|Education||University of Oxford|
|Known for||Hermit, religious writer, Bible translator|
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Richard Rolle (c. 1300 – 30 September 1349) was an English hermit, mystic, and religious writer. He is also known as Richard Rolle of Hampole or de Hampole, since at the end of his life he lived near a Cistercian nunnery in Hampole, now in South Yorkshire. In the words of Nicholas Watson, scholarly research has shown that "[d]uring the fifteenth century he was one of the most widely read of English writers, whose works survive in nearly four hundred English ... and at least seventy Continental manuscripts, almost all written between 1390 and 1500."
In his works, Rolle provides little explicit evidence about his early life and education. Most, if not all, of our information about him comes from the Office of Lessons and Antiphons that was composed in the 1380s in preparation for his canonisation, although this never came about.
Born into a small farming family and brought up at Thornton-le-Dale near Pickering, he studied at the University of Oxford where he was sponsored by Thomas de Neville, the Archdeacon of Durham. While there, he is said to have been more interested in theology and biblical studies than philosophy and secular studies. He left Oxford at age eighteen or nineteen—dropping out before he received his MA—to become a hermit. Leaving the family home, he first went to Pickering and housed with a squire, John Dalton, for perhaps three years.
It was probably while still living with Dalton, two years and eight months after becoming a hermit, Rolle had his first mystical experience. Around a year later, he felt similarly after listening to a choir, and he began to take less interest in all things temporal.
Dalton himself was arrested and his lands confiscated in 1322; the lack of mention of this fact in accounts of Rolle's life makes it likely that he was no longer living with Dalton by this point.
"I felt within me a merry and unknown heat...I was expert it was not from a creature but from my Maker, as it grew hotter and more glad."
—Rolle on his first mystical experience.
It is unclear where Rolle lived from 1321/2 until his death in 1349. One theory is that Rolle spent the early 1320s at the renowned Sorbonne, becoming well-trained in theology, and perhaps being ordained there. This theory is based on the entries in three seventeenth-century manuscripts at the Sorbonne, assumed to be copies of medieval originals, which record a Ricardus de Hampole as being admitted to the Sorbonne in 1320, entering the prior's register in 1326, and noting that he died in 1349 among the sisters of Hampole near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Scholars, however, are divided on the authenticity of this material. Whether or not Rolle studied in Paris, it is probable that most if not all of this time was spent in Richmondshire, either living with his family at Yafforth, or, given the uncertain political conditions in the region at the time, wandering from patron to patron.
Around 1348, Rolle knew the Yorkshire anchoress Margaret Kirkby, who was his principal disciple and the recipient of much of his writings and would be important in establishing his later reputation.
Rolle died in Michaelmas 1349 at the Cistercian nunnery at Hampole. Because of his time spent there, where he was director of the inmates, he is sometimes known as Richard Rolle of Hampole, or de Hampole. It is unclear what his function was there: he was not the nuns' official confessor, who was a Franciscan (in any case, it is unlikely he would have had ecclesiastical sanction for this, since unless the theory about his ordination in Paris is correct, he was probably not ordained, since his name is not in the list of those ordained in the dioceses of York or Durham in the relevant years). However he wrote The Form of Living and his English Psalter for a nun there, Margaret Kirkby (who later took up a similar life to Rolle, as an anchoress), and Ego Dormio for a nun at Yedingham. It is possible that he died of the Black Death, but there is no direct evidence for this. He was buried first in the nuns' cemetery at Hampole. Later records of people making offerings of candles at his shrine show that he was moved first to the chancel and then to his own chapel.
Rolle probably began writing in the early 1330s, and continued until his death – but there is no certain chronology of his various works. He wrote in both Latin and English, with his English works apparently all dating from after c. 1340.
The precise dating of Rolle's works is a matter of much modern dispute. The dates set out by Hope Emily Allen in 1927 have been widely used by later writers, but in 1991 Nicholas Watson set out a rather different vision of the chronology of Rolle's writing.
In one of his best-known works, Incendium Amoris (The Fire of Love), Rolle provides an account of his mystical experiences, which he describes as being of three kinds: a physical warmth in his body, a sense of wonderful sweetness, and a heavenly music that accompanied him as he chanted the Psalms. The book was widely read in the Middle Ages, and described the four purgative stages that one had to go through to become closer to God: described as open door, heat, song, and sweetness.
His last work was probably the English The Form of Living, written in autumn 1348 at the earliest. It is addressed to Margaret Kirkby, who entered her enclosure as a recluse on 12 December 1348, and is a vernacular guide for her life as an anchorite.
His works are often classified into commentaries, treatises and epistles. As such, the commentaries are:
Other works include:
Three letters survive. All are addressed to single recipients, and contain much similar material:
Works once thought to be Rolle's:
Richard Rolle inspired a flourishing cult, especially in the north of England, which was still active at the time of the English Reformation. Part of this may have been due to the efforts of Margaret Kirkby, who moved to the priory, probably between 1381 and 1383, to be near the body of her master, Rolle. Margaret may have spent the last 10 years of her life here, and between 1381 and 1383 a liturgical office for Rolle, including a great deal of biographical information about him, was written; it likely includes stories about him remembered by older members of the community.
Rolle's works were widely read in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, more so even than Chaucer. Works of his survive in about 470 manuscripts written between 1390 and 1500, and in 10 sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century printed editions (including the sixteenth-century edition by Wynkyn de Worde). In some manuscripts, Rolle's Commentary on the Psalter is interpolated with Lollard teaching, providing indications of one group who read his work. Rolle's work was not uncontroversial. He was criticised by Walter Hilton and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing; a defence of Rolle's work was written by the hermit Thomas Basset in the late fourteenth century against the attack of an unnamed Carthusian.
The shrine and priory at his burial place of Hampole was dissolved on 19 November 1539. The remains can be seen in an old schoolhouse in Hampole.
|Venerated in||Anglican Communion|
|Feast||20 January (Church of England)|
28 September (Episcopal Church (USA))
Rolle is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 20 January and in the Episcopal Church (USA) together with Walter Hilton and Margery Kempe on 28 September.