Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Renunciation is a theme that ran through a wide variety of religious experience in medieval England and touched the lives of many people. It drew on a long Christian tradition of self-imposed separation from the world, which had begun in the third and fourth centuries when the hermits of Palestine and Egypt had shunned the city in favour of the desert. The many men and women who sought to emulate the lives, values and aspirations of the desert monks did so in the retreats of monastery, nunnery, hermitage and anchorhold: that is, in communities centred on the religious life or in a solitary existence.
By 1200 there was in England a well-established monastic order. There were monasteries that took as their code of life the Rule of St Benedict. There were others, like the Cistercians, who remained Benedictine but formed their own order. There were the regular canons, who since the late eleventh century had become a vital part of the English monastic scene; and there were nunneries of all orders and congregations, both large and wealthy Anglo-Saxon foundations and the smaller, often poor, houses of eastern England and the northern moors. But almost paradoxically the life of renunciation was made possible by those who lived in the world: by the material support offered to the monastic order by lay benefactors, who provided land on which a monastery could be built and endowments to yield income to maintain the community.