Richard Rolle Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.