The virtues and vexations of voluntary isolation in early medieval England

By James Kane and Erin Sebo, Flinders University

Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a massive spike in mental health problems. In recent weeks, a second wave of COVID-19 cases in and around Melbourne has sent millions of Victorians back into lockdown. Despite the numerous restrictions and guidelines in place, however, the decision to self-isolate is, in most cases, still voluntary. Many people have felt an intense tension between the desire to be safe and protect the community and the need for human interaction. Surprisingly—or perhaps not—we can see the same kind of tension among medieval Christians who chose to practice various forms of voluntary isolation.

In the Middle Ages, self-isolation for religious purposes was highly valued. Irish churchmen launched themselves on dangerous voyages of exile across the sea in pursuit of spiritual perfection.[1] Crusaders endured tearful departures from their loved ones and homelands in the conviction that fighting on God’s behalf would earn them remission of sins.[2] Ascetics in the Byzantine Empire known as ‘stylites’ spent years or even decades living on pillars and seeking the salvation that they believed such extreme self-deprivation would enable them to achieve.[3]

Those wanting to draw closer to the divine saw isolation not merely as a virtue, but as the supreme way of life. Inspired by the example of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, as well as his injunction to his followers to give up all their possessions and follow him, ascetics of the late Roman period retreated into the Egyptian desert in search of a contemplative existence cut off from the vicissitudes of the urban world.[4] ‘Solitude,’ wrote St Basil in the fourth century, ‘stills our passions and gives reason the opportunity to cut them right out of the soul.’[5] In order to ‘prepare the heart to receive the impressions of divine instruction’, Basil argued, committed hermits should live ‘well away from human company, to ensure that nothing external can interrupt the continuity of the disciplined life’.[6] Though Basil later came to favour the communal structure of the monastery over the lonelier existence of the hermit, withdrawal from human society continued to be revered in many branches of medieval Christianity.

Voluntary isolation was particularly admired in early medieval Britain and Ireland, whose unique geography, challenging climate, and low population density offered aspiring ascetics plentiful opportunities to ‘create their own local deserts by shutting themselves away’.[7] Two of the most famous hermits of the period, St Cuthbert (d. 687) and St Guthlac (674–715), did precisely that, earning widespread recognition in their own lifetimes and long-lasting devotion thereafter. Recorded in saints’ lives (vitae) written in the decades after their deaths, the stories of Cuthbert and Guthlac highlight the difficulties of the solitary life, despite making a virtue of voluntary withdrawal from society.

Cuthbert was born in the early 630s in the Kingdom of Northumbria. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the famous monastic historian Bede describes how Cuthbert ‘used to burn with eagerness for the religious life’ from the earliest days of his youth (a typical characteristic in narratives of future saints).[8] After spending several years at the monastery of Melrose, where he received his instruction in the religious life under the inspiring figure of the prior, Boisil, Cuthbert was appointed by his abbot, Eata, as prior of the religious community on Lindisfarne, a tidal island in the North Sea off the east coast of England, about 20 km southeast of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Though Cuthbert’s biographers are careful to stress that he served diligently and devoutly in his new role, Bede explains that Cuthbert hankered after ‘the secret silences of the hermit’s life of contemplation’.[9] This compulsion led Cuthbert to retreat to an islet at the edge of the monastic precinct where he lived in solitude for some time. Feeling that this was still too close to Lindisfarne, however, Cuthbert ‘sought a place … farther and more remote from mankind’.[10]

The ruins of Lindifarne Priory
Lindisfarne Priory © Nilfanion / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The site Cuthbert chose for his second hermitage was Inner Farne, an island about 11 km to the southeast. A monk of Lindisfarne who wrote an anonymous saint’s life of Cuthbert emphasised the daunting remoteness of this island ‘in the midst of the sea … surrounded on every side by water, a place where, before this, almost no one could remain alone for any length of time on account of the various illusions caused by devils’.[11] (This is a clear allusion to the psychological challenges of isolation, a central theme in the story of St Guthlac.) While Cuthbert succeeded in dispelling these demons, the striking thing about the surviving accounts of his retreat to Farne is that they all highlight his ongoing links with the world he had supposedly withdrawn from.

