Book Review: Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life

Review of Liz Herbert McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life. Rochester, New York: D.S. Brewer, 2011. 211 pp. (HB, e-book available) $95.00.

In her book, Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life, Liz Herbert McAvoy examines societal discourses that shaped anchoritic conceptions and practice and how they eventually led to women’s association to late medieval anchoritism.  Those interested in the history of anchoritism, specifically how gendered notions shape its practice and perception, will find her subject matter familiar as she has previously written and edited multiple volumes addressing the subject. While her specialty lies in the literary sphere, this study is truly interdisciplinary, combining philosophical, psychological, spatial, and gender theories to examine the role and perceptions of the anchorite in medieval society.

The theoretical basis of her study lies in post-structuralist feminist thought, relying mainly on the work of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Hélène Cixous, while also using the spatial theory of Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Gaston Bachelard.  McAvoy’s five chapters deal respectively with male perceptions of early anchoritic practice; late medieval male anchoritism and the threat of the “spectral feminine”; the “master narrative” of abject femininity surrounding anchoritic discourse; the way that female writers, such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, forge a new way of understanding the anchoritic enterprise not subject to the “master narrative”; and finally, how an “anchoritic self” is formed and colored by gendered ideologies while being influenced by the conflict and geography of the thirteenth century Welsh Marches.

McAvoy initiates her study with an examination of early coenobitic monasticism as a progression with the anchorite envisioned as the highest iteration of monastic practice. She examines this concept by analyzing John Cassian’s text the Collationes, as well as the Regula Sancti Benedicti, and Grimlaicus of Metz’s Regula Solitariorum.   The chapter challenges scholarship that argues that the desert monastic discourse is gender-neutral. McAvoy suggests that this seemingly fundamental “de-gendering” was countered by “hypermasculinized” discourses like that of the Miles Christi, and Benedict’s drawing upon the biblical images of Jacob’s ladder.  She explains that this discourse bestows a “phallic privilege” and male ontology on both the monastic intellectual endeavor and its final goal: union with God. Thus, anybody seeking to adhere to the practices outlined in these texts must understand them through masculine discourse. In her estimation, this “phallic language” works to counter the potential feminizing effects of monastic world renunciation.  The book’s arguments regarding this male privilege and ontology are well executed. While the discourse surrounding the Miles Christi seems to adhere to this masculine understanding, McAvoy may be stretching her interpretation with examples such as Benedict’s ladder imagery seeing as contemplative spiritual practice was often understood as an ascent toward God and a ladder may simply provide both a convenient and easily understandable metaphor with biblical precedent.

In chapter two, McAvoy goes on to examine the Regula Sancti Benedicti and its effects on male anchoritism.  In her estimation, the “Benedictine Ideal” understands the anchorite as an elite monk serving as an essential societal symbol for the entire monastic community. Here, she employs Rene Girard’s theory of the societal scapegoat, claiming that the anchorite serves as a willing subject of anchoritic violence, e.g. fasting, flagellation, and demonic battle, on behalf of the monastic community. She builds on Girard’s theory to suggest that the anchorite as scapegoat experiences this role differently depending on whether they are male or female. McAvoy also looks at the fourteenth century text Reply to a Bury Recluse, which she claims creates a discourse of practice specifically tailored to the anchoritic cell.  This practice and the discourse surrounding it, in turn affect the space, giving the anchoritic cell meaning. Thus, the cell comes to represent a practice that can be inscribed upon the anchoritic body, while the practice of the body can transform or create the cell. As McAvoy points out, in Speculum Inclusarum, the male anchorite is asked to adopt the practices of female religious heroes, such as Mary Magdalene.  Therefore, the cell has a reciprocal relationship of creating and re-creating a feminine or masculine body posture depending on which historical anchoritic hero is being emulated in practice.  This is an important point, as McAvoy’s later discussion of Margery Kempe relies on the concept that practice creates space and therefore Margery is able to live a quasi-anchoritic life without always being enclosed. McAvoy’s argument here is strong, but could have been bolstered further by pointing out that this attitude toward the cell has a long history.

