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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. October 2008.
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IX. CONCERNING THE BODY
A bird sometimes
the earth, to seek his food for the need of the Resh. . . .
Although the true solitary was chiefly occupied with the affairs of the soul, either he himself or his neighbours were bound to take thought for his bodily needs. The possession of a little plot of land enabled the hermit to be more or less independent, but the anchorite could not maintain himself. The hermit’s absorbing interest in his garden was even supposed to become an obstacle to his spiritual progress. In the Hortus Deliciarum, compiled by a German abbess in the twelfth century, the ladder to perfection is depicted in symbol, with the climbers and their respective hindrances. Among men of religion, the hermit is foremost, although his garden has proved a stumbling-block ; whilst the anchorite is kept back by sloth, represented by a bed.1
The early hermits lived a primitive life as tillers of the soil, and their food consisted of herbs, roots, grain, and fruit. Godric of Finchale used to refuse the gifts of food offered to him, and cultivated his garden as long as he was able ; we read of his planting and grafting, and of his crops. He also kept cows, and in his old age, lived almost entirely upon milk. Robert of Knaresborough was another hermit-husbandman. He fared frugally, but one day he was left hungry, for robbers invaded his dwelling and stole his bread and cheese. After a time he was granted as much land as he could dig, and later, as much as he could till with one plough. He was also given two horses, two oxen,. and two cows. Robert’s parable was an ear of corn (p. 153) ; and the miracles ascribed to him are
the miracles of
a farmer. He tames the wild cow, and yokes
plough the stags which trample his corn :—
Hertes full heghe of
hede an horn
This legend and also that of a counterfeit cripple, who begged a cow from St. Robert, were depicted in a window set up in Knaresborough church in 1473.2
In some cases the hermit had no land to cultivate. Richard Rolle, for example, was homeless. At first he was provided with food and shelter by Sir John and Lady de Dalton, but when they died, he became a wanderer, dependent upon alms. Ill-clad and ill-shod, he suffered severely from exposure. At times he subsisted on mouldy bread, and had but a scant supply of water. Yet Richard did not refuse proper sustenance when it was provided. He had eaten and drunk of the best, not for love of good food, but for nature to be sustained in God’s service. He would not appear unto men to fast, but conformed himself to them with whom he dwelt, fearing lest he should feign holiness, and win praise. He advised the contemplative not to attempt too much fasting, lest “for febilnes of body he myght not synge”.3 Enemies were therefore not slow to say that he would not abide but where he might be delicately fed ; whilst as a matter of fact he frequently suffered exhaustion from abstinence.
Flesh was rarely tasted by the hermit. It was lawful to partake of it on the three great festivals, and on the four following days ; also in time of sickness, or strenuous work— “for grete labore past or labor for to come yf nede ax yt”. At the commandment of the bishop or patron, he might indulge in meat for a single day. He was directed to fast three days in the week, and on Friday upon bread and water. He was also required to observe seasons of abstinence, namely, forty days before Christmas and Easter, and nine days before Whitsunday and Michaelmas.4
In one Rule interesting directions are given under the heading Of provision in his cell :—
“If a hermit dwells in a borough, town, or city, or nigh thereto, where each day he can well beg his daily food, let him before sunset distribute to Christ’s poor that which remains of his food. But if he abides afar, as in a country village or a desert spot one or two miles from the abode of men, let him make provision for one week strictly from Sunday to Sunday, or he may begin on another day of the week ; and if aught remains over, let it be given to the poor forthwith, unless on some ground he can excuse himself in the sight of God, as that he is sick or weak, or that he is tending a sick man, or is busy at home with works bodily or spiritual which are well pleasing to God.”5
This encouragement to town hermits to beg their bread was mischievous. Langland complains that there were false hermits living in idleness and ease by others’ travail (p. 61-2). More than one Rule, however, devoted a clause to manual labour, and impressed the apostolic saying : “He that laboreth not, owght not to ete”.
Anchorites, on the other hand, could not support themselves. There are, indeed, two chapters in Aelred’s Rule (VI., XI.) to the effect that the recluse should live by the labour of her hands, or, if she were not in want, bestow the price upon the church or the poor. But if either sickness or tenderness did not allow this, let her, before she is enclosed, seek out certain persons from whom day by day she may receive food.
The bishop was careful not to license anyone unless he was satisfied that sustentation was secure and permanent ; indeed, if the solitary were in want, the burden of maintenance fell upon the bishop, as in the case of a clerk ordained without a title.6 Archbishop Arundel granted permission for the enclosure at Broughton (Lincolnshire) of the monk John Kyngeston, “according to the appointment and disposition of certain venerable friends of his”.
provided in money
or in kind. The allowance varied
according to the person’s estate. During
the century 1160-1260 royal pensioners
were usually granted ½d. or 1d.
a day ; but
Adam, a recluse at
The ample yearly allowance of 100s. was made to the anchoress of Iffley, who also frequently received oaks for her fire. Other donors gave smaller sums, even 1d. or 2d. a week, supplemented, perhaps, by food, fuel, or clothes. In some cases, anchoresses received a grant of corn [grain], but this was often commuted for a money payment.
