antony. Despite the social and economic decline of the 9th century, with the stagnation of monasteries as promoters of hermits, esteem for hermits continued to rise, evidenced by the English Martyrology, Felix's Life of Guthlac, and King Alfred's promotion of St. Gregory the Great's Dialogues, all of which extolled hermits.

In Europe, eremitism was ever more popular. After 950, already established eremitism was enriched by the Greek tradition of the lavra in Italy. Romuald of Ravenna believed that eremitism modeled on the desert fathers and the Greek lavra was superior to the cenobitism of the dominant Benedictine model.

Where monasticism was chiefly interested in liturgical elaboration, Romuald's eremitism focused on asceticism. His Camadoli was a form of "secluded cenobium." Licence notes that successor Peter Damian promoted the image of "hermits as elite ascetics, spiritual perfectionists, and champions of holiness against the frequent sins of the clergy."

The Italian experience invigorated Normandy, specifically the Cluniac reform. John of Fecamp developed eremitism as a penitential expression; defecting monks from Mont Saint-Michel protested cenobitic laxity, and Lanfranc of Pauvia embodied the hermit's ascetic scruples versus monks.

Thus, in the 11th century, the "new hermits" emerged, new in numbers as well as ascetic message, mingling in society. Licence summarizes Henrietta Leyser's argument that 

These hermits were wandering, preaching, monastery-founding hermits, different from the old sort, which tended neither to wander, nor preach, nor found monasteries. Every congregation of new hermits possessed no fewer than three of the following characteristics: namely, [1] charismatic leadership capable of attracting a good number of adult converts; [2] interest in pursuing a better expression of monasticism than any sort that was available; [3] a life of austerity, asceticism, and separation realized in an unconventional setting (i.e., not within a cenobium or a subordinate hermitage; and [4] blending of or alternation between the solitary life and the communal life.

Each region saw hermits emphasize different interests, but the "firebrand" hermits posed a significant challenge to monastic and ecclesiastic authorities. Their dissatisfaction with existing monasticism did not result in rival monasteries or orders but revived an older Benedictine tradition of neglected solitude and manual labor.

2. The Rise of the Hermit in England.

This chapter covers the eremitic ideal, ascetics and hermits, and the admirers of hermits.

The eremitic reformism in England was originally preoccupied with lay versus clerical control of religious properties within cenobitism. Thus, the homilist Aelfric conspicuously omits hermits. Bishops Wulstan and Aelfwold circumscribed their asceticism to a personal level. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, new hermits were negligible, but the Conquest "acted as a catalyst" to new hermit communities due to social and economic upheaval. Adult converts came from disenfranchised rural ranks as well as established educated monks seeking simplicity and solitude. Land endowments favored eremitic interests and feasibility.

By the late 11th century, Goscelin reached England and wrote prolifically, chiefly hagiography celebrating eremitic spirituality. Numerous regional biographers wrote, too.

3. The Rise of the Recluse. This chapter covers the German Empire and England.

The medieval recluse emerged from Germanic and Frankish Europe, where, as Licence puts it, "strictures of withdrawal into a cell were regarded with greater admiration than the uncontained rigours of  eremitism."

Reclusion was originally an extension of monastic asceticism but became a widespread urban and lay practice, especially among laywomen, representing a manifestation of the new hermit. The "rules" of reclusion were popularized in Lotharingia around 950 by Grimlaic, himself probably a recluse. A valuable contemporary documentation follows the pattern of recluses at the Monastery of St. Gall in modern Switzerland. Many examples of recluses, including Irish wanderers turned recluses, are recorded in the Frankish world. The austerities of reclusion were summarized in the contemporary phrase "white martyrdom."

In England, the number of recluses multiplied through the 13th century -- the term used was not in fact reclusa but anchoreta. Another term for women anchorites was solitarie vivens, meaning "living alone." Reclusion in England probably came via the continent, though many named recluses existed before the likely influence but under different rubrics. A section of the chapter titled "Uncovering the Recluses" traces the lives of six mentioned by Goscelin.

4. How Anchorites Made a Living. This chapter covers anchorites and their patrons, pioneers in the wilderness, and living in a cell.

This chapter considers what the author calls "some of the various human interventions, means, and operations by which anchorites were maintained and  ."

