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IMC Leeds 2019 Walls and Boundaries

IMC Leeds 2019 Walls and Boundaries published on

Organiser: Eleonora Rava, St Andrews Institute of Mediaeval Studies, University of St Andrews. Chiar: Frances Andrews. Speakers: Andrew Cecchinato, Defining Cities through Walls?: A Vexing Question in Legal History; Ana Del Campo, Border Control: Clergy and (Hired) Mourners in Funerary Rituals; Eleonora Rava, Material Walls, Intangible Bridges: Recluses’ Cells. Abstract: Walls and borders have become a source of anxiety in the contemporary world, as transnational movements of people have exacerbated old and new rivalries. These markers are mostly invoked as barriers to enclose and protect or to divide and segregate. Yet, historical investigation shows that walls and borders often united people, allowing multiple interactions both within and beyond the domain of time. Our panel seeks to explore these relations by looking at how walls and borders in the Medieval West could be variously permeable, connecting rather than dividing. The papers adopt three contrasting approaches: juridical, religious and social.




Rethinking voluntary reclusion in Mediterranean Europe 28th-29th March 2019

Rethinking voluntary reclusion in Mediterranean Europe 28th-29th March 2019 published on

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 absentiaon 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 Wissesurvives from the Italian peninsula, for example, and no English hagiographical vitafocuses 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 seriesco-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 deodevotaor deodicatamay 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.

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.

Voices from the Cells

Voices from the Cells published on

Recluses were separated but not excluded from the community that hosted them. While the hermit, being free, could provide for him or herself, an urban recluse depended on others to survive, existing in an osmotic relationship with civic and ecclesiastical communities. In virtue of the purity acquired through the ceremony of imprisonment (and staying-power), a recluse might acquire the role of mediator of divine grace, dispensing consolation and pious counsel. Taking responsibility for the sins of the community, she atoned for them by the rigours of penance, embodying a sacred presence and exemplifying a different way of living. The cell could also be a means for women to break out of conventional roles, becoming a kind of speakers’ corner, a place to hear and debate: the cell enabled women’s voices in public, countering Paul’s message in 1 Cor. 14:34 that they were to be silent in churches. 

This ability to speak is particularly evident in the case of Margaret the Lame who gave lessons from her cell in the main square of Magdeburg: she summed these up in salient points that were easily memorizable, such as the five qualities of the good christian, the seven torments of hell, the twelve attributes of the Trinity, and so on.  But there also some sensational cases in documentary sources, such as that of a recluse who promoted ‛heretical’ ideas from a cell, or that of a recluse, who testified in court against the patron of her cell, who had tried to abuse her. 

The specific objective of the paper is to understand the role and the power of women in a cell. To what extent and why did withdrawing to a cell allow women to act and to speak? How permeable were the cell walls? What sort of relations developed between recluses and the urban society from which they ‛withdrew’? What role did recluses play in the public, religious and ecclesiastical life of different urban and political realities? What determined these relations?