An Archaeology research project funded by the London Society of Antiquaries investigating the British and Irish archaeology of medieval hermitages.

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About the project

Principal Investigator: Dr Simon Roffey, Reader in Medieval Archaeology, Department of Archaeology, Anthropology and Geography, and University Buddhist Chaplain 

The search for solitude and silence is a quest that has preoccupied humanity for many centuries, both those of faith and those of none. Contemplatives and mystics have been finding a home in deserts, forests and mountains all over the world, as gateways to an experience of the Divine, self-knowledge and enlightenment.

The importance of the solitary (eremitic) religious life has been celebrated through the works of religious writers throughout history, but comparatively little is known about the specific material contexts of such practice; the caves, cells, chapels, and hermitages of the medieval religious recluse. Over 750 medieval hermitages are recorded in Britain, yet to date there has been no comprehensive study or synthesis of these important monuments. Previous studies of hermits and anchorites has been mainly in the field of history and have naturally focussed on literary sources. This research will for the first time provide an archaeology of medieval hermitages and anchorite cells, examining a diverse range of archaeological and architectural evidence for the eremitic life. This evidence includes caves, chapels, ruined bastions, churchyard cells, lighthouses, bridge hermitages, islands and mountain and hill-top retreats. 

While being a work of archaeological academic research, this study is informed by over 25 years of personal involvement in both western and eastern contemplative traditions – Dr Roffey is also the University's Buddhist Chaplain. The research has a primary focus on British and Irish medieval eremitism, yet nonetheless examines this within the wider comparative traditions that have come before it (and arrived since), including case studies from India, China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East. It will conclude with a discussion on the legacy of the medieval hermit within the history of contemplative tradition and its relevance today.

Output

The results of this project will be published as a book by Routledge titled In Search of Solitude: the archaeology of hermits and hermitages in the medieval period and beyond.

Funding

This project is funded by the London Society of Antiquaries, 2019

Background image: Dr Roffey at the cave hermitage of the early 13th-century saint Robert of Knaresborough on the river Nidd in Yorkshire, a rare surviving example of a medieval hermitage with a living area.