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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

II. Religious Movements in the Fourteenth Century

§ 1. Richard Rolle of Hamploe

IT is often difficult to deal adequately with individual writers in the Middle Ages. Both the general ideas and the literary habits of the time tended to hide the traces of individual work. Schools of thought were more important than their individual members; at times, therefore, single thinkers or writers received less than their due recognition because their achievements became the common property of a school. Hence, we find it not always easy to assign to any single writer his proper place in literary history, and the difficulty is increased by medieval methods of composition. Manuscripts were so widely copied, often with alterations and additions, that individual ownership was almost lost. Then, when in later days men sought to trace the work and influence of individuals, they ran two opposite risks: sometimes, they were likely to under-estimate the individual’s influence; sometimes they were likely to ascribe to one man tendencies and works which belonged rather to his school. It is not surprising, then, that a great deal still remains to be done in the publication and arrangement of manuscripts before a definite verdict can be given upon some problems of early literary history. As might be expected, moreover, this difficulty is most to be felt in some of the matters nearest to daily life: where the feet of generations passed the oftenest, traces of their forerunners were easiest lost. Richard Rolle of Hampole and John Wyclif were men very different in their lives and in their ecclesiastical standpoints, but the lives of both illustrate these statements, and the same kind of difficulty arises in respect of each of them. Much has been assigned to them that was not really theirs: after this first mistake has been repaired, it becomes possible to judge them more fairly. But, even then, it cannot be done fully and finally until the materials have been sifted and arranged.

By the fourteenth century, the north of England had long lost its former literary leadership, but its impulses had not quite died away, and the growing connection with Oxford, strengthened by the foundation of Balliol College (c. 1263), brought even outlying villages under the influence of great intellectual and religious movements. When Richard Rolle went up to Oxford, the friars, with their ideal of poverty, were still a powerful party there, although, before long, FitzRalph was to attack their view of life; and contests between realists and nominalists were the chief intellectual interests. The young student’s connection with Oxford did not last long; but it coloured the whole of his life, and his first writings were modelled upon academic forms. He must, also, have gone through much intellectual and spiritual trouble, if we may judge from the crisis that changed his life. But he took away with him from Oxford a sufficient knowledge of Latin, and acquaintance with, and some distaste for the ordinary philosophical writers, and above all, a love of the Scriptures. By a regulation of Grosseteste, the first morning lecture had to be upon the Bible, which furnished the material for much of the teaching.

Richard Rolle was born, probably about 1300, although the exact date is unknown, at Thornton-le-Dale, near the old town of Pickering, if a note in one of the manuscripts concerning him is to be believed; at Thornton-le-Street, if a modern conjecture, which places his birth nearer the scenes of his earliest activity, is to be accepted. When he was nineteen he came home from Oxford, eager, because he feared disaster to his soul, to follow the life of a hermit; he asked his sister to meet him near his home and bring with her two of her frocks, a grey and a white, and, out of these, along with his father’s hood, he made himself a rough and ready hermit’s dress. Thus clad, he visited a church where worshipped the family of Dalton—two youths of which had known him at Oxford. On a second visit, he put on a surplice and, with the leave of the priest, preached an affecting sermon at Mass. The former undergraduates recognised him and asked him to their table at home. His father, a man of some substance, was known to the Daltons, and, struck by Richard’s sermon and his earnestness, they settled him as a hermit upon their estate. Hermits were a common feature of medieval life: they were under episcopal control and received episcopal licence; hence, they were often spoken of by bishops as “our hermits”; indulgences were often granted to those who supported them, and they themselves often did useful service in the repair of roads and keeping up of bridges. After a time—four years at least—he left his first cell fro another at Ainderby, near Northallerton, where a friend of his, Margaret Kirby, lived in much the same way that he did. Another change brought him to Hampole, near Doncaster; and here, kindly cherished by Cistercian nuns, he lived for the rest of his days. The end came 29 September 1349—the year of the Black Death. So great had been his popularity that the nuns of Hample sought his canonisation: an office for his festival—20 January—was composed (probably about 1381–2), and, later, a collection of miracles ascribed to his influence was made. Although not formally canonised, he was regarded as a saint; and his reputation gave wider currency to his writings.