In chapter three, McAvoy examines the “master narrative” of the female body as understood by male monastic authors. McAvoy argues that male authors believe the female body possesses a fallen and duplicitous nature. She explains that in male anchoritic discourse, the female anchorite must avoid her monstrous female potential on the way to overcoming her femaleness. According to McAvoy this is expressed through a discourse of female monstrosity countered by the female anchorite’s assuming a male subject position, thus throwing off her problematic female flesh. She asserts that this is expressed within the discourse of Aldhelm’s Prosa de Virginitate, where he calls upon his female readership to “cast off the sinfulness of their own predatory femininity” (84).  McAvoy goes on to show how this idea plays out in the Ancrene Wisse, a male-authored text for female anchorites.  Perhaps the most intriguing part of this chapter is the section on Goscelin of St. Bertin’s Liber Confortatorius. Goscelin, in a letter to an anchorite named Eve, seemingly acknowledges this “master narrative” and attempts to revise it by referring to Eve in masculine terms and himself in feminine terms, thus removing the monstrous feminine discourse from his letter.

In Chapter four, McAvoy explores how female authors attempt to depart from this male discourse which has forced a monstrous ontology onto the female body. She takes up the case of Julian of Norwich, who she argues progressively develops a non-phallic language to deal with her personal experience of God in A Vision and A Revelation, thus avoiding the monstrous understanding of the feminine body exemplified in the Ancrene Wisse.  Her argument regarding Julian’s work seems well founded as typical male discourses surrounding the female body are absent in Julian’s text. For example, Julian shows no anxiety about her chastity nor does she echo the monstrous ontology of the female body often found in male-authored mystical texts.  Following this study, McAvoy goes on to examine how this new female understanding of anchoritism is taken up and used by other female authors, such as Margery Kempe and an anonymous fifteenth century recluse who authored A Revelation of Purgatory.

In the final chapter McAvoy discusses the importance of geography of the Welsh Marcher lands to medieval English anchorites. She argues that the Welsh Marcher lands provided an appropriate landscape and political atmosphere to nurture and define this new female anchoritism. McAvoy presents these female anchorites as models of stability in a time of conflict and suggests that by the nature of their vocation they were able to create sacred, stable space on the borderlands. In essence, they became political symbols that communicated either Welsh or Anglo-Saxon national ideals through their lifestyle. This chapter discusses texts from the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, such the Chronicle of Lanercost, and seeks to further explain aspects of the Ancrene Wisse. Although engaging and convincing, this chapter seems out of place chronologically and thematically, as the previous chapter examines fifteenth century figures while this chapter reverts to thirteenth and fourteenth century anchorites. However, it does show how the concepts presented in the previous chapters may have played out in the larger English anchoritic context.

Medieval Anchoritisms provides an enlightening look into the mechanisms at work behind medieval anchoritic lifestyles and the discourses that shaped it. McAvoy thoroughly investigates tensions that existed between medieval and late antique conceptions of masculinity and enclosure that shaped monasticism and anchoritism.  The book’s sources are varied and interesting and the theoretical approach compellingly illuminates the seemingly ever-present “spectral feminine” within anchoritic discourse. However, because of the heavy emphasis on theory and its lack of chronological organization, the book is demanding. This study will be compelling and useful to those studying anchorites and monasticism, but may prove challenging for researchers unfamiliar with its subject matter or theoretical approaches as it assumes a certain amount of topical understanding.

Jacob Doss


Jacob Doss completed his B.A. at the University of Arkansas in 2011 with a double major in History and Anthropology and a minor in Religious Studies. He is now completing a Master of Theological Studies at Boston College with a focus in Church history, where his interests include monastic practice and spirituality, gender, and sacred space. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Lumen et Vita, the graduate academic journal of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

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Book Review: Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life by Jacob Doss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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