Medieval Studies Richard Rolle
Margaret Connolly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0125


Richard Rolle, who died in 1349, is the earliest of a group of five English writers who are generally referred to as the Middle English mystics. These writers span the 14th and 15th centuries: the others in the group are Walter Hilton (d. 1396), the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich (b. c. 1342–d. after 1416), and Margery Kempe (b. c. 1373–c. 1439). Rolle was educated at Oxford, but he returned to Yorkshire, the county of his birth, to live as a hermit in various locations before finally settling in a cell close to the nunnery of Hampole. He acted as a spiritual advisor to one of the nuns there, Margaret Kirkby, and his most famous Middle English treatise, The Form of Living, is addressed to her. After his death it was expected that Rolle would be canonized and as a consequence Hampole priory became an increasingly important pilgrimage site. Although best known to modern scholars for his English writings, the majority of Rolle’s works are written in Latin. These include a commentary on the Psalter, and contemplative and instructional tracts, some of which were translated into English. Rolle was a prolific author, and both his Latin and English works enjoyed a wide circulation in manuscript form during the Middle Ages; the Latin works were extensively printed. Many other English texts were falsely attributed to Rolle, and much scholarly attention has been devoted to the establishment of the true canon of his writings. Rolle was a medieval writer of great popularity, but after the Reformation he was largely forgotten. His English works were rediscovered in the late 19th century and for a while his mysticism was celebrated by followers of the High Anglicanism movement within the Church of England. Rolle’s reputation was once again eclipsed when later 20th-century developments in gender criticism brought female writers such as Julian of Norwich to greater prominence. Recent renewed attention to his Latin works has given a more balanced view of his importance.

General Overviews

The first attempt to establish the canon of Rolle’s English writings was made by the author of Horstman 1999, using dialect and manuscript ascriptions as criteria. His overly generous assessment was corrected by Allen 1927, using the same criteria and also stylistic and thematic considerations. Allen’s canon has mostly been accepted by scholars but canonical issues continue to reverberate. The classic study of Rolle’s life is Allen 1927, which remains useful though outdated in some aspects. The entry for Richard Rolle in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Hughes 2004) provides a brief but more widely accessible biography. Hughes 1988, a study of Yorkshire in the later Middle Ages, provides a context for Rolle’s writing that now needs to be approached with caution; much of the detail of Rolle’s life was drawn from older scholarship and has now been superseded by Watson 1991. All biographical studies ultimately derive their information from two late-14th-century sources: the Office (Officium) for Richard Rolle, and the related collection of his miracles (Miracula). These Latin texts were drawn up after Rolle’s death in anticipation of his canonization, an event that never actually happened. Freeman 2012 gives a lucid account of this and speculates about the likely authorship of these texts; for editions of the texts themselves see Woolley 1919. Sustained treatments of Rolle’s literary output and significance are rare; Watson 1991 is the only book-length study that attempts a critical overview of the whole of Rolle’s writing career, and this constitutes the best access point for information about Rolle’s numerous Latin works. Attempts to define a readership for Rolle’s works have largely taken as their starting point the dedication of one of his later English works to a nun of Hampole. Freeman 2012 investigates the links between the nunnery and Rolle and explores the evidence for a thriving textual culture at Hampole after his death. Barratt 2008 suggests a wider and more enduring readership for his works.

  • Allen, Hope Emily. Writings Ascribed to Richard Rolle Hermit of Hampole and Materials for His Biography. Modern Language Association Monograph Series 3. New York: Kraus, 1927.

    Comprehensive survey of the works associated with Rolle, both Latin and English, and scholarly assessment of their authenticity. Early attempt to establish biographical facts. A key publication, much cited by subsequent scholars, but now superseded in many respects, and should be used with care.

  • Barratt, Alexandra. “Spiritual Writings and Religious Instruction.” In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. 2, The Manuscript Book c. 1100–1400. Edited by Nigel Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson, 340–366. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521782180

    Detailed account of late medieval spiritual writing in Britain that focuses on the production, dissemination, and reception of texts. Quantifies the survival of Rolle’s works (both Latin and English) in manuscript and explores the evidence for different categories of readers; also emphasizes his popularity among 15th-century readers. Chapter available online by subscription.

  • Freeman, Elizabeth. “The Priory of Hampole and Its Literary Culture: English Religious Women and Books in the Age of Richard Rolle.” Parergon: Journal of Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29.1 (2012): 1–25.

    Reassesses the evidence for connections between Rolle and the Cistercian priory of Hampole both during and after his lifetime. Offers clear account of late-14th-century attempts to achieve Rolle’s canonization. Useful footnotes.

  • Horstman, Carl, ed. Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole. Reprinted with a new preface by Anne C. Bartlett. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1999.

    Originally published as two volumes in 1895–1896 (London: Swan Sonnenschein). Highly influential first modern edition of Rolle’s English works and also the first attempt to define the canon of Rolle’s English texts. Contains many texts no longer regarded as by Rolle. Reprinted in one volume in 1999 but still difficult to obtain.

  • Hughes, Jonathan. Pastors and Visionaries: Religion and Secular Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1988.

    Ambitious study of the religious background in northern England in the 14th and 15th centuries. Useful accounts of the eremitic movement and of pastoral care in the diocese of York, but much detail relating to Rolle relies on older scholarship. Interesting attempt at synthesis but should be used with care.

  • Hughes, Jonathan. “Richard Rolle (1300–1349).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/24024

    Brief biographical account, based on up-to-date scholarship and widely accessible.

  • Watson, Nicholas. Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511597565

    Significant study that pays attention to most of Rolle’s individual works, both Latin and English. Includes a new chronology of Rolle’s works. Contends that Rolle’s main preoccupation was with the establishment of his own spiritual authority.

  • Woolley, Reginald Maxwell. The Officium and Miracula of Richard Rolle of Hampole. London: SPCK, 1919.

    Still the best edition of the two Latin texts prepared in anticipation of Rolle’s never-realized canonization.

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