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Thinking About Recluses: A recap of the second ‘Rethinking voluntary reclusion in Mediterranean Europe’ workshop

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On 28th and 29th March 2019, just as the UK was once expected to be exiting the EU, an international band of intrepid medievalists, including four from St Andrews, gathered in Rome at the Università Pontificia Antonianum, and in Viterbo, for the second of two interdisciplinary workshops dedicated to ‘Rethinking voluntary reclusion in Mediterranean Europe’. It was a truly international event, organized by the St Andrews Institute of Mediaeval Studies, the Scuola Superiore di Studi Medievali e Francescani and the Centro Studi Santa Rosa da Viterbo Onlus.

In some regions of Europe medievalists have long investigated the reasons for choosing to live walled-up in a cell, and what it might signify in religious and social terms. Most historians of the medieval English church have at least heard of the early 13th-century Ancrene Wisse, a widely disseminated guide for recluses. Most scholars of Middle English have encountered texts describing one of a selection of well-known recluses, or their spirituality. For those wanting to pursue the question of what it might have been like to live as a recluse, there remain a few extant cells attached to English churches. There have also been useful and important studies of France, Germany and Italy. The relative historiographies, however, remain distinct. In Italy, moreover, the few previous studies have focussed either on hagiographical material or on specific cities.  So one aim of the workshop was to update our understanding of what it meant to be a recluse, particularly in Italy, and to do so by comparing the evidence and the historiographies of different areas, continuing a conversation begun in St Andrews in 2018, when cases from Italy were discussed alongside Croatia and Portugal. This year the comparators encompassed Catalonia, England and (though unfortunately in absentia on the day), Germanic speaking regions of the empire.


Seeking to understand what was at stake when devout women or – in fewer numbers – men, chose to withdraw from the world into a narrow cell, sometimes for the rest of their lives, requires a very wide variety of source materials, stretching between religious and social history. So a core purpose of the workshop was to compare notes on the evidence from different regions and their historiographies. It quickly became clear that there are major divergences in the nature of the surviving evidence: no guide to the life of a recluse similar to the Ancrene Wisse survives from the Italian peninsula, for example, and no English hagiographical vita focuses on a recluse.


The day at the Antonianum began with the welcome of Pietro Messa of the Pontificia Università Antonianum, followed by the opening keynote delivered by Eddie Jones of the University of Exeter who has recently published Hermits and Anchorites in England 1200-1550 (2018) (in the Manchester Medieval Sources series co-edited by St Andrews’ own Simon Maclean). Asking how much ordinary people knew about English recluses, Jones argued that they were a familiar part of the fabric of many a town (or its liminal spaces), taken for granted, and therefore often unremarked. This does not make them easy to track down, though careful investigation reveals good evidence for their daily lives, engaged in prayer, undertaking manual work, receiving alms and necessarily assisted by a servant or two to provide daily essentials. The question of support was also central to the paper by Joshua Easterling (Murray State University), though with a more spiritual understanding. Easterling focussed on the lives of seven saintly recluses to argue for a transition from the early importance of Cistercian salvation networks in sustaining and inspiring recluses, to later, more urban, Mendicant connections. Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota) then explored the role of widows who, as recluses, became mediators, mediatrices, in the wider community. Other papers unpicked the language of the Catalan sources (Araceli Rosillo, Biblioteca Franciscans de Catalunya), the responses of Central Italian bishops and synodal regulation (Simone Allegria, Università di Siena-Arezzo), the range of evidence for recluses in Rome (Anna Esposito, Sapienza Università di Roma) and the location of recluses in the Patriarchate of Aquileia (Marialuisa Bottazzi, Centro Europeo di Studi Medievali).


One reason why recluses have often been ignored by historians of medieval religion, or underestimated as merely a ‘transitional’ phase in a pious itinerary towards monastic enclosure, is the difficulty of the source material, which is often fragmentary and lacking precision. In Catalonia, for example as Araceli Rosillo made clear, references to deodevota or deodicata may refer to recluses, but also simply to particularly pious women or nuns. Context is everything, but not always easy to pin down and silences often hinder understanding. The level and nature of support from ecclesiastical authorities is a fundamental question, for example, but Simone Allegria’s investigation of the synodal evidence from Central Italy demonstrated that we do not always have enough information to provide a definitive answer.


The round table, during which Frances Andrews, Attilio Bartoli Langeli, Eddie Jones and Eleonora Rava mulled over some of the findings of the day, underscored the importance of rethinking the whole question of what being a medieval recluse might be taken to mean. (unfortunately one of the expected participants, Marco Guida, was unable to be present ) As several speakers had made clear, new research and new evidence allows us to set aside longstanding commonplaces. Focussing on the documentary evidence of communal Italy is beginning to reveal recluses as a specific and autonomous element in the religious world.


André Vauchez concluded the discussions, and the ‘business’ element of the workshop. Drawing out some of the threads of the conversation he suggested possible lines to pursue in deepening our understanding of the phenomenon of reclusion in the religious history of medieval Italy. This included indications of parallels with other parts of Europe but will also require some attention to the use of ‘semi-religious’ (a term he rejects).


On day two, we set off on a fascinating walking tour, led by Eleonora Rava, tracking down locations associated with the city of Viterbo’s medieval recluses. The tour began with the archives of the monastery of Sta Rosa (who was arguably a recluse), passed through the crypts and cloisters of several urban churches and ended in the diocesan archive now housed in the papal palace. Here an unexpected excitement was the opportunity to view close up the Bible of St Bonaventure, once stored as a relic in Bagnoregio (see figure 2: a couple of St Andreans taking a photo or two).


Funded by the European Community through a Marie Curie Action and the Centro Studi Santa Rosa da Viterbo Onlus (thanks to a donation from EFI-Edizioni Francescane Italiane), all the participants came away with a keen interest in developing further connections. The first step in that process will be an edited volume, to be published, work and life permitting, in 2020.