The recluse lived on simple foods, chiefly vegetarian. The rules direct that she have potage made of herbs, peas, or beans, furmity sweetened with milk, butter, or oil, and fish seasoned with apples or herbs. On Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Lent meals only were allowed. During Lent she might have one kind of potage daily, but on Fridays only bread and water. No flesh or lard was eaten except in great sickness. The hour of the meal was , but in Lent, not until after vespers.7 Langland says that he will give alms to anchorites “that eten nought but at nones, and no more ere morrow”.8 
The inmate of a
cell which was
dependent upon a monastic house usually received a corrody, or fixed
of food and clothing ; thus in the compotus rolls of Worcester Priory
entered the portions of bread and ale given out to two recluses. About the year 1235 it was ordained that the
anchoress of St. Michael’s church at
Some persons contributed towards their maintenance. Agnes Booth or Shepherd (a nun of Norton Priory) was enclosed at Pilling in Garstang, a chapelry of Cockersand. Eight years later, in 1501, the following entry occurs in the rental : “Md yat Annes Scheperte hasse payn to James ye
Abbott of Cokersand for her lyuing—iis iid to me & vis viiid to ye Convent”.
The necessaries of life were sometimes provided from the manor-house. The ladies for whom the Ancren Riwle was written were maintained in an unusual degree of comfort :—
“For ye take no thought for food and clothing, neither for yourselves nor for your maidens. Each of you hath from one friend all that she requireth ; nor need that maiden seek either bread, or that which is eaten with bread, further than at his hall.”
The writer adds emphatically that “many others know little of this abundance, but are full often distressed with want”.
The recluse was warned not to grumble at her meat and drink, were it ever so stale ; if it were actually uneatable she might ask for more palatable food, but reluctantly and tactfully ; for it were a sin to cause men to say : “This anchoress is dainty, and she asks much”. Only sheer necessity should drive her to make a request : “yet humbly shew your distress to your dearest friend”. If fragments could be spared from her meals, she should send them secretly to poor women and children who had laboured for her. Waste, untidiness, and neglect of household duties were forbidden. The category of faults to be confessed included these : “Dropping crumbs, or spilling ale, or letting a thing grow mouldy, or rusty, or rotten ; clothes not sewed, wet with rain, or unwashen ; a cup or a dish broken, or any thing carelessly looked after which we are using”.
In a convent it was customary, for uniformity’s sake, that all should be attired alike ; “but wherever a woman liveth, or a man liveth by himself alone, be he hermit or anchorite, of outward things whereof scandal cometh not, it is not necessary to take so much care”. Foolish people, supposing that the “order” consisted in kirtle or cowl, would question recluses about the colour and cut of their garments, as though religion were a matter of a wide hood, or of a black, white, or grey cowl.
As the visible sign of separation, however, a habit was essential. No man felt himself a hermit until he had assumed some distinctive dress. Even that most unconventional of
solitaries, Richard Rolle, when about to flee from home, persuaded his sister to send to him in the wood two garments and his father’s raincloak, whereof he fashioned a habit and hood. Putting off his own clothes, he put on his sister’s white tunic. Above this he wore her grey tunic, thrusting his arms through the holes which he had left by cutting out the sleeves ; and over all he drew on the cloak, “so that, in some measure, he might present a confused likeness to a hermit”. Sir John de Dalton then provided him with “garments suitable to a hermit”. Long afterwards, when he was established as a hermit, his friends removed a tattered habit, mended it, and put it on again, whilst he was in spiritual absorption.9
The Rules direct that the hermit’s dress be according to the bishop’s ordinance ; it must not too closely resemble that of any order, lest it cause offense. “Let hys clothyng be humyle and not curius. . . . And yf he wyll of devosyon were next hys flesh a cylyce it ys laufull.” He was to wear plain shoes without hose, or else go barefoot. In his coat or kirtle, girded [belted] with a cord, he slept, and he was at length buried in it : “and he shall be graved whan he ys ded in hys habyt as he gothe”.
The habit varied as considerably as did the office. It usually consisted of loose garments of sober hue, caught up with a cord. A wall-painting at Rampton shows a hermit with sleeved surplice, tippet, and skull-cap. Another type of dress is shown in Fig. 6.
