Women Hermits and Recluses in Medieval Europe and Italy

In the European Middle Ages, women were not allowed to live alone. For women with a religious or spiritual inclination, convents were the only practical option for several centuries. But nuns were forbidden a life in reclusion or complete or significant solitude. Reclusion was condemned as late as 1130 by no less than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote to a nun desiring reclusion that 

[T]he desert offers abundant opportunities [for evil], ... the woods solitude ... silence. Where there are no accusers to fear, the tempter can draw near in security, and an evil act can be committed more freely.

Bernard speaks of solitary places and a life of solitude as the "the serpent's venom, the trickery of the deceiver, the cleverness of the werewolf."

 Early synods had reiterated the prohibition of reclusion for women, and the Second Lateran Council of 1139 expressly forbad reclusion to women. So it was characteristic of the era that the Archbishop of York preferred that the mystic Christine of Markyate (1100-1155) be a nun rather than a recluse.

The mix of religious with social and cultural thinking on the part of ecclesiastical authorities points to a specific conception of women as the traditional "weaker" sex for whom contemplation in solitude was not possible and even dangerous to their "weaker" minds. Nevertheless, as will be seen, the same ecclesiastical authorities would pronouce their disfavor of eremitism in general -- of men or women -- until the eremitical movement of the central Middle Ages declined and the hermits of Europe virtually disappeared after the 13th century.

Women recluses

Women recluses existed even in the early Middle Ages. Gregory of Tours mentions a nun in the convent of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers in the 6th century. Liutberg, a 9th century recluse in a German church in Wendhausen, diocese of Hallerstadt, has been called the "first Saxony recluse." The recluse Wiborada of Thingau in St. Gallen, who died in 926, is recorded as a martyr.

By the later 12th century the rise of eremeticial movements throughout Europe was evident. Rules for women recluses were not in favor on the continent,but in England two outstanding rules addressed to women recluses offer evidence of the influence of reclusion as a spiritual option to monastic life. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) wrote his De institutione inclusarum for his two recluse sisters. A second famous work is the unattributed Ancrien Riwle or Ancrien Wisse. Rules for female recluses helped to effectively foster the legitimacy of institution of female reclusion in  England, in particular the model for anchorites. On the continent, however, not only were  rules less influential, but even the term "anchorite" does not appear in contemporary references to reclusion, called increasingly "inclusion," so varied were the circumstances of women.

In the 12th century, the abbess Herrad of Landsberg had declared (in her Hortus deticiarum) that women recluses were only second to hermits, meaning male hermits, who were free to pursue their religious inclinations outside of monasteries and churches. On the continent, the notion that recluses should be placed in anchorholds attached to churches was not universal. Records indicate that women recluses occupied cells within cemeteries, at city gates, on bridges, and even on river islands -- in Paris, Bonn, Toulouse, Auvergne Gaul, and the Hungarian Danube.

In Italy, few details exist about the women living in such places. Chelidonid lived as a solitary among rocks and caves until becoming a sponsored hermit under the monastery of Subiaco. Santa Franca of the Marches is said to have retired to a hermitage. Bona of Pisa (1165-1207) made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was briefly a hermit; Sperandea of Umbria would become a solitary during Lent.  

Tradition reports that Margherita Colanna lived in a cave on the Prenestine Hill in Rome before entering a community of Poor Clares. According to her brother Vito of Cortona, a Franciscan, Umiliana Cerchi aspired to live in the family's palace tower without a door or window, or to live in moutainous wilderness eating only herbs. Of Clare of Montefalco is recorded merely that she was a recluse in community.

Such reclusion persisted into the 14th century, though under the discretion of specific sponsors: abbots, secular clergy, lay orders, even local civil authority. Among such recluses were Giana Braccus of Florence, who lived on a bridge at Rubaconte, Maria Gherardhetta of Pisa who was sponsored by Camadolese, Umilta of Faenza, originally a Vallambrosian and later occupied a cell under the authority of the abbot of Clospino. Verdiana of Castelfiorentino was under the authority of secular clergy, as was Margaret of Cortona (who sought solitude not in remote desert places but in an urban setting) and Sibyllina of Pavia, a Dominican penitent.

Documentation on the hermits and recluses of the 13th century is chiefly found in wills and benefices lacking biographical or hagiographical detail. Documentation about central Italy especially suggests the prevalence of non-institutional recluses living in and outside of urban centers, on  or under bridges, city gates, roadsides, churches, mountains, and forests. The documents point to networks of alms or pecuniary distribution to hermits and recluses -- not by indifferent bishops but chiefly by laity. The situation contrasts to that of institutionalized anchorites (especially in England) and to the declining eremitical orders.

