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11 October 2017

A spiritual guide for a female recluse

The British Library houses a rich collection of medieval texts relating to the lives of religious female recluses, known as female anchorites or anchoresses. Inspired by the desert fathers of the 4th century, many holy women including Julian of Norwich withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude and prayer. As part of the ongoing England and France 700-1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Library has digitised one of the earliest known spiritual guides for anchoresses, entitled the Liber Confortatorius, which today survives in a single manuscript (now known as Sloane MS 3103).

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Letters and long laments: a text page from the Liber Confortatorius: Sloane MS 3103, f. 3v

An instructional guide to spiritual meditation and prayer, the Liber Confortatorius (‘Book of Encouragement and Consolation’) is a 12th-century copy of an earlier text. The original work was composed circa 1082 by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a Flemish monk who lived in England and acted for a period of time as the chaplain of the convent of Wilton. While there, he tutored and mentored a young girl named Eve. Goscelin witnessed Eve taking her formal vows to become a nun, and saw himself as a mother-figure to her, ‘the mother soul who gave birth to you with heaving womb … who did so much and bore so much in the hope of our mutual presence’ (Book I).

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The lady enters a convent and has her hair cut short by the abbess, in Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle): Add MS 10293, f. 261r

Around 1080, Eve left Wilton without consulting anyone to become an anchoress in Angers, France, where she joined a small community of female recluses. Goscelin was devastated by Eve’s departure, and in response wrote the Liber Confortatorius addressed to her in the form of a letter. Divided into four books, the lengthy text compiles quotations from the Psalms and includes advisory tales inspired by the works of St Augustine and St Jerome.

Although intended to be a spiritual guide, Goscelin could not hide his personal grief: ‘hear me, speaking to you … from the sickbed of my sorrow’ (Book I). It may be read as Goscelin’s letter of spiritual and personal love for his former pupil: ‘since your soulmate cannot and does not deserve to visit you in the flesh, he now seeks you out with anxious letters and long laments … with the languishing desire of a wounded love infusing your breast with Christ’ (Book I).

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Goscelin valued his spiritual relationship with Eve: miniature detail of a nun confessing to a monk: Yates Thompson MS 11, f. 29r

There is no evidence to suggest that Eve ever received or read the work, leaving Goscelin’s lament one-sided. However, Eve’s decision to leave England appears to have been a happy one. A commemorative poem about her by Hilary of Orléans informs us that, after leaving Angers, she lived as a respected religious figure in Vendôme, in seclusion under the guidance of a male recluse named Hervé. One could say that the consolation of the book is entirely the writer’s own: ‘Take pity on your bereaved Goscelin … whom you have shaken to the foundations with your departure ... may I be so happy one day to see you in the blessed light, full of joy’ (Book IV).

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Eve embraced the life of a female recluse: bas-de-page scene of woman embracing a hermit, from the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 127r

The English translations of Liber Confortatorius are taken from Monika Otter, Goscelin of St Bertin: The Book of Encouragement and Consolation (Cambridge: Boydell, 2004).

Alison Ray

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