There was no regulation dress for the anchoress. Against the winter she was to have a pilch, a thick garment made of skins ; and in summer, a kirtle with a black mantle. The head-covering was not to be of fine texture or varied colour, but of a mean black. If the ladies dispensed with wimples, they should have capes and veils. Clothing was to be simple and serviceable. “Because no man seeth you, nor do ye see any man, ye may be well content with your clothes, be they white, be they black ; only see that they be plain, and warm, and well-made—skins well tawed ; and have as many as you need, for bed and also for back.” Underclothing was to be of coarse linen or woollen material. Shoes must be thick and warm, but in summer recluses were at liberty to go barefoot.
They might wear no ring, brooch, ornamented girdle, or gloves.
The male anchorite probably wore some clerical garb. Symon, of Allhallows, London Wall, is represented in the frontispiece of his book as a priest (Fig. 7).
sometimes made to
the recluse in the form of garments. Wulfric
of Haselbury, scantily clad in his chilly cell,
welcome gift from
"The man of God was
frequently benumbed with extreme cold, to such a degree that a certain
the neighbourhood of
But mantles which men might make, mice might mar. As Wulfric sat one day in his cell, he observed that his cloak had been gnawed by a mouse. “May the mouse perish which has thus presumed to damage my mantle!” The words were no sooner uttered than, behold, the creature, starting out from the wall, fell dead at the feet of the recluse. Seized with compunction, Wulfric called the priest and humbly confessed that his thoughtless curse had slain the mouse. The priest exclaimed in reply : “Would that a like anathema might utterly exterminate all the mice of this district!”
By a will,
dating from the time
of King John, a super-tunic of bifle
was left to Dame Lucy, who was enclosed in the churchyard of Bury St.
Edmunds. The anchorite of Colemanschurch
"I beqwethe to the seid Fryer William a blak vestment and a blak clothe steynyd with an ymage of deth. And I wyll the sam cloth be set vpon my hers in the day of my buryyng. Item I beqwethe to the seid Fryer William a red cloth that lyeth on my bed.”10
About the recluse’s toilet a word must also be said. Some of the extreme ascetics with their unchanged haircloth-shirts seem almost to have gloried in dirt and squalor. So absorbed were they in an ideal of holiness that they ignored the practical needs of the poor body. It was well that rigid discipline included immersion in cold water. The Rules gave no encouragement to personal neglect. One directs : “Wash yourselves as often as ye please”. Another quotes a saying of St. Bernard : “I haue louyd pouerte but y neuer louyd fylth”.[I have loved poverty but I have never loved filth.]11
To forsake all was the initial step of the hermit’s career. The rhyming chronicler puts typical words into the mouth of Ive, the companion of Robert of Knaresborough :—
I wyll forsake all
thatt I se
But although the recluse’s renunciation of the world included houses and land, fresh grants were made to him for his maintenance. St. Robert gave up his own inheritance ; but, as hermits, both he and his successor, Ive, came to possess considerable property, held in trust for the relief of the poor.
was sometimes the
owner, but usually the life-tenant, of the cell. He
frequently granted it to some religious
house, e.g. Geoffrey, hermit of Mosehude (a place not identified),
house there and all his possessions to the Knights Templars. Personal property he might dispose of at
will. Robert, an inmate of the
his obsequies. Twenty shillings was to be expended on the
bridge over the
Hermits were, as we have seen, sometimes married men, or widowers, and family claims were not disallowed. There is a reference in the Bridlington Cartulary (c. 1220) to the hermit’s wife, and also to their son who did homage for his father’s land at Bridlington. Thomas Wyllcys, of Ewelme, left 20s. to his daughter. Simon Cotes (p. 63), whose will is witnessed by his son, left to him all moveable goods ; but his house and chapel at Westbourne, built upon ground which he had inherited, he bequeathed for the use of a successor who should carry on his work.
Whilst the hermit might own his three acres and a cow, the anchorite might not possess such things as would tend to draw the thoughts outward. Enclosed women were warned against becoming absorbed in household cares. There are women, says Aelred, who are busy gathering worldly goods, cattle and wool, and in multiplying pence and shillings. They arrange food for their beasts, and at the year’s end they reckon their number and price ; then follow buying and selling, which lead to covetousness and avarice.12 The Ancren Riwle is still more explicit :—
“Ye shall not possess
my dear sisters, except only a cat. An
anchoress that hath cattle appeareth as Martha was, a better housewife
anchoress ; nor can she in any wise be Mary, with peacefulness of heart. For then she must think of the cow’s fodder,
and of the herdsman’s hire, flatter the heyward, defend herself when
is shut up in the pinfold, and moreover pay the damage.
Christ knoweth, it is an odious thing when
people in the town complain of anchoresses’ cattle.
If, however, any one must needs have a cow,
let her take care that she neither annoy nor harm any one, and that her
be not fixed thereon.”
Trading is condemned : “an anchoress that is a buyer and seller, selleth her soul to the chapman of hell”. She was forbidden to gather alms in order to give away.