Every version of Cuthbert’s life portrays him receiving visitors, ordering the brethren from Lindisfarne to help him build a house, accepting the food and agricultural tools they brought him (medieval self-isolators seem to have enjoyed deliveries just as much as modern Australians in the midst of a pandemic), washing the feet of his guests, urging them to grease their shoes with lard offered by repentant ravens he had driven away, and maintaining contact with other religious men and women throughout England, such as St Herbert of Derwentwater (d. 687) and St Ælfflæd of Whitby (d. 714). Even in isolation (especially early on), Cuthbert thus retained his standing within the hierarchy of the Lindisfarne community and remained bound to the broader socio-political structures of seventh-century Northumbria. Though Cuthbert’s contemporaries idealised the concept of living self-sufficiently in genuine isolation, the harsh realities of solitude meant that very few hermits were zealous enough to avoid all human connections. It’s no wonder that Cuthbert (according to Bede) initially ‘rejoiced to see and be seen by the brethren with whom he spoke’ through the window of his high dwelling, built ‘so that the pious inhabitant could see nothing but the sky’.[12]

Manuscript image of St Cuthbert addressing a crowd from his hermitage
St Cuthbert addresses a crowd from his hermitage. London, British Library, Yates Thompson 26, fol. 47r (c. 1175–c. 1200) [Public Domain]
Much further south, in the decades after Cuthbert’s death on Farne in 687, a young nobleman by the name of Guthlac, son of Penwalh and Tette, followed a rather different path to the solitary life. Raised in the belligerent world of the early medieval English aristocracy and brought up on stories of ‘the valiant deeds of heroes of old’, Guthlac served in the army of King Æthelred of Mercia (r. 675–704) for many years, devastating ‘the towns and residences of his foes … with fire and sword’.[13] One night, when ‘his wandering thoughts were as usual anxiously contemplating mortal affairs in earnest meditation’, Guthlac felt ‘a spiritual flame … [begin] to burn in [his] heart’ and decided to abandon his military pursuits for the religious life.[14] At the age of 24, Guthlac ‘renounced the pomps of this world’ and entered the monastery of Repton, where he went on to ‘read about the solitary life of monks of former days’, whose stories filled him ‘with an eager desire to make his way to the desert’.[15]

This ‘desert’ was the Fenlands of eastern England, a region Guthlac’s biographer, Felix of Crowland, describes in terms that recall the hellish home of Grendel and his mother in the great Old English poem Beowulf.[16] ‘It is a very long tract [of land],’ writes Felix, ‘now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams.’[17] Undeterred by the ‘dismal’ landscape of the Fens, Guthlac plunges deep into ‘the wild places of this vast desert’ with the aid of Tatwine, who leads him to Crowland, ‘a certain island in the more remote and hidden parts of that desert; many had attempted to dwell there, but had rejected it on account of the unknown portents of the desert and its terrors of various shapes’.[18] Just like Cuthbert, whose life clearly inspired Felix’s narrative, Guthlac embraced the challenge of living in this demon-haunted site, arming himself (in Felix’s words, quoting from Ephesians 6:11–17) with ‘the shield of faith, the breastplate of hope, the helmet of chastity, the bow of patience, [and] the arrows of psalmody’.[19]

Though Felix presents Guthlac as an indomitable spiritual warrior, just as he was once a fierce soldier in lay society, he does not shy away from emphasising the psychological burden of a life spent in extreme isolation. Only days into his new existence as a hermit, Guthlac was overcome with the ‘black venom’ of misery (Felix attributes this to the devil), and ‘he began … to despair so utterly that he thought he had undertaken an infinite and insupportable labour’.[20] This sense of inner anguish was to be Guthlac’s constant companion, afflicting him with nocturnal visions of demonic beasts (not unlike Grendel and his mother) and the terrifying sound of their raucous cries rending the stillness of the Fens. As Guthlac quickly learned, loneliness is the inevitable corollary of isolation (no matter how voluntary), and we can imagine that he must have been comforted to receive ‘frequent visitors’ like Wilfrid and Cissa, to welcome admirers from all over Britain, and to have the company of the monk Beccel, who lived with him at the time of his death and reportedly described his final moments to Felix.[21]

