Monday 12 September 2011

Richard Rolle (c. 1290 or 1305/10-1349)

            Richard Rolle is a famous medieval hermit and mystic. Although he spent time being educated at both Oxford and the Sorbonne, he is best known for mystical, rather than academic, writings. While medieval academic writings included philosophical and theological works, arguing about the existence of God or pursuing scriptural exegesis, mystic works were about having direct contact with the divine. Many medieval mystics experienced personal conversations with Jesus, marriages with Christ (usually women), and other emotional experiences. Being a mystic was not about arguing the finer points of scriptural interpretation – it was about feeling Jesus in the here and now.
So Rolle was a mystical religious person (although he did write some scriptural commentaries). Although he was unable to directly share his experiences of God, he did endeavor to spread the word through religious tracts. He wrote in both Latin and English, and his most famous work, Incendium Amoris aka The Fire of Love, was well-known and widely read during the middle ages. The title of Rolle’s most-famous work comes from a type of mystic experience Rolle had: he felt the love of God fill him with a physical warmth. Although that perhaps seems rather lame in comparison to marrying Jesus, Rolle’s ideas about feeling the fire of God’s love were probably more helpful to medieval people seeking to deepen their religious devotions. He also wrote a guide to spiritual life entitled Emendatio vitae, which was probably more famous in the medieval period, as it survives in more manuscripts than The Fire of Love. Rolle’s ideas about God’s love being felt as an internal fire spread throughout England, as later mystic, such as Margery Kempe, also felt this same fire.
            Like many holy men in the middle ages, Rolle had problems with women. This was probably a combination of medieval misogyny and a fear of his own sexuality (the two, of course, were combined in the medieval belief that women had insatiable sexual appetites and would jump the bones of any man they could). For a man of God to remain a virgin – the most exalted status – it was a good idea to steer clear of the ladies. Later in life, though, Rolle settled in a hermitage near the nunnery of Hampole and wrote a few devotional works for some nuns. Perhaps as he aged and his sex drive lessened (no Viagra in the 1300s!) Rolle found it easier to work with women.
            Rolle died in 1349, when the plague hit England. Although we can’t confirm he died of the plague, he probably did. Rolle has not been canonized, although he is unofficially venerated.

For more information, try, as always, Wikipedia and the DNB.

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