The alms of visitors or passers-by were dropped into a box placed near the cell ; Langland says that “at ancres there a box hangeth”. Hoccleve refers (c. 1411) to this popular form of largesse :—
To every chirche and
The hermits and
During the fifteenth century, alms were so liberally bestowed that money became a snare. A Harleian MS. (2372) of that period shows that the anchoress was tempted to live in comfort, to receive poor folks and pilgrims, and to support needy cousins :—
“Some Recluses in
[dwell][sic] nat in wildernesses but in the citees that they may there
large almes wher of thei may holde greet meynee [i.e. company][sic] and
and promote more largely her kyn and her freendes than thei myghte in
estat and lyue more delicatly than thei were likly haue doon in seculer
[A]lthough the Ancren Riwle speaks disparagingly of “rich
anchoresses that are tillers of the ground, or have fixed rents,” the
did, for the sake of maintenance, retain houses and lands and receive
them. Not infrequently she made over her
property to a religious house, accepting in lieu thereof a definite
for life ; thus the abbey of Oseney made yearly payments to Childlove,
anchoress of Faringdon. Margaret, of St.
and the abbot
in return granted
her 6s. a year.15 If such agreements were not kept, a plea might
be sent to the itinerant justices, or a petition lodged in chancery. The case of Cecily, recluse of St. James’s, Colchester, is entered on the Assize
Roll (1272) ; the abbot of St. Osyth’s, who had not fulfilled his
pay her an annual rent of five quarters of wheat, undertook to do so,
pay arrears. Aline of
If the solitary
fell into a
condition of helplessness, the bishop constituted himself her guardian. When Dame Joan of
and chattels could
be disposed of at will, they seem usually to have been given for pious
purposes. Robert, the anchorite of
Hartlip, gave a silver chalice to the cathedral
of the cell were
usually of a devotional character, consisting of sacred vessels,
relics. A set of beads (i Par
Pater Noster Geinsid de gete) was
left to the anchorite of
The possessions of the solitary might, however, be given to friends, or even sold. Sir Brian Stapelton owned a silver basin with an image of Our Lady in alabaster which had belonged to the anker of Hampole.21 Another testator (John de Dodyngton, canon of Exeter and rector of Crewkerne) mentions in his will “a cup with a cover, formerly the property of one Stephen, a recluse” (1400).22 Thomas Coke, the
--page not numbered--
anchorite-priest, dwelling in Kexby chapel, sold a missal and a great portifer to Sir Thomas Ughtred, who agreed that the priest should have them in his keeping during his lifetime.
After the death
In early days it was customary for the cell to become the tomb of its tenant, whether hermit or anchorite. We read in the lives of Bartholomew, Godric, and Robert how each was buried in his oratory in a tomb prepared by himself, which had for years served as a solemn reminder of the end.
Sometimes, however, the solitary was buried elsewhere. Tynemouth Priory claimed the body of Henry of Coquet. When Roger of Markyate died, his body was borne to St. Alban’s Abbey and was placed with honour “in an arched tomb built into the south wall of the church, hard by the choir of the brethren”. In the same spot Sigar of Northaw was also buried. When Henry III visited St. Albans in 1257, he gave offerings at various shrines, including rich cloths for that of these famous monks.24 Over the recess of their traditional tomb (Plate XXX) is the inscription :—
Vir domini uerus iacet
Human remains have frequently been found on the sites of hermitages. In the Hermitage Field at Tarporley, the plough turned up a stone coffin containing a skeleton. Local tradition tells of a burial-ground at Oath Farm, in or near a field called Chapel Five Acres. In 1328 the sick recluse of Oath petitioned that when he died he might not be buried
in his cell as the custom was, but in Aller churchyard or elsewhere.
fifteenth century it
seems to have become usual to bury the hermit in his parish church or
other cemetery that he willed. One of the
hermits of Newbridge in Ickburgh desired to be interred in Munford
porch, another at the Chapel-in-the-Fields,
In the case of
person, the tomb was sometimes prepared before his admission to the
lay ever open to his gaze (p. 96). The
same custom prevailed when the Ancren
Riwle was written. The anchoress was
bidden not only to meditate upon death but actually to scrape up earth
day out of the pit. “She .
. . hath
her death always, in a
manner, before her eyes.” At the close
of the fourteenth century, one of the
monuments of the solitaries who dwelt under their shadow.
The tradition that Lady Lauretta was buried
at Hackington church under the large stone on the altar steps is
Hasted. There is at
CLAUDITUR HIC MILES,
REGIA PROLES ;
which may be rendered : “Here is enclosed a soldier of the
royal race of
The year 1846
saw the death of
two recluses at Allhallows, London Wall. The
sum of 6s. 8d. was
paid by the churchwardens “ffor
the Berynge of the nue Ancker, that is to say, for the grete
1. L. Eckenstein, Woman under Monast., 246.
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