Thinking about Recluses: A recap of the second ‘Rethinking voluntary reclusion in Mediterranean Europe’ workshop

On 28th and 29th March 2019 an international band of intrepid medievalists, including four from St Andrews, gathered in Rome and 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.

Figure 1: A possible recluse cell?

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. Primary texts and material culture can help us to explore such questions in a more meaningful way. For example, most historians of the medieval English church have encountered guides for recluses, such as the widely disseminated early 13th-century Ancrene Wisse, or biographies of well-known recluses and 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. However, these historiographies remain distinct from one another and have tended to focus either on hagiographical material or on specific cities.  Therefore, one aim of the workshop at the Università Pontificia Antonianum 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. This constitutes a continuation of a conversation begun in St Andrews in 2018, when cases from Italy were discussed alongside Croatia and Portugal. This year comparisons were made between Catalonia, England, and Germanic speaking regions of the empire.

The workshop, 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), began with the welcome of Pietro Messa of the Pontificia Università Antonianum. This was followed by the opening keynote delivered by Eddie Jones of the University of Exeter. 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) and therefore often went unremarked. This does not make them easy to track down, though careful investigation reveals good evidence for their daily lives and those who supported them. The question of support was also central to the paper given by Joshua Easterling of Murray State University, though with a more spiritual understanding. Easterling focused 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 of the University of North Dakota then explored the role of widows who, in their role as recluses also 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).

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.  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.  As several speakers at the workshop made clear, new research and new evidence is now allowing us to set aside longstanding commonplaces. By focusing on the documentary evidence of communal Italy it is being revealed that recluses were a specific and autonomous element in the religious world.

Figure 2: A couple of St Andreans snapping a photo of the Bible of St Bonaventure

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 opportunity arose to inspect the Bible of St Bonaventure, once stored as a relic in Bagnoregio. With this last surprise the workshop came to a close, but 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 tentatively published in 2020.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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