Richard Rolle Essay - Critical Essays

Rolle, Richard


Richard Rolle c. 1300–1349

(Also known as Richard Rolle of Hampole) English author of biblical commentaries, devotional treatises, and religious lyrics.

A medieval hermit and the author of many works on religious devotion, Rolle has been touted as an innovator both in his devotional and his literary styles. In the midst of an age typically described as authoritarian, Rolle maintained an unwavering individualism, remaining reclusive and unallied with any religious order. Traveling through Yorkshire, he preached his love of God to anyone in need and produced written works for spiritual guidance and celebration. Rolle wrote strikingly personal and emotive prose that was distinctly different from the the dominant scholastically-derived devotional literature and which relied on classical allusions and rhetoric. Rolle also broke fresh ground when he wrote prose in Middle English—the vernacular of the day—thus making his words accessible to a broader audience at a time when written English on lofty subjects defied convention. Rolle has since earned the title of "father" of English prose literature.


Historians place Rolle's birth at about 1300, in the town of Thornton in the North Riding of Yorkshire. His father, William Rolle, was a prosperous small landowner with a good reputation in the region; he may also have been a merchant. Richard received an education at home until his late teens, when he attended Oxford under the sponsorship of Thomas de Neville, who would later become Archdeacon of Durham. While Richard's interest did not mesh with the prevalent scholasticism of the environment, he made use of the opportunity to study theology and Holy Scripture. Dissatisfied with his experience there, Rolle left Oxford at age nineteen and returned to his father's home. Before long, however, he took his first dramatic steps to the eremitic life—the life of a hermit. According to a much-cited story, he asked his sister for two of her tunics, which she brought to him in a nearby wood. These he altered and donned so that they resembled a hermit's outfit, and when his sister called out that he had lost his mind, he ran off, never returning home.

Rolle found his first hermitage soon after in the home of John de Dalton, a local gentleman and friend of his father's. Impressed with the sincerity of Rolle's religious

purpose, Dalton provided the young man with meals and a bare room, or cell, in which he could have solitude. Here Rolle began, as described in several of his major works, the process of a religious "conversion" or journey to union with God. It began with a stage of purification or penance, during which Rolle had to endure many temptations and other tests of his faith. According to H. R. Bramley the endeavor required Rolle to "subdue the flesh by watchings and fastings, praying with sobs and sighs, living in a little cottage, sleeping on a board, fixing his mind on heaven and desiring ever to be dissolved with Christ." The second stage comprised an 'illumination," during which the faithful perfects his love of God. The third stage, "sight"—which was the final stage before union—allowed Rolle to see into heaven. Union, which would constitute the purpose of his writings, came to Rolle after four years and three months of prayer and meditation, arriving first as a heat that he felt in his chest.

While the emotional experiences were for Rolle the most significant matter of his life and the substance on which his writings depended, in his worldly life he experienced changes and trials. He left Dalton's home after about four years. As he traveled through Yorkshire, he relied on offers of food and shelter in exchange for religious succor. His gifts of ministry and comfort won many of his listeners to the contemplative life, some even choosing to follow his eremitic example. He also won enemies, especially among the religious establishment, which saw his self-defined religious style as a challenge to its authority. At first angered by the criticism, Rolle eventually came to disdain it. By the middle of the fourteenth century he had moved from the north of Yorkshire to the south and settled in Hampole, offering spiritual guidance to an abbey of Cistercian nuns. When he died, probably from the plague, on September 29, 1349, the nuns buried him in their chapel yard and soon drew up an Office of his life and beliefs, anticipating his imminent canonization. Rolle's fame became widespread and powerful, drawing many pilgrims to his tomb, which by the 1380s was known for its miraculous effect on the sick and impaired. Rolle's reputation remained vigorous for at least another century, although he was never sainted by the church.

Major Works

Rolle produced a great many works both in Latin and English and various in kind. While his canon has gradually become solid and somewhat narrowed down, it began the twentieth century in a diffuse, almost unmanageable form. Many works attributed to him on the strength of his reputation have since been determined not to be his work. The primary Latin texts, mostly in prose, include the Incendium Amoris (Fire of Love), Emendatio Vitae (Mending of Life), and the Melos Amoris. The short list of his English canon usually spotlights Ego Dormio, The Form of Living, and The Commandment. The first three have been studied at great length for the in-depth and comprehensive accounts they provide of Rolle's spiritual autobiography which also necessarily reveals much of his religious doctrine. The Fire of Love not only includes his most complete spiritual autobiography, but also the most complete explanation of his theory of contemplative life. Melos Amoris functions almost as a sequel to Fire of Love, focusing on the final stage in Rolle's spiritual journal—his complete union with God. The work is also, by virtue of this focus, predominantly a celebration of the love of God. The Mending of Life treats similar material at a simpler level, offering a kind of "beginner's guide" for followers interested in adopting a contemplative life. The works written in English reveal their purpose, to some degree, in the choice of language, since many lay people and most religious women would not have been able to read Latin. Ego Dormio, The Form of Living, and The Commandment are all epistles, written to one or many of Rolle's followers for their religious guidance.

