Solitude and authenticity after the Reformation: or, Puritans out of the closet

In November 2019, the Pathologies of Solitude Research Network met to discuss work and ideas related to the theme of Solitude, Religion and the Inner Voice. In this paper from the colloqiuim, Erica Longfellow explores the fear of solitude in the 17th century and its relationship to protestant devotion.


Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself.

John Donne, ‘Meditation V. Solus Adest’, Devotions upon emergent occasions (1624).

Miserable distemper! not to see God in the light, and see him in the darke: …not to see, where we all see him, in the Congregation, and to see him with terror, in the Suburbs of despaire, in the solitary chamber.

John Donne, ‘Preached at Hanworth, to my Lord of Carlile, and his company, being the Earles of Northumberland, and Buckingham, &c. Aug. 25. 1622. Fifty Sermons, Wing D1862 (1649), 274.

But, O my Soule, the Graue is fearefull: It is a retired solitude and a place of silence, a place of filthie stinke[.]

Zacharie Boyd, The last battell of the soule in death, STC 3447 (1629), 1135.

Solitude is not much better than a grave[.]

Thomas Adams, A commentary or, exposition vpon the diuine second epistle generall, written by the blessed apostle St. Peter, STC 108 (1633), 1610.

Society is the life of our life, and solitarinesse is a very living buriall. I might here move a Problem, why men naturally in remote and silent retirements and solitudes finde a kinde of horror and affrightfulnesse?

William Ince, Lot’s little one. Or Meditations on Gen. 19. vers. 20, STC 14073 (1640), 96.

So as this is the summe, if a man be alone, he shall be in misery; and againe, if a man be in any misery hee shall be left alone: Solitude and misery being like water, and ice, the one mutually producing the other.

John Jackson, The true euangelical temper, Wing J76B (1641), 185.

That it is true indeed, that to Man, by nature, or as Man, that is, as soone as he is born, Solitude is an enemy[.]

Thomas Hobbes, Philosophicall rudiments concerning government and society, Wing H2253 (1651), 6.

We tend to think that the inability to be alone is a problem of modernity, one that technological distraction has made particularly acute: indeed, in a 2014 study people of all ages found it so distressing to sit in a room alone for 15 minutes—without their phones—that some chose to relieve the boredom and fear by giving themselves electric shocks.[1] But many of our seventeenth century ancestors were so averse to solitude that it was embedded in their language: the Catholic lexicographer John Bullokar defined solitude as ‘A desert place, a wildernesse’, and many writers used ‘solitude’ as a synonym of ‘desolation’, the absence of life, desertion by one’s allies.[2] ‘Solitariness’ was the—somewhat—more neutral term, but, as the quotations above illustrate, whatever words were used, for many being alone was not merely a state of loneliness, but a source of existential dread.


Such a terror of being along is perhaps not surprising at a time when life was intensely communal. Early modern architecture afforded very little privacy, even for the wealthy, and few people expected or desired it. At all levels of society the chambers of a house were shared, and were not designed to impede access: servants slept in their masters’ rooms, rooms were strung together rather than opening off corridors, and poorer families were crammed into small spaces, often with their animals. Closets were not oratories but rooms that could be locked, used to store valuables and foodstuffs and for confidential business, and, as a secondary use, for reading and devotion. Even as a multi-functional lockable space they were a luxury; only the elite could afford to have a room dedicated solely to individual prayer. Early modern people of course experienced time alone, at work or travelling, and those who sought solitude could find it outside, in gardens or fields, or in the watches of the night between first and second sleep, when the rest of the household was quiet. But for most people, most of the time, life was lived with others’ care and guidance, watchfulness and concern, in a way that is difficult for us to imagine. It is no surprise that solitude was equated with illness, misery and the grave, that it was an ‘enemy’ to human life, that it led naturally to ‘horror and affrightfulnesse’.


That horror of isolation was coupled with a fear of what the mind might imagine when alone: ‘those disordered motions, which accompany our sequestred imaginations’, as Sir Thomas Browne called them. This fear of thought itself was not confined to Protestants. Roman Catholicism had a long history of personal devotional practises, but these were contained and controlled by an infrastructure of convents and confessors and set forms of prayer, and there was still an anxiety about might happen if people began to think and pray outside of those boundaries. In sixteenth century Spain, for example, Teresa of Avila had to guard her writings very closely; merely promoting the concept of ‘mental prayer’ (prayer in one’s head, without set forms) was enough to attract the attention of the inquisition. The Jesuits helped to overcome this fear and to popularise more contemplative forms of devotion, publishing handbooks that were widely circulated and translated. But in England the suspicion of solitary devotion was fuelled and maintained by the rejection of monasticism and everything associated with it, which had become a kind of Protestant shibboleth by the seventeenth century. Solitude, and monastic solitude in particular, was a dangerous source of temptation and disordered thinking. The devil had chosen to tempt Jesus in the desert for a reason, as Joseph Hall warned:


Woe to him that is alone, for if he fall, there is not a second to lift him vp. Those that out of an affectation of holinesse seeke for solitude in rocks and caues of the deserts, doe no other than run into the mouth of the danger of tentation, whiles they thinke to auoid it.[3]


