Liz Herbert McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life, D. S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 2011.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life, D. S. Brewer, Woodbridge, 2011. £55.00, ISBN 9781843842774 (hardback), pp.ix+201

Reviewed by: Dr Joanna Royle, University of Glasgow, May 2012.

Liz Herbert McAvoy has been a lynchpin in research on anchoritic life over the last 30 years: encouraging scholarship in the field, publishing widely, and editing several influential collections of papers. This is her first monograph since 2004 when she reflected on the late English religious women Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Her new study therefore builds on many years of robust scholarly reflection. Medieval Anchoritisms is an ambitiously capacious project, ranging widely in terms of time, textual genre, author and audience, and theoretical interpretive tools. It successfully achieves its broad goal of turning a “historico-literary lens” (p. 4) on sources which current historiography is still actively exploring.

McAvoy sensibly does not promise a comprehensive consideration either of the anchoritic literature or of the approaches that can be used to gender their cultural meaning. Nevertheless the ground that she does cover, both textually and theoretically, is impressive. The five chapters of Medieval Anchoritisms range from 5th Century monastic rules to 15th Century chronicles. Since this is not a primarily chronological study there are necessarily overlaps and gaps in the sources and periods considered.  The first three chapters focus mainly on instructional literature, the fourth on female visionary literature and the last on chronicle evidence. Notable by their absence are saints vitae such as the popular Durham saint Godric of Finchale, but McAvoy specifically excludes romances that mythologise the recluse.  Less well explained is the inclusion of some non-anchoritic texts such as Aldhelm’s 8th century Prosa de Viriginitate addressed to Abbesses. After the first chapter the geographic focus narrows primarily to the English texts that are McAvoy’s area of particular expertise.

The first chapter looks at early monastic rules by Cassian, Benedict and Grimlaïcus and how these male authors imagined the spiritual dismantling of masculinity and feminised location of the male desert dweller. McAvoy disputes with scholars who assert that anchoritism is a gender-neutral discourse.  Instead she points to the use of militaristic and phallic imagery and discursive routing of the male anchorite back to the homosocial coenobium as redressing some of the shedding of masculine identity.

The second chapter continues to investigate the masculine voice, jumping forward from the 10th to the 14th century, by which time the anchoritic vocation was rhetorically associated with lay women.  The Reply to a Bury Recluse and Speculum Inclusorum, both directed to male solitaries, are used to develop a case for fundamentally different ecclesiastical views of male and female anchorites. McAvoy draws attention to lack of gender fears as pointing to a lack of overarching anchoritic narrative, but simultaneously identifies the spectral legacy of the pregnant Nun of Watton on the anxieties Aelred of Rievaulx, which trickles through subsequent instructive texts for both male and female solitaries.

The third chapter therefore turns its attentions to male authored instructional texts for female anchorites. Focusing particularly on Ancrene Wisse, it seeks to explore how the writer monstrously enfleshes his female audience through a rhetoric of hybridity. Although intellectually sophisticated, this chapter could make more structural concessions to its readers. The extensive interpolation of Goscelin of St Bertin’s lovelorn letter to his anchoritic ward Eve is an example of a masculine voice that reverses the master narrative, but rather derails the thesis being developed.

The fourth chapter is a study of women’s alternative readings of the anchoritic discourse, and of the visionary communities in which an Irigaran non-phallic language circulated in 14th century England. Through Julian of Norwich, her admirer Margery Kempe, and the slightly later Winchester Recluse, McAvoy is revisiting familiar ground in this chapter, but nevertheless adds new nuance to feminist readings of these texts.

Having followed through male writing for men, male writing for women and women writing about themselves, the final chapter takes a different direction, more directly addressing McAvoy’s interest in the paradox of how solitary female sacred spaces can operate as ideological boundaries that frame the identity of the society from which they have withdrawn.   The chronicles of Lanercost, Gerald of Wales and Lucien of Chester, along with charter patronage records, show how the body of the anchoress demarcated and stabilised the Welsh marches in the later middle ages.

At the heart of McAvoy’s argument is her thesis that “the anchoritic life was, from its inception, a vocation particularly haunted by a femininity that was often reified and just as often subliminated” (p.7). Overall she makes an engaging and persuasive case for this, but on occasion over-reads details or gaps to make the texts fit.  For example the first three chapters seek to show how patriarchy was defended against the monstrous feminine, but sometimes better illustrate the risk of collapse into the feminine than the defence of alpha-masculinity. Whilst it is helpful to open up the possibility that anxiety about women can be identified by their absence from texts, the reader is left aware that this is one amongst several plausible interpretations.  Likewise the purgatorial tortures of Margaret (p.142), recorded by her Winchester female friend, may not securely offer a female gaze that separates women’s body from fallen femininity, as McAvoy contends. What Medieval Anchoritisms does very well is show that the gender patterns are evident but not absolute or consistent. The grander narrative of the spectral feminine read over these patterns works best as a hermeneutic tool, rather than an absolute model of the discourse.

McAvoy is seeking to navigate the reflexive praxis between solitary and society which reframes each (p.6).  The cultural role of the Anchorite as scapegoat is one of the most interesting ways in which she draws this out. The imitatio Christi, suffering to reconcile the sins of the community, is played out in different social settings and is gendered for the embodied female (internalised) and male (externalised) recluse. Predicating some of her interpretation on the work of Rene Girard, McAvoy explores the proximity of the ascetic and the punitive, making a compelling case for the scapegoat-anchorite as policing or civilizing the borders of different religious and secular communities.

This is a text for a specialist audience, being both structurally and analytically demanding. It is the synthesis of McAvoy’s thinking over many years, and whilst texts are introduced, to follow her analysis requires good knowledge of the sources and theorists. This is, of course, one of the strengths of the book: McAvoy has done more than most to bring Anchoritism into the mainstream, so it is a pleasure to read a study which can pre-suppose such familiarity. Nevertheless it can be challenging to appraise the validity of her gendering with less well known texts. The study becomes progressively more theoretical as it moves towards the sources that McAvoy has spent her career studying; whether this is structurally intentional or a reflection of her depth of engagement is not entirely clear. It is interesting that she remains grounded in classic post-structuralist and feminist thinkers such as Foucault and Irigaray, rather than toying with some of the more fashionable ideas coming out of, for example, subaltern studies. McAvoy’s study will encourage scholars of late medieval women’s religious literature out of the comfort zone of female only texts (female authored or written for women), to contextualise them in male-male texts. It is a rich consideration of different users of similar motifs and a valuable contribution to the field.