Into the wilderness

Originally posted at ‘On Boundaries’ (now defunct). The thoughts presented in the original paper have been published as ‘Monastic Authority, Landscape, and Place in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis’, Gender and Authority in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, eds J. Dresvina and N. Sparkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2012), pp. 102-120. I’ve reposted it here as it has some bearing on an article I’m currently writing about the abbey of Bec-Hellouin.

What is a wilderness? How did medieval chroniclers and other writers describe it? What is the significance of the wilderness? These and other questions were the subject of my most recent paper at a workshop on monasticism held to launch three books (mine and two of my colleagues’).

For my purposes, the wilderness is what lies beyond cultivation and habitation. To the medieval mind, it may, therefore, not be that far away geographically, but mentally it might as well be the ends of the earth. The wilderness is a scary place, generally inhabited by a combination of robbers lurking in bushes and wild beasts. It is above all, the abode of hermits, those solitary people who exist on a myriad of boundaries and thresholds as Brian Golding and Christopher Holdsworth have reminded us.

Like all good students of eleventh- and twelfth-century Normandy, the only place to start is with Orderic Vitalis’s Ecclesiastical History. I’ve talked about Orderic and his importance in relation to boundaries before, but yesterday I was particularly concerned with his ideas about the hermit in the wilderness being the origins of monasticism in general, Norman monasticism in particular, and specifically his own monastery of Saint-Evroult. By describing the activities of Evroult, who founded his monastery, Orderic was linking the monastic past with the monastic present. At the time he was writing (early twelfth century), Europe, and France in particular, was experiencing a period of renewal in the practice of monasticism through the foundation of the new orders like the Cistercians and Fontevraud. The Cistercians, and in Normandy, the Savignacs and Tironensians, had their origins in the eremitic movement. Their founders sought out lonely wooded places where they later established communities devoted to a more ascetic tradition of monasticism, just as earlier holy men had like Evroult, and, going right back to the beginnings of Christian monasticism, Anthony in the Egyptian desert.

You would think that Orderic would be fulsome in his praise of such men who battled with the environment in a mental as well as physical sense. Reading carefully, I discovered his admiration was somewhat qualified. Anthony, Columbanus, Evroul and other early saints get a fantastic press, but towards the ascetics of his own day, he is more ambivalent. He admires their zeal, but criticises them for dismissing all other forms of the religious life out of hand. He warns of the hypocrites that might lurk in communities or among the hermits and who are allowed to flourish due the lack of accountability among solitaries or small communities. Tellingly, he says the old fathers’ worth has been proved and that some of these new chaps know very little about them. The founders of the ‘new’ monasticism were ignorant of the traditions of their own movement.

To understand why Orderic is so critical, we have to look at his context. He is a monk living in a community. It is almost as if the activities of the monastic fathers paved the way for monasticism – men or women living in community and under a rule – to flourish, removing the need for the solitary life. In other words, the Cistercians et al. were reinventing the monastic wheel. There was no need for these people to venture forth into the wilderness as it had all been done before. It was much safer and spiritually more rewarding to stay within the confines of the community.

‘Into the wilderness’ involves more than just looking at how chroniclers described the wild and uninhabited places so beloved of monastic reformers. For me, it marked a number of personal thresholds. This was the first time I had presented new research to my colleagues and also the first time I had given a paper on monasticism without talking about religious women. Unfortunately, neither did anyone else at the workshop, with the exception of a paper on Ancrene Wisse. However, the day did serve to underline the need to create a research space in the chaos that passes for holding down any kind of academic job in a university. Just as the early monastic fathers needed space to grow and develop communities, so we need space to grow and develop new ideas.


B. Golding, ‘The hermit and the hunter’, in The cloister and the world. Essays in medieval history in honour of Barbara Harvey (Oxford, 1996), pp. 95–117, (p. 110) and C. Holdsworth, ‘Hermits and the power of the frontiers’, in Saints and saints lives. Essays in honour of D. H. Farmer, Reading Medieval Studies, 16 (1990), 55–86 (p. 65)]]>


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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