Though valued as religious, anchorites had to be maintained, and England's large number in this era points to surplus wealth in the economy complementing hermit industriousness and self-sufficiency. Patron grants of land and stipends account for hermitages and anchorholds. Religious from bishops to abbots to individual monasteries and churches sponsored hermits, sometimes as satellite monks selecting solitude.

Licence recounts the fascinating incidences of "eremi cutores" or cultivators of the wilderness, who created self-sufficient dwellings with land or whole communities of hermits working arable land together. The lives of Godric of Throckenholt and Godric of Finchal are described, unique combinations of religious and wilderness hermits. Their communities of eremitic farmsteads make an intriguing exemplar of an "autarkic existence."

Recluse occupations, though hardly self-sufficient, were necessarily sedentary: bookbinder, textile worker (especially women), and metalworker are recorded. The recluses received food and clothing. Usually they were assigned a servant (or, among wealthy anchorites, hired one) for errands, and to regulate visitors.

5. Eradicating Sin, in Theory.

Hermits and recluses of the era embodied the 11th century desire "to atone for sin and make reparation to God" by presenting eremitism as "a model of spiritual perfection." Their high standards -- as well as monastic ones -- in turn contributed to the era's mood of anxiety over sin, many religious even doubting that lay people could be saved.

Three views of eremitism emerged in the period 1050 to 1200:

The recluses' model is "metaphorical death." The cell as tomb leaving behind the world is the ultimate earthly purgation. White martyrdom was represented in recitation of the Requiem Office as the ritual ceremony of entering the cell. Reclusion is simultaneously paradisaical: exclusive communion with God, post-worldly life, and an antechamber before heaven.

6. Eradicating Sin, in Practice.

Since the era of desert hermits, anchoresis proposed a "life of spiritual warfare as a battle-plan for beating sin," as the author puts it. This battle was accomplished by withdrawal from the world into solitude, and purification of mind through prayer, of body through physical austerities, and spiritual battle with demons. These traits called for "strength of character and staunch determination." This "forbearance in the vocation" of anchoresis was sometimes sufficient proof of physical and psychological capacity. Examples from hagiographic tradition illustrate the practice referred to by the chapter title.

7. How Anchorites Helped Others.

Clearly, eradication of sin and not social arbitration in times of turmoil was the anchorites' chief function. But anchorites may have entered the first function socially in popular preference against the shortcomings of contemporary clergy. The economic expansion of the 11th century saw an increase of clergy but they lacked education and religious training. Anchorites inculcated penance as well as reconciled penitents.

Determining the use or frequency of confession prior to the 13th century is not demonstrable, but doubts about clergy as penitential resources before this time enhanced the anchorite's suitability for assuming this function. Sources about anchorites do show them employed in the role of confessor.

Hermits and recluses were also assigned or took on intercessory roles as vehicles of prayer, perceived by lay people as holier and closer to God than contemporary clergy. "Kings, nobles, ecclesiastics, and peasants sought the prayers of anchorites," Licence notes. Christina of Markyate and Godric of Throckenholt among many other anchorites maintained lists of clients soliciting their intercessory prayers. This circle extended to what historians describe as hermits' confraternities. Accounts, too, exist, of hermits' extraordinary mediation with God on behalf of others.

8. How Anchorites Became Saints.

By the later 11th century, Licence notes, "anchoresis was a virtually indispensable hallmark of sanctity." One measure of this claim is the rapid production  of hagiographies about anchorites, proposing their sainthood. Unfiltered through bishops, abbots, or ecclesiastical authorities, popularized accounts reflected popular consensus.

Regional and local cults often depended on anchoresis. This concluding chapter details many continental and English examples, highlighted by the history of Christina of Markyate as an apex of this trend. The history of anchorite qualities represents a species of sainthood.


This book presents not only a chronology of eremitism in the central Middle Ages but a presentation of social, economic and cultural factors that justify the need for more scholarly attention to hermits and recluses. Licence argues that:

until we explain the paradox of the anchorite -- why society revered and supported those who bypassed its conventions or renounced its ambitions -- a hole will yawn in our understanding of medieval ideals and thought. 

A gap not merely in understanding medieval ideals and thought but, it may be added, in understanding anthropological and cultural fundamentals across the globe. Licence's book takes us very far in the direction of these goals.