Clay, Rotha Mary. The Hermits and Anchorites of England. 1914.
Darwin, Francis D.S. The English Mediaeval Recluse. 1940.
A detailed look at documentary evidence, Clay's book is a standard on its subject. The author's summary introduction sets the polite and honorable tone in describing these hermits:
Their life was one of strenuous effort. They strove after Christian quietude by bending all their activities to self-conquest. They upheld a lefty and austere moral ideal in the face of self-indulgence, and their manner of life was a silent rebuke to rudeness, and exercised a chastening influence in an age of violence.
The book intends to be thorough, marshalling forth the evidence of hermits who inhabited islands, fens, forests, hillsides, and caves, and others who were remunerated for their civic service as tenders of lighthouses, roads, and bridges. They are names, dates, and places in a document. The majority of the recluses were anchorites. Clay follows the evidence meticulously, but the accounts inevitably show little flesh and blood. There are several interesting appendices: "Office for the Enclosing of an Anchorite," "Office for the Benediction of a Hermit," and an exhaustive "Tabulated List of Cells." This last appendix is the culmination of much diligent research, though now a near century old.
Clay briefly reviews legendary and other information about known hermits and anchorites, but the book is not philosophical or speculative in its interest. It is an annales of sorts. We get quick glimpses, enough to reassure us that hermits existed.
A century later this book is still a very useful summary, though much in need of updating. As an introduction it is dry and technical but a good reference.
The Darwin book is a near complement, an extended essay concentrating on anchorites. The lives and professions of anchorites followed four prescriptive manuals: those of Grimlaic, Aelred, the Ancrene Riwle (or Wisse), and the sections of Jan Busch of Hildeshiem. The author covers physical habitation, the anchorite and her/his attendants, daily life, profession and enclosure, and the system of benefactors and endowments.
A very useful first chapter clarifies uses and misconceptions of terminology (hermit, recluse, solitary, anchorite). Darwin notes Grimlaic's praise of recluses over monks, and a ninth-century Durham list that places "anchorets" before abbots, bishops and monks.
The anchorage was often busy with servants, edified visitors, and spiritual guides. "In the vocabulary of our ancestors," writes Darwin, "the true connotation of the word 'solitude' was to be found in a state of spiritual rather than physical loneliness." The hermit was viewed as self-centered and erratic, while the anchorite's spiritual progress could be confirmed by companionship and dependence. Christian Europe has always looked skeptically upon hermits; in England, diocesan license for ecclesiastical recognition began in 1236. Hermits have been largely unwelcome ever since.
Darwin considers four forms of enclosure of anchorites in four representative documents: Busch's German rite for Hildeshiem, the English Sarum manual, and the York and Exeter pontificals. The final chapter, entitled "Problems and Conclusions," is a frank appraisal of the mixed sentiments of churchmen toward anchorites, and speculates that the abundance of benefices may have been an influence in official toleration of what was deemed an eccentricity.
Read together, Clay and Darwin offer a basic overview of a neglected subject.
Clay, Rotha Mary: The Hermits and Anchorites of England. London: Methuen, 1914; reprints: Detroit, Singing Tree Press, 1968
Fellowship of Solitaries, 2000. (http://www.solitaries.org.uk/page7.html).
Darwin, Francis D.S. The English Mediaeval Recluse. London: SPCK, 1940; reprint: Norwood, PA, Folcroft Editions, 1973.