- Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space & the Solitary Life by Liz Herbert McAvoy
Liz Herbert McAvoy has published extensively on medieval anchoritic traditions and this, her latest monograph, examines both male and female anchorites. Her emphasis, however, is firmly on the feminine nuances of anchorholds and reclusive religious practices. Surveying hermits, monks, holy men and women, and anchorites from sources including St John Cassian's Conferences up to the Book of Margery Kempe and the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, McAvoy aims to show that male anchoritic practices are, overall, gendered in their expression. More particularly she argues that male anchoritisms are 'haunted' by femininity.
In particular, she reads a number of medieval commentaries on reclusive religious lives as suggesting anxiety that, while being an anchorite was a clearly holy practice, it could complicate the expression of male identity. She suggests that the language describing anchorites' experiences makes male bodies seem the objects of penetration (however that term is interpreted), in opposition to the usual action of the male body. Towards the end of the text, she turns her attention to a place that was territorially, geographically, and politically unstable, the Welsh Marches and the area around Chester. McAvoy suggests that the unstable political and cultural identity of this area is contiguous with the sense of unstable gender identity that emerges from local writings on reclusive lives.
McAvoy is clearly on her firmest ground when she is looking at the later texts, including those of Julian, Margery, and an anonymous writer from Hampshire. She has published extensively on these Middle English sources and demonstrates a particular skill in textual analysis of the writings. The chapters on the earlier medieval texts, including John Cassian, the Rule of St Benedict and Grimlaic's Regula, are less interesting in that she is more obviously indebted to specialists from this period.
McAvoy skilfully uses a range of theoretical perspectives, notably Kristeva and Foucault. These assist in bringing meaning to the textual analysis, rather than feeling inelegantly inserted into the work, as can so often be the case with attempted integration of theory and medieval writings. Some of the language is, however, heavy handed (and the term 'concerted' is misused throughout). [End Page 330]