The Other Sister Research Seminar: Recluses

By Laura Moncion

On 20 April 2022, The Other Sister group hosted a thematic session on the topic of recluses. We had four speakers, presenting on their two jointly edited recent publications. This session was organized by Laura Moncion, in collaboration with Alison More, Isabelle Cochelin, Sylvie Duval, and Kendall Sneyd, with the question period moderated by Michael Hahn. The four speakers presented aspects of their ongoing work in relation to their recent edited collections, the introductions and tables of contents of which had been pre-circulated to the group:

  • Frances Andrews and Eleonora Rava, “Introduction: Approaches to Voluntary Reclusion in Medieval Europe (13-16th Centuries),” in Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/1 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • _____. “Defining Reclusion: An Introduction with Presentation of the Papers in this Issue,” Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/2 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe, “Bodies, Objects, and the Significance of Things in Early Middle English Reclusion: and Introduction,” in The Materiality of Middle English Anchoritic Devotion, ed. Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe (Amsterdam University Press: 2021) and table of contents.

For our thematic meeting, Eleonora Rava (University of St Andrews) presented elements of her research in the context of the joint project on voluntary reclusion conducted by herself and Frances Andrews. Rava highlighted in particular her edition of Johannes Nider’s section on recluses in his work, Tractatus de secularium religionibus, and how Nider’s text challenges the idea that clerics and Church officials tended to repress recluses or channel them into monastic life. Rava also spoke about additional workshops, editions of liturgical sources, and maps relating to the project, Inside Speaker’s Corner: Late-medieval Italian Anchoresses in European Context (https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/inspeco/).

Frances Andrews (University of St Andrews) spoke about their project’s aims in addressing on the one hand the types of sources, and on the other the broad geography relating to reclusion, and their development of a typology of “the ideal recluse” in order to discuss reclusion. Andrews also addressed the interactions which she and Rava had had with today’s prisoners about medieval reclusion. Their conversations with two long-term prisoners, charged with political crimes, on the subject of medieval reclusion, and these prisoners’ comments on passages from medieval texts about recluses, forms the basis for an article in the second Qrsm volume.

Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota) addressed the subject of her co-edited volume with Jenny C. Bledsoe, namely, materiality as it relates to anchorites (a term used more in English sources). Sauer offered an expanded concept of materiality, especially through the integration of sound and voice into the study of manuscripts and shrines in churches. She also provided an update on her own mapping project of anchorholds and hermit locations in Britain. Finally, Sauer invoked the concept of “anchoritic adjacent” and its usefulness not only in describing historical people or phenomena but also in sharpening and defining the qualities of the “anchoritic” or “reclusive”.

Jenny C. Bledsoe (Northeastern State University, Broken Arrow) elaborated on the idea of the “anchoritic adjacent”, and addressed this concept especially in relation to manuscript studies. The “anchoritic adjacent” in this context are primarily texts circulating alongside anchoritic texts, for example in miscellanies. Building on the idea of anchoritic textual communities, Bledsoe discussed how the circulations of these groups of texts beyond their immediate anchoritic contexts suggest the influence of recluses in their societies. 

These presentations were followed by lively discussions over video and in the Zoom chat, a portion of which is summarized here: Isabelle Cochelin asked about the geographical distribution of sources, especially the normative sources, such as spiritual guides, customaries, and rules for recluses, the latter being a difficult category considering that these texts may not have had the same place in recluses’ lives as a monastic rule would for monks and nuns.[1] We discussed further the “anchoritic adjacent”, following a comment made by Laura Moncion concerning people who were recorded as spending a short period of time in a reclusorium (e.g. Christina of Markyate or Juliana of Mont-Cornillon). Alicia Smith and Eddie A. Jones suggested here that such instances of temporary reclusion might challenge the idea of reclusion as being a form of death to the world, despite the forbidding language of some profession documents. Rava pointed out that many recluses found in the Italian sources were “temporary”, and stayed in their enclosure for only a short period. The question of reclusorium over monastery was raised, as well as a recluse or anchorite’s enclosure with or without a proper ritual. Elizabeth Lehfeldt asked about socio-economic and communal reasons for reclusion, which prompted reflections on the relative wealth which some recluses could have. Andrews and Cochelin both added that our ability to answer this question may come down to a question of sources: wealthier recluses may be likely to have left more sources than poorer ones. Jones brought the discussion back to maps, and the various decisions involved in mapping reclusoria and anchorholds based on documentary and archaeological evidence. Andrews and Rava pointed to Rava’s recent work on the topic, showing the movement of recluses between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[2] Kirsty Schut asked about early modern recluses, and Alicia Smith pointed to several examples of texts relating to these later recluses, edited in Jones’s recent volume.[3] Kate Bush invited the speakers to discuss the restriction and expansion of women’s speech in the context of reclusion. Bledsoe reflected on Ancrene Wisse’s instructions to recluses to teach their servants, as well as the dissemination of anchoritic literature, while Rava offered an example of a recluse acting as witness in a court case, suggesting the value placed on her voice in this context.

We thank all of the participants who attended this session for their attention, participation, and collaboration—and we extend special thanks to Andrews, Rava, Sauer, and Bledsoe for presenting their work.


[1] Bella Millett, “Can There Be Such a Thing as an ‘Anchoritic Rule’?” in Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions,ed. Catherine Innes-Parker and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013): 11–30.

[2] Eleonora Rava, “Eremite in città. Il fenomeno della reclusione urbana femminile nell’età comunale : il caso di Pisa” Revue Mabillon 21 (2010): 139–62. 

[3] E. A. Jones, Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).


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