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“Strange in His Ways, Strange in His Words”: Eccentricity, Eremitism, and Autobiography in the Works of Richard Rolle

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From the earliest nineteenth-century studies to even the most recent scholarship, Richard Rolle has persistently been treated as an eccentric figure, reflected in his decision to flee society and live as a hermit, as well as his promotion of an idiosyncratic understanding of mystical rapture. Such a view of Rolle has been supported by an autobiographical approach to certain passages in his writings, when the hermit cantankerously defends himself against his critics, or when he offers his own acerbic attacks on those whom he considers feigned lovers of God. This essay presents an alternative to the longstanding view of this material as more revelatory of the “real” Rolle, arguing instead that the eccentric persona developed in such passages was one of the hallmarks of eremitic sanctity in the later Middle Ages, an indication of outsider status that was itself, perhaps counterintuitively, wholly conventional. Drawing on various vitae of hermit-saints, including some that seem to have been known to Rolle himself, the author argues for an approach to Rollean idiosyncrasy as itself a self-consciously conventionalized voice, one that served, among other things, to shore up the hermit’s authority and to demonstrate his place in a tradition of eremitic sanctity.



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University of Chicago Press

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