Liz Herbert McAvoy (ed.), Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the discourses of Enclosure, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2008.

Liz Herbert McAvoy (ed.), Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the discourses of Enclosure, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2008. £75.00, ISBN 978 0 7083 2130 0 (hardback), pp. xiii+ 239.


Reviewed by: Dr Kimm Curran, University of Glasgow, January 2011.

The important series of workshops and conferences on the theme of medieval anchorites organised by Liz Herbert McAvoy has been fruitful in providing researchers in the field with new avenues of enquiry. (See for example, Katharine Sykes’ review of Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe).  This present collection is a critique of rhetoric used or associate with anchorite experience in England and follows on from the conference in 2005 of the same title.  The introduction by McEvoy provides the framework of the collection:  it looks at the aspects of the rhetoric and imagery of anchorite literature and how the associations were transmitted from the anchorhold into the wider lay community (2). McEvoy also sets out to define what is meant by rhetoric and use of language and how rhetoric has been used and defined throughout. The questions raised within the collection are: What did people see when they looked upon an anchorite either physically or imaginatively? What type of body did they see or imagine and what meanings were associated with it? (6) In order to address these questions the collection is divided into three parts: I: Public Performance: Rhetoric and Place; II. Private Performance: Rhetoric and Space; III.  Bodily Performance: Rhetoric and Community.

Part one begins with an essay by Allison Clarke in which she uses archival evidence of a commune of hermits in Siena that shows the physical space and names of individual hermits. The thirteenth century records also indicate that the commune lived in collective places on the margins of urban settings such as by bridges and gates. The question that Clarke raises, however, is how the ‘rhetoric’ of the record keeper may have grouped hermits together when they were not necessarily part of a ‘group’.

The next three contributors focus on anchorites in medieval England and the rhetoric or enclosure itself. E.A. Jones looks specifically at how enclosure is represented in medieval pontificals: the rites of practice and how this is imitated in daily life.  Bella Millett and Cate Gunn look more closely at the Ancrene Wisse. Millett notes how sections of the text have rhetorical devices that indicate that the audience was indeed the anchorite. Gunn, on the other hand, looks at the rhetorical elements of thirteenth century sermons and their similarities with the Ancrene Wisse.  She suggests that it might be useful to put the Ancrene Wisse in a contemporary context.

Part two follows on with more analysis of the Ancrene Wisse with a piece by Anna McHugh. She encourages us to look at the Ancrene Wisse in another way by turning our attention to the rhetoric of the soul and the enclosed space of the soul. Michelle M. Sauers’ piece compares anchorite texts and physical remains of anchorholds in England and concludes that there was a specific rhetoric of solitude that discouraged privacy (physical isolation); solitude was encouraged as it was an active, constructing process mirroring exile.  The third contribution in this section by Liz Herbert McAvoy looks at lesser known texts about medieval English anchorites, more specifically the Speculum Inclusorum from the fourteenth century, and its partial translation in the fifteenth century titled, Myrour of Recluses — aimed at male anchorites. McEvoy highlights the differences in rhetoric used to regulate the physical space of women anchorites and proposes that authorities were not concerned with regulating male space.  The next two essays address rhetoric of space and spirituality in medieval women’s text; more specifically Julian of Norwich and Bridget of Sweden. Laura Saetviet Miles looks at the difference between the rhetoric used to describe enclosure and/or enclosed space in these texts. Fumiko Yoshikawa, on the other hand, looks more specifically at the writings of Julian of Norwich and her use of verb ‘to think’ and how Norwich uses this language to understand and convey her mystical revelations.

The last part addresses the body and soul in the rhetoric of anchorite texts from the late antique period onwards. Anne Savage looks more closely at the female spirituality and the body whereas Robin Gilbank focuses on Aelred of Rievaulx and how he shaped the rhetoric of the anchorhold and how his text, De Institutione Inclusarum, was adapted to the female anchoress. The last essay by Karl-Heinz Steinmetz examines the latro (thief, criminal) figure in eremitical tradition and how the latro can help illuminate the rhetoric used in later anchoritic texts.

For the non-literary critique trained, the collection can be challenging in places. McEvoy’s introduction does provide some background but, the language used to explain concepts, does assume some expert knowledge.  Further to this, the collection would have benefited from a conclusion to tie all the parts together to indicate how all the conceptual ideas presented can change the way we understand or think about female (or male) anchorites. This reader was particularly intrigued by Clark’s piece and the use of archival material to enhance our awareness of conventions used by record keepers and McEvoy’s piece on gender differentiation of enclosure and space. But, how these two pieces tied together, with the exception of conceptual framework of the collection ‘rhetoric’, is difficult to envision.

Despite these small shortcomings, the collection is invaluable and indeed important to the study of anchorite tradition in the middle ages. The premise that this collection ‘unravels complex rhetoric and imagery associated with anchorite literature’ within England during the later middle ages does not fall short of the mark. McEvoy should be commended for her commitment to the subject and encouraging scholars to produce thought provoking pieces of work.