The paranoia of this position is apparent from the way it is applied to other Biblical stories that would not seem to us to have anything to do with solitude. Lot, who had remained chaste in the ‘professed filthinesse’ of Sodom, would not have committed incest if he had not been alone in the mountains. Judah would not have been unwittingly seduced by his daughter-in-law in the guise of a temple prostitute if he had not been alone on the road. David would not have spied on and plotted to abduct Bathsheba and murder her husband if he had not been alone on the roof of his house. The traditional view is that early modern Protestants were great advocates of Matthew 6.5 (‘enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret’), when in fact they saw the dangers of solitude everywhere. Writers that encouraged solitary prayer quenched any enthusiasm with warnings about temptation and lists of ways of preventing ‘Satans filthy imbracements’.[4] ‘It is good, no doubt,’ admitted the godly minister of St Mary’s, Dover,


sometimes to bee alone, that wee may haue conuenience for holy Soliloquies, but wee must know, they are not solitarie Groues, silent walkes, a desolate Cell, or melancholly Hermitage, which can shut our selues from our selues: shew mee that holy recluse, that mortified Anachorete, whose walls can keepe out cares, sinfull and tumultuous thoughts[.][5]


The influential London puritan John Downame’s A guide to godlynesse provides an example of how suspicion of solitude infected Protestant practical divinity. Although he includes a chapter ‘Of the duties which wee ought to performe, when we are solitary and alone’, Downame is extremely reluctant to encourage solitude even for the purposes of prayer. Being alone is an ‘accident’ of daily life that must be used for devout purposes lest it become the source of danger. The ‘duties’ are not steps in meditation, but methods to avoid sin:


  • . Sect. 1 That when we are alone, we must not be idle and vnfruitfull.
  • . Sect. 2 That we must spend our solitary houres in good exercises, shunning vaine thoughts and intertaining Christian meditations.
  • . Sect. 3 That in our solitarinesse we must auoyde carnall concupiscence and the pleasures of sinne.
  • . Sect. 4 That we must in our solitarinesse beware of sinfull actions and secret sinnes.
  • . Sect. 5 That it is pleasant, profitable, and necessary to spend our solitary houres in Christian duties.


Even that last section about the ‘pleasant’ benefits of solitude is full of warnings to ‘keepe this watch ouer our thoughts, hearts, and actions, when we are solitary, because then we are more in danger to fall into sinne, and to become slothfull and negligent in all good duties’ and because alone ‘we are destitute of the helpe of our religious friends’, their guidance and watchful admonitions. It is the end of this chapter that leads to Downame’s warnings about Biblical figures who fell while alone: Eve, Joseph in Potipher’s house, Lot alone in the mountains with his daughters, David spying on Bathsheba, even Christ in the wilderness. ‘[W]ee are in our solitarinesse to watch most carefully ouer the purity of our soules,’ Downame warns, ‘because they are then most indangered to these spirituall rapes.’[6]


What underlies all this concern is an almost paranoid fear of not being watched: the vigillance of other Christians is what keeps us from falling into temptation. This paranoia finds its opposite in the following chapter, ‘What duties wee ought to performe when wee are in company’. Downame allows that ‘there is a fit time for solitarinesse,’ ‘yet we are not chiefly to affect it, much lesse to put such perfection in it, as to deuote our liues wholly vnto it[.]’ We are ‘to preferre ciuill conuersation before solitarinesse, and a life taken vp in vertuous action, before that which is spent in bare theorie and contemplations.’ It is in communal life that we can be examples to one another, ‘stirre vp Gods graces in one another, both by word and good example, helping to remooue impediments that lye in the way; and exhorting one another to cheerefulnesse in their iourney.’ The anxious tone of the previous chapter is transfigured; in ‘sweete society’ believers ‘hasten their speed towards the Kingdome of heauen’.[7]


The terror of solitude that is evident in Downame’s Guide and many other godly texts was balanced by a number of other influences, and in the seventeenth century an increasing number of Protestant writers began to concede that solitude, although dangerous, was probably necessary to the Christian life. Richard Rogers’ influential Seuen treatises on practical divinity (1603) features a chapter detailing ‘how we should behaue our selues in solitarinesse’ (376-84). Like Downame, Rogers spends considerable time warning against the ‘idle and vaine wandrings and fantasies’ that ‘swarme’ in the minds of most people when they are alone. But he also offers the examples of Cicero, Scipio and Cato, who valued their solitary meditations, and these pagan classical writers offered an example of stoic retreat from the world of the court, politics and business to a quieter life that was romanticised (and satirized) in pastoral literature.[8] Joseph Hall’s The arte of diuine meditation (STC 12642, 1606) introduced continental forms of meditation to Protestant readers, and guidebooks such as Daniel Featley’s Ancilla Pietatis (STC 10725, 1626) presented straightforward patterns of private prayer not unlike Catholic books of hours. But the ambivalence remained. Featley wrote his handbook while confined to his house by a non-infectious disease during an outbreak of plague; meditating on the emptiness of the church, ‘the danger and desolation of her solemnest assemblies’, Featley ‘fell into a serious consideration of the vse and most vrgent necessity of PRIVATE DEVOTION’ to reconnect believers to public worship. He dedicated his book to Katherine Manners, praising her piety but implying that she was in need of a Protestant form of prayer since she had renounced Catholicism to marry George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in 1620. (He was not wrong; she reverted to Catholicism shortly after Buckingham’s assassination in 1628). John Donne could call solitude ‘a torment which is not threatened in hell itself’ in the Devotions, but also keep a time of ‘solitarinesse and arraignment of my self’ in preparation for receiving the sacrament. In his time alone Donne ‘digested some meditations of mine, and apparelled them (as I use) in the form of a Sermon’, a reminder that writing was one solitary pursuit that seems to have caused far less panic for his contemporaries than thinking without the aid of pen and paper, without the interlocutor that writing imagines.[9]


Like many of his contemporaries, Donne was influenced by Roman Catholic models of prayer and meditation that were much more positive about the value of time spent alone. Classics of practical devotion by Luis de la Puente, Luis de Granada, Francis de Sales, Peter of Alcantara and others were translated into English in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and under the influence of Hall and others found their way into Protestant hands. Successive translations of one of these texts, the late medieval Devