Rolle, Richard

Rolle, Richard
(Richard Hermit of Hampole)
(ca. 1300–1349)
   The first of the great English mystical writers of the 14th century was the hermit Richard Rolle of Hampton. A prolific writer in both Latin and English, both poetry and prose, Rolle was renowned in his own day and immediately after his death for his pious life and stature as a spiritual adviser. Criticized by many for his intemperate attitude toward his detractors, his disregard of papal authority, and his impetuous nature,Rolle was also admired for his passionate descriptions of the mystical experience of God and the lyric presentation of the suffering of Christ. Rolle was born in about the year 1300 in Thornton Dale, near Pickering in Yorkshire. His parents gave him his early education, after which he was sent to Oxford by Thomas Neville, who was Lord of Raby and later Archdeacon of Durham. But Rolle, anxious for the life of a hermit, left Oxford at the age of 18 without taking any degree or minor orders. It was once believed that he later spent time studying at the Sorbonne, but this has been discredited. For some time he lived in the woods near his home at Thornton, where he adopted a hermit’s garb made up of two of his sister’s gowns and his father’s rain hood.
   On the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, probably in 1326, Rolle wandered into a chapel in a village near Thornton, where, after spending the night keeping vigil, he preached a sermon at Mass the following morning. It was apparently a very effective sermon, and one of the parishioners present for it was John de Dalton, bailiff of Pickering. Dalton was so moved by Rolle’s sermon that he became his patron, providing him with a suitable habit and a private cell in Dalton’s own home.
   In his private cell, Rolle was able to devote himself freely to meditation, contemplative prayer, and writing. After several years he seems to have had something of a falling out with Dalton. In any case he left his cell there and began a life of wandering, eventually settling at Hampole, near the Yorkshire town of Dorcaster. Here he settled as a hermit in a cell in the woods near a nunnery. The rest of his life was spent meditating, writing, and acting as spiritual adviser to the Cistercian nuns in the house near his cell, and to an anchoress (a female contemplative shut away from the world) named Margaret Kirkby who had a cell nearby in Anderby. It was in Hampole that Rolle died, tradition says on Michaelmas (September 29) in 1349. Since this was the time of the BLACK DEATH in Yorkshire, it is likely that Rolle died of the plague. After his death a cult grew around Rolle, particularly among the nuns of the neighboring convent, extolling his visionary writings and his virtue as a spiritual mentor. The nuns even put together a legend of his life, in preparation for his becoming a saint; however, he was never canonized. It is likely that one of the things that kept Rolle from such consideration was his tendency to lash out in his writings at anyone who disagreed with him or questioned his vocation. He called such people his “persecutors,” and his defensiveness often reads as anticlericalism, anti-intellectualism, and sheer arrogance. Later English mystical writers, including Walter HILTON and the anonymous author of The CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, were wary of Rolle’s writings, and considered him to be an immature and undisciplined thinker whose observations were not likely to be helpful as spiritual guides. At his best, however, Rolle gives dramatic descriptions of mystical experience.His best-known text is probably the Latin tract Incendium amoris, or “The fire of love.” Here, against his detractors, Rolle writes a defense of his life as a solitary hermit. But he also describes how his persistent solitary prayer, after a period of many years, ultimately resulted in his mystical experience of God. He describes this in three stages, which he calls calor (warmth), a heat that consumed his heart in love; dulcor (sweetness), a sweetness that engulfed his entire being; and canor (melody), divine melodies that he alone could hear from the throne of God.
   In addition to his Fire of Love, Rolle wrote a 10,000-line English poem, probably for Margaret Kirkby, called “The Pricke of Conscience.” In its seven books, Rolle discusses the trials of earthly life as well as the soul’s fate after death. Rolle also wrote a commentary on the Psalms, several lyric poems among which the best known is “A Song of the Love of Jesus,” and in 1348, shortly before his death, a treatise on disciplined spiritual life called “The Form of Perfect Living.”
   Role’s passionate spirituality, his focus on the love of Christ and on the experience of unity as a gift of God’s grace, and his pioneering use of English as a language of contemplative literature make Rolle one of the most important formative stimuli on the flowering mystical tradition in late medieval England.
   ■ Horstmann, Carl, ed. Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1999.
   ■ Knowlton, Sr. Mary Arthur. The Influence of Richard Rolle and of Julian of Norwich on the Middle English Lyrics. The Hague:Mouton and Co., 1973.
   ■ Rolle, Richard. The English Writings. Edited and translated by Rosamund S. Allen. Classics ofWestern Spirituality Series. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999.
   ■ ———. The Fire of Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
   ■ ———. Prose and Verse. S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson, ed. London: EETS/Oxford University Press, 1988.
   ■ Watson, Nicholas. Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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