Rolle also translated many of his own commentaries on scripture into English, again hoping to make them available to the less scholarly. His versions of the Song of Songs and the Psalter have become important works in his canon. Other minor works include the short treatises On Grace, On Daily Work, and On Prayer, written in English for religious instruction. Unlike the texts that celebrate the love of God, these works suggest Rolle's stricter side, stressing the dangers of any lapse in faith and purity. Among the works wrongly attributed to Rolle are The Pricke of Conscience, a long poem that once was central to most studies of his work, and Instructions on the Active and Contemplative Life, which has since been ascribed to Walter Hilton.

Textual History

Because Rolle's reputation remained strong for at least a century after his death, his writings have been preserved in abundance, with manuscripts available in libraries across Europe. While there were obvious variations in popularity—the ten extant manuscripts of Melos Amoris pale in comparison to the ninety of Incendium Amoris—all of Rolle's writings have fared relatively well. Availability was even expanded by early translations of his Latin works into English: De Emendatio Vitae and Incendium Amoris first appeared in English as early as the 1430s. By the time printing technology had burgeoned, however, Rolle's name had slipped into obscurity, leaving his works in manuscript form until the nineteenth century. A revival of interest in mysticism, however, prompted scholars to take up his manuscripts again, and the Early English Text Society included Rolle in their endeavor to bring early examples of written English into print. George Perry's edition of the English prose treatises appeared in 1866, and H. R. Bramley's edition of the English Psalter was published in 1884. Several more important editions appeared in the early twentieth century, despite which Frances Comper complained in 1928 that the relative neglect of Rolle's work was due to the general unavailability of his work in print. The strongest effort to correct this began in the 1980s, when the Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik in Austria began its series on Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies, for which they produced scholarly editions of many of Rolle's major and minor works.

Critical Reception

Rolle was considered all but a saint for nearly a century and a half after his death; although canonization never came from the Vatican, many of his followers nonetheless thought of him as sainted. Among his fourteenth-century admirers were mystics whose reputations would eventually rival his own, including Walter Hilton and John Wycliffe. His written works commanded a large audience and much admiration throughout the period and through out Europe. R. W. Chambers has suggested that Rolle was "probably the most widely read in England of all English writers" in both the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As the Renaissance progressed, however, Rolle was largely forgotten, especially among the literate classes.

When English and German scholars of the nineteenth century began to study the medieval mystics, they necessarily unearthed the wealth of Rolle's writings. Carl Horstman's late nineteenth-century study, in which he noted Rolle's stylistic weaknesses but lauded his depth and naturalness, set the tone for ensuing decades of scholarship. Despite renewed attention and interest, studies tended to focus on Rolle's biography and the quality of his mysticism, repeating the content of his work and Horstman's appraisal. In-depth analyses of his written work were still rare, even after R. W. Chambers declared him a progenitor of English prose literature. Rigorous scholarship has appeared to gain pace since the 1970s, when John Alford lamented its neglect and made his own contribution; since then, studies have tended to deal more directly with the structure and style of Rolle's texts instead of simply renewing his image as a modern or romantic spirit in a dark age.

Principal Works

The Commandment (English epistle)

Contra Amatores Mundi (Against the Lovers of the World)

Ego Dormio (English epistle)

Emendatio Vitae (Mending of Life) (Latin prose treatise)

The Form of Living (English epistle)

Incendium Amoris (Fire of Love) (Latin prose treatise)

Melos Amoris (Latin prose treatise)

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Principal English Translations

The Fire of Love, and the Mending of Life (translated by Richard Misyn) 1434-35

The Contra Amatores Mundi of Richard Rolle of Hampole (translated by Paul Theiner) 1968

The Fire of Love (translated by Clifton Wolters) 1972

The Fire of Love and the Mending of Life (translated by M. L. Mastro) 1981

Richard Rolle: The English Writings (translated by Rosamund S. Allen) 1988

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George G. Perry (essay date 1866)

SOURCE: George G. Perry, English Prose Treatises of Richard Rolle de Sampole, N. Trubner & Co., 1866.