The number of hermits clearly declined in cental Italy in the 14th century. In 1290 Perugia, 56 women and 12 men are classified as recluses; in 1302 Pisa, 28 are women and 3 men, and in 1367 Fabriano there are just 12 women and 3 men. In Rome in 1320, it is recorded that 470 nuns resided, with 260 women recluses, the latter certainly an overstatement.

During the 12th and 13th century, a new vocabulary emerges. The locations of the recluses are varied: portiuncula (little place), casula (cottage) and domincula (little cabin). Even the roles of the recluses are refined in central Italy: reclusi becomes a generic terms that includes carcerati (enclosed) or incarcerati (literally incarcerated), hermitae (living outside of formal buildings) and frates et sorores (brothers and sisters, in lay roles). Still another term was pauperes monialis recluse or poor enclosed nuns. Not included as eremitic are the bizzoca or penetentials, specifically of third order laity.

In contrast to the old monastic orders, the emphasis of the new eremitical movement of this era was simplicity, poverty, asceticism and solitude. These values specifically nourished feminine qualities of spiritual expression.

The life paths of the women recluses varied greatly from those of men. The most typical conflict arose when parents opposed their daughter's vocation and husbands oppposed their new wife's insistence on chastity. For example, Jeanne-Marie de Maille of the diocese of Tours, denied a vocation as a nun and obliged by her family to marry, lived in virginal marriage and became a recluse only in widowhood. She then tried living in an anchorhold, quit to live in a convent, then returned to the solitude of her cell. Similarly, Christine of Markyate insisted on a virginal marriage despite her parents and husband. When the latter changed his mind she left him and was enclosed as a recluse by a sympathetic hermit. Virginal marriage became a medieval hagioographic theme or archetype, reflecting the women's spiritual model of solitude as mystical marriage to the bridegroom Christ.

Other instances of opposition confirm obstacles to women seeking solitude and reclusion. Dorothea von Montau of Marienwerder married and became a mother, but when her children were adults she created of her room what her biographer describes as reclusion in family, remaining in her house, her own property. Caesar of Heislerbach mentions a nun of Wurzburg who rejected her parents' insistence on marriage, was finally given permission to leave, and obtained the local bishop's support of her reclusion under the authority of the abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Brombach.

Eve of St. Martin in Liege -- to whom Goscelin addressed his Book of Encouragement -- was prompted by pious parents to a monstic life. She lived a while in England under Goscelin's direction but returned to France seeking reclusion. Eve first found a reclusive place in St. Laurent, then St. Eutrope in Angers, and finally, with the assistance of a hermit named Herve, adjacent to his hermitage. Yvette d'Huy married and became a mother, then a widow, afterwhich she worked in a leprosarium and then became a recluse at Orval. Filippa Mareri of Italy was said to be a recluse in her family's home, then a hermit in a solitary place, and finally entering a community of Poor Clares.

These women, having experienced the typical social stages of average women oif their day, nevertheless achieved a level of spirituality that St. Bernard's exhortation (quoted above) cannot comprehend. Theirs was a state of not so much abstinence or self-discipline but non-temptation. They were nol tempted by lust, gluttony, or power, some suffering acedia, doubt, and visions. Among visionaries were the recluses Herluca of Epfach and Alpais of Cudiet, who visualized the wounds of Christ, in anticipation of Francis of Assisi, though in their simplicity they did not comprehend them in terms of suffering. Similar visions typify Yvette d'Huy and Julian of Norwich, the latter deeper in her understanding, evidenced in her famous book, The Revelations of Divine Love.


The religious expression of women in the central and later Middle Ages was increasingly marked by mysticism and an increasingly sophisticated view of how spiritual values intersect with society and personal service. Intrinsic to their spirituality was the notion that, as Casagrande puts it:

The seach for the solitary life has its deepest roots in the ideal of separation and detachment from the world ... which is not necessarily effective, but rather moral and affective.

In this form of expression, women recluses differed from their male hermit counterparts in their expression of eremitism to every defree as fervent.

But the historical momentum of the era was not stoppable. The decline of eremitism beginning in the 13th century was due to several factors:

  1. the Church's intense pressure to regularize hermits and recluses into established monastic or other orders;
  2. the increasing wariness of eremitism among diverse authorities as Thomas Aquinas (who describes the eremitical life as "dangerous") to Jordan of Pisa (who describes hermits and recluses as "mad men and women"), and
  3. the growth of third order and lay religious organizations.


Among specific sources for this period are Edith Pasztor: "Ideals of the Women's Hermitage Movement in Europe during the 12th-15th Centuries" p. 51-79, and Giovanna Casagrande: "Forms of Solitary Religious Life for Women in Central Italy,"  p. 80-117, in Franciscan Solitude, St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1995.