Export stop on medieval guide for hermits

Arts minister Helen Whately has put an export bar on a 15th century illuminated guide for those contemplating becoming hermits and anchorites.

The Myrowr of Recluses was written in 1414, a year before the Battle of Agincourt in and details the reasons  why people sought lives of recluse – mainly prayer, meditation and reading – and what they could expected in the future, both in life and the afterlife. The only other known version is an incomplete manuscript from the mid-15th century in the British Library, and the discovery of the manuscript at risk of export has revealed previously unknown sections of the text and is of huge significance for the study of the lives of medieval women and anchorites. 

There were thought to be about 200 hermits in England in the 13th century, more of them women than men. There is no known figure for the 15th century.

“Unknown to scholarship until recently, this handsomely decorated copy of a guide to the austere life of an anchorite offers a rich new avenue of exploration into the nature of women’s religious education in the early fifteenth century, and how such texts were circulated” said Leslie Webster, a member of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which advised on the export halt. “Almost certainly written for female anchorites, the text seems to be linked to the Benedictine nuns at Barking Abbey, a foundation dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, and in the fifteenth century, renowned as a house of educated women, inspired by its Abbess, Sybil de Felton.

“Among other unique content, this particular manuscript also gives a precise date for the beginning of the text’s composition: ‘this Wednysday bi the morrow, the even of the blissed virgyne seynt Alburgh, the secunde yeere of the worthy christen prince oure souerayn liege lord the kyng Henry the Fiftis’ – or Wednesday, 10 October 1414. Such contemporary detail makes the manuscript a vivid witness to the period, as well as of great importance to our understanding of later medieval thought and society. It is a fascinating treasure that deserves to be saved.” 

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred until 13 April and may be extended until 13 August if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made at the recommended price of £168,750.

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