[Perry's 1866 edition of Rolle's treatises in English constituted the first time these manuscripts were made available since the Middle Ages. In the following excerpt, he touches on many issues central to Rolle scholarship, including Rolle's reputation, the authenticity of the manuscripts, and the matter and style of Rolle's English.]

The treatises which follow, now for the first time printed, are taken from a miscellaneous collection of Poems, Tracts, Prayers, and Medical Receipts, made by Robert Thornton, archdeacon of Bedford, in the earlier half of the...

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H. R. Bramley (essay date 1884)

SOURCE: H. R. Bramley, in an introduction to The Psalter or Psalms of David and Certain Canticles, translated by Richard Rolle, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1884, pp. v-xvii.

[In his introduction to Rolle's commentary on the Psalms, Bramley recounts Rolle 's biography and summarizes his doctrine, relying mostly on the Office made shortly after his death by the nuns of Hampole. Bramley also expands on this text by collating Rolle's life with the larger political scene.]

Richard Rolle, better known from the place of his death and burial as Hampole1, was a famous preacher and highly venerated hermit in Yorkshire, during the former half of the fourteenth...

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C. Horstman (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: C. Horstman, in an introduction to Yorkshire Writers, edited by C. Horstman, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1896, pp. v-xxxvi.

[In the excerpted introduction that follows, Horstman provides a detailed rendition of Rolle's life and a comprehensive paraphrase of his works, organizing the paraphrase according to the tenets of Rolle's spiritual beliefs.]

Richard Rolle, from the place of his death and burial surnamed Hampole, was born about, or shortly before, 13001, at Thornton (now Thornton Dale), a village 2 1/2 miles E. of Pickering, at the foot of the hills in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He died on the 29th of September 1349. His father was William...

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Geraldine E. Hodgson (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: Geraldine E. Hodgson, in an introduction to The Form of Perfect Living and Other Prose Treatises, Thomas Baker, 1910, pp. xi-xxxiv.

[Below, Hodgson discusses Rolle's major works, summarizing their content and engaging the various controversies that had sprung up around them; she ultimately tends to defend Rolle 's standing as a mystic.]

Richard Rolle of Hampole is the earliest in time of our famous English Mystics. Born in or about 1300, he died in 1349, seven years after Mother Julian of Norwich was born. Walter Hilton died in 1392.

An exhaustive account of Rolle's life is given in Vol. ii. of Professor Horstman's Edition of his works, a book...

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Dom David Knowles (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Dom David Knowles, "Richard Rolle," in The English Mystics, Burns Oates & Washboume Ltd., 1927, pp. 73-89.

[In the following excerpt, Knowles depicts Rolle as a kind of early Romantic poetone whose art is spontaneous, natural, personal, and almost rebelliously individualiste]

The four writers who have now to be considered are very different in mental outlook one from another, and may to some degree be taken as the representatives in English medieval religious life of four distinct types of spirituality. Richard Rolle, the first, is a poet, almost a romanticist; a troubadour of GOD, spiritual brother of St Francis, throwing off conventional habits,...

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Hope Emily Allen (essay date 1927)

SOURCE· Hope Emily Allen, in an introduction to Writings Ascribed to Richard Rolle, D. C. Heath and Company, 1927, pp. 1-8.

[Since her standard works of 1927 and 1931, Allen has been recognized as a leading Rolle scholar. In the following excerpts from the introduction to her 1927 volume, Allen discusses her efforts to establish a canon of Rolle's writings; she was the first to argue that The Pricke of Conscience, previously considered one of his major works, had been wrongly attributed to him. She also briefly characterizes his mysticism, defending its nonconformity and "wildness. "]

As is true of most of the great mystics, Rolle's life and writings show a striking...

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Frances M. M. Comper (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Frances M. M. Comper, "Of the Union of the Soul with Christ: And How Perfect Love Stands in Heat and Song and Sweetness: And of the Three Degrees of This Love," in The Life of Richard Rolle, J. M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1928, pp. 98-124.

[Aside from the Office composed soon after Rolle's death, Comper's biography was the first extended account of Rolle's life. In the following excerpt, she treats in detail the pinnacle of Rolle's union with God.]

Richard nearly always speaks of mystical contemplation in terms of love. "To me it seems that contemplation is the joyful song of God's love taken into the mind with the sweetness of angels' praise." Correctly...