Manuscript image of St Guthlac as he is carried to the gates of hell by demons.
St Guthlac is carried to the gates of hell by demons; he receives a scourge to repel the demons from St Bartholomew. London, British Library, Harley Roll Y 6, fol. 8r (c. 1175–1215) [Public Domain]
The stories of St Cuthbert and St Guthlac expose an underlying tension in attitudes toward voluntary isolation in early medieval England. On the one hand, withdrawing from society and minimising—or even, in extreme cases, eliminating—contact with other human beings was seen as one of the surest paths to spiritual enlightenment and personal salvation. On the other hand, admirers of hermits like Cuthbert and Guthlac were under no illusions that isolation was a difficult, even disheartening, state of existence that was almost impossible to endure without at least some support from the wider community. Even in the hyperconnected world of 2020, when human interaction is only a click or a swipe away and genuine solitude is arguably more elusive than ever, maintaining such support in self-isolation is considered just as important as it was in the North Sea societies of the seventh and eighth centuries.

 

James Kane is Lecturer in Medieval History and Erin Sebo is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature, both at Flinders University. This article is part of a Flinders College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences project funding grant – Exiles: Medieval Responses to IsolationThe project seeks to analyse medieval experiences of, and responses to, isolation and loneliness, focusing on strategies of mitigation and their reported effects.

 

[1] Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘The social background to Irish peregrinatio’, Celtica 11 (1976), 43–59; Elva Johnston, ‘Exiles from the edge? The Irish contexts of peregrinatio’, in The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion, ed. Roy Flechner and Sven Meeder (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 38–52.

[2] Stephen Spencer, Emotions in a Crusading Context, 1095–1291 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 159–61, 163–64.

[3] Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 116–18.

[4] Christ in the wilderness: Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13. The theme of renouncing possessions and following Christ: Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33, 14:33.

[5] St Basil, ‘Letter 2’, in Documents in Early Christian Thought, ed. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 211–16: here, §2, p. 212.

[6] St Basil, ‘Letter 2’, §2, p. 213.

[7] Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (London: Penguin, 2010), 65.

[8] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), IV.xxvii, p. 430.

[9] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, IV.xxviii, p. 434.

[10] Bede, Life of Saint Cuthbert, in Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), pp. 141–307: here, p. 214.

[11] Anonymous, Life of Saint Cuthbert, in Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, pp. 60–139: here, p. 96.

[12] Bede, Life of Saint Cuthbert, pp. 216, 218.

[13] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), §§XVI–XVII, p. 80.

[14] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XVIII, pp. 80–82.

[15] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §§XIX, XXIV, pp. 82, 86.

[16] Beowulf, trans. R. M. Liuzza, 2nd edn (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview), ll. 1357b–1376a. On the ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ in Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, see Heide Estes, Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Environmental Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 89–118.

[17] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XXIV, p. 86.

[18] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XXV, p. 88.

[19] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XXVII, p. 90.

[20] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XXIX, pp. 94–96.

[21] Felix of Crowland, Life of Saint Guthlac, §XXVIII, p. 92 (Wilfrid and Cissa); §XLV, pp. 138–40 (admirers and supplicants from all over Britain); §L, p. 152 (Beccel). On Guthlac’s loneliness expressed in the ‘clinical forms’ of anxiety and depression, see Graham Jones, ‘Ghostly mentor, teacher of mysteries: Bartholomew, Guthlac and the Apostle’s cult in early medieval England,’ in Medieval Monastic Education, ed. by George Ferzoco and Carolyn Muessig (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), pp. 136–52: here, p. 136.

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