Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sharing Excellent Article on Medieval Hermits, Recluses

I found this article to be of particular interest as I ponder this phase in my life as not so much a consecrated Catholic hermit but also as a mystic, and primarily as a mystic whose life is being lived out in the eremtic vocation.  I left out some sections from the article as posted on the blog cited at the conclusion of this post.

The mention of reclusion as a more ascetic form or hermit typology I find fascinating, especially considering the seeming lessening of current-day hermit life and various hermits who exemplify in daily lives a wide range of degrees of solitude.Sections within these sections that I find of particular interest to my evolvement I will emphasize with italics.

Women Hermits and Recluses in Medieval Europe and Italy

In the European Middle Ages, women were not allowed to live alone. For women with a religious or spiritual inclination, convents were the only practical option for several centuries. But nuns were forbidden a life in reclusion or complete or significant solitude. Reclusion was condemned as late as 1130 by no less than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote to a nun desiring reclusion that 
[T]he desert offers abundant opportunities [for evil], ... the woods solitude ... silence. Where there are no accusers to fear, the tempter can draw near in security, and an evil act can be committed more freely.

Bernard speaks of solitary places and a life of solitude as the "the serpent's venom, the trickery of the deceiver, the cleverness of the werewolf."
 Early synods had reiterated the prohibition of reclusion for women, and the Second Lateran Council of 1139 expressly forbad reclusion to women. So it was characteristic of the era that the Archbishop of York preferred that the mystic Christine of Markyate (1100-1155) be a nun rather than a recluse.
The mix of religious with social and cultural thinking on the part of ecclesiastical authorities points to a specific conception of women as the traditional "weaker" sex for whom contemplation in solitude was not possible and even dangerous to their "weaker" minds. Nevertheless, as will be seen, the same ecclesiastical authorities would pronouce their disfavor of eremitism in general -- of men or women -- until the eremitical movement of the central Middle Ages declined and the hermits of Europe virtually disappeared after the 13th century.
[Section removed; see original for full article.]

Documentation about central Italy especially suggests the prevalence of non-institutional recluses living in and outside of urban centers, on  or under bridges, city gates, roadsides, churches, mountains, and forests. The documents point to networks of alms or pecuniary distribution to hermits and recluses -- not by indifferent bishops but chiefly by laity. The situation contrasts to that of institutionalized anchorites (especially in England) and to the declining eremitical orders.
The number of hermits clearly declined in cental Italy in the 14th century. In 1290 Perugia, 56 women and 12 men are classified as recluses; in 1302 Pisa, 28 are women and 3 men, and in 1367 Fabriano there are just 12 women and 3 men. In Rome in 1320, it is recorded that 470 nuns resided, with 260 women recluses, the latter certainly an overstatement.
During the 12th and 13th century, a new vocabulary emerges. The locations of the recluses are varied: portiuncula (little place), casula (cottage) and domincula (little cabin). Even the roles of the recluses are refined in central Italy: reclusi becomes a generic terms that includes carcerati (enclosed) or incarcerati (literally incarcerated), hermitae (living outside of formal buildings) and frates et sorores (brothers and sisters, in lay roles). Still another term was pauperes monialis recluse or poor enclosed nuns. Not included as eremitic are the bizzoca or penetentials, specifically of third order laity.
In contrast to the old monastic orders, the emphasis of the new eremitical movement of this era was simplicity, poverty, asceticism and solitude. These values specifically nourished feminine qualities of spiritual expression.
[Section removed; see full article if you wish.]
These women, having experienced the typical social stages of average women of their day, nevertheless achieved a level of spirituality that St. Bernard's exhortation (quoted above) cannot comprehend. Theirs was a state of not so much abstinence or self-discipline but non-temptation. They were nol tempted by lust, gluttony, or power, some suffering acedia, doubt, and visions. 

The religious expression of women in the central and later Middle Ages was increasingly marked by mysticism and an increasingly sophisticated view of how spiritual values intersect with society and personal service. Intrinsic to their spirituality was the notion that, as Casagrande puts it:
The seach for the solitary life has its deepest roots in the ideal of separation and detachment from the world ... which is not necessarily effective, but rather moral and affective.
In this form of expression, women recluses differed from their male hermit counterparts in their expression of eremitism to every degree as fervent.
But the historical momentum of the era was not stoppable. The decline of eremitism beginning in the 13th century was due to several factors:
  1. the Church's intense pressure to regularize hermits and recluses into established monastic or other orders;
  2. the increasing wariness of eremitism among diverse authorities as Thomas Aquinas (who describes the eremitical life as "dangerous") to Jordan of Pisa (who describes hermits and recluses as "mad men and women"), and
  3. the growth of third order and lay religious organizations.
[It may be interesting to note that now, the Western Church has, as recently as1983, developed a means to regularize hermits (the term recluse has dropped from Church use) by creating CL603.  Thus, hermits who wish to receive bishop approval and be publicly professed under that bishop's direction within their given diocese, may do so. At this time, the canon regulization is not at all pressure upon hermits who may still prefer private profession of vows within the Consecrated Life of the Church.  Some bishops may prefer to not have hermits in their dioceses nor to deal with the regulized aspect of CL603, either; but I know of no statistics current on this point.]


Among specific sources for this period are Edith Pasztor: "Ideals of the Women's Hermitage Movement in Europe during the 12th-15th Centuries" p. 51-79, and Giovanna Casagrande: "Forms of Solitary Religious Life for Women in Central Italy,"  p. 80-117, in Franciscan Solitude, St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1995.

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