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T. W. Coleman (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: T. W. Coleman, "Richard Rolle," in English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century, The Epworth Press, 1938, pp. 64-83.

[Below, Coleman describes Rolle not only as a true mystic, but also as a bridge from medieval to modern literature by virtue of the personal note in his devotional and literary styles.]

History plays curious pranks. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Richard Rolle of Hampole was one of our most prolific writers, in verse and prose, on religious subjects. During his lifetime, and for some years after his death, alike in England and upon the Continent, his numerous works were eagerly sought and frequently copied. Unfortunately, after enjoying...

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Conrad Pepler (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Conrad Pepler, "The Progress of Christian Life," in The English Religious Heritage, B. Herder Book Co., 1958, pp. 161-213.

[In the excerpt below, Pepler places Rolle at the head of English mysticism. Reserving most of his attention for Rolle's English works, Pepler looks at Rolle's experiences and terminology in relation to broader conventions of medieval mysticism.]

The New Light

Richard Rolle has been called 'The Father of English Mysticism' and it is to him we turn for the first introduction to mysticism in its strict sense among English writers. He was born some hundred years after the Ancren Riwle was written, and yet he is...

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E. J. Arnould (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: E. J. Arnould, "Richard Rolle of Hampole," in The Month, Vol. 23, No. 1, January, 1960, pp. 13-25.

[In the essay below, Arnould seeks to synthesize the divergent portraits of Rolle that have dominated, one portraying him as wholly saintly, and the other as largely wild and tempermental. In his effort to draw a more complex picture of Rolle's character, Arnould examines the De Emendatione Vitae, the Incendium Amoris; and the Melos Amoris.]

The fourteenth century was the heyday of English mysticism and is also famous for its hermits and anchorites. Richard Rolle, whose life-span covers the first half of the century, has a marked place among both...

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Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Rosemary Woolf, "The Lyrics of Richard Rolle and the Mystical School," in The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1968, pp. 159-79.

[In the excerpt that follows, Woolf considers Rolle in relation to the broader conventions and schools of mystical writing, focusing particularly on the tradition of the Passion meditation. Ultimately contradicting the pervasive image of Rolle as a "natural" writer, Woolf notes his innovative skill with literary form and places him at the beginning of "devotional-mystical writing in English."]

All the poetry so far discussed is unmystical. It may vary in the degree of literary formality, but...

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Sister Mary Arthur Knowlton (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Sister Mary Arthur Knowlton, "Rolle's Lyrics," in The Influence of Richard Rolle and of Julian of Norwich on the Middle English Lyrics, Mouton, 1973, pp. 49-70.

[In the excerpt below, Knowlton sets out her basic reading of Rolle, noting the features that she considers definitive of his verse.]

Lyric poetry, among the Greeks, meant poetry to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Professor Frye suggests in the Anatomy of Criticism that the Greek word for lyric would be more meaningfully translated "poems to be chanted",1 since the emphasis should be placed on the words, not on the music. The lyric is now generally found to be defined in some...

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John A. Alford (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: John A. Alford, "Biblical Imitatio in the Writings of Richard Rolle," in ELH, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Alford makes an effort to correct what he sees to þe the paucity of true literary studies of Rolle. In his analysis, Alford examines the relationship of Rolle's works to the biblical imitatio—a rhetorical tradition based on study of the Holy Scripture.]

Though R. W. Chambers was not the first to appreciate Richard Rolle's prose style, his famous essay on the continuity of English prose had much to do with the subsequent direction of Rolle criticism—if it is accurate to speak of "direction" where there...

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Nicholas Watson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Nicholas Watson, "The Structure of Rolle's Thought," in Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 54-72.

[In the following excerpt from his book-length study, Watson sets out the basis for his analysis, focusing on the function of canor in Rolle's work and thought. Considering Rolle in relation to larger mystical traditions, Watson finds him distinctive by virtue of "an idiosyncrasy not of thought but of focus."]

[Here I will examine] the major themes of [Rolle's] writing, through which he articulates his audacious argument as to the status of the solitary mystic in the Church, and points to ways in which these,...

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Further Reading


Lagoria, Valerie Marie and Ritamary Bradley. The 14th-Century English Mystics: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1981, 197 pp.

Provides a thorough overview of Rolle's work and Rolle scholarship, divided into easily navigated sections.


Alford, John A. "Richard Rolle and Related Works." In Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres. Ed. A. S. G. Edwards. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984, pp. 35-60.

Provides a thorough and concise synopsis...

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