Like the way of life he sets out to describe, Tom Licence's study of hermits and recluses in the central Middle Ages has a forbidding exterior. The formidable technical vocabulary of the various forms of medieval religious life - cenobitism, anachoresis, eremesis, reclusion - testifies to the significance with which the project of living according to spiritual ideals amid a fallen world was invested between the 10th and the 12th centuries.
Licence's subjects are anchorites - those who emulated the desert fathers of the early Church in withdrawing from society to live a life of solitary asceticism (as opposed to cenobites, monks who lived together in religious communities). They might do so either as hermits, who found a place of solitude to live, or recluses, who created their own place of isolation by immuring themselves in a cell. These are choices that seem almost unimaginably alien in an era when the norms of social interaction have expanded to include minute-by-minute status updates; but what makes this book so powerful is the subtlety and insight with which it explores the recognisably human experience behind the technicalities of formal spiritual commitment.
The sources with which Licence has to deal are fragmentary and testing, but they allow glimpses of experiences as extreme as the image on the book's cover, where a sneering demon wearing a jaunty loincloth presents his vicious talons to a patient but wary hermit. Some devils, in the hagiographical imagination at least, were as verbally inventive and psychologically cruel as they were visually terrifying: "Godric indeed! Pile of shit would be a better name for you...", one demon supposedly told a 12th-century hermit at Finchale near Durham; "you pretend to be a saint when everyone detests you!" And anchorites were capable of inflicting equally horrifying tortures on themselves. Another Godric, at Throckenholt in Cambridgeshire, used a scourge of reeds to scrub at the raw flesh under his hair shirt until blood dripped to the floor, to ensure that the skin would never have a chance to heal.
The purpose of these torments - like the isolation in which the anchorites lived - was the attempt to eradicate sin, first through exile from the sinful world, then by purgation of the sinful flesh. Hermits and recluses were "spiritual athletes", living the most rigorous of spiritual lives in order to equip themselves for single combat with that "wily, chimerical opponent", the devil.
But what Licence demonstrates with such nuance is the complex and even contradictory nature of the anchoritical existence. Recluses might embrace a metaphorical death by walling themselves within the limits of a cell, but the fact that this death was only metaphorical meant that they had to rely on daily food deliveries provided by a patron or a servant. Withdrawing from the world, it transpired, entailed perpetual dependence on worldly assistance.
Nor were the practicalities of survival the only paradoxical aspect of the anchoritical experience. Godric of Throckenholt, Licence explains, was "seldom alone" in the project of building his hermitage in the wasteland of the Fens, because he was joined by admirers and well-wishers, on one of whom he later relied to effect his bloody scourging. Meanwhile, "it was an unwise recluse that entered her cell to achieve peace and quiet", since, immobilised by four walls, "the recluse was a captive audience to whoever wished to bend her ear".
The question of what their contemporaries thought of hermits and recluses - why they were so admired, and why that admiration eventually began to wane - lies at the heart of the book; and Licence handles its complexities with an erudition that is as compelling as it is convincing.
Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200
By Tom Licence
Oxford University Press 256pp, £55.00
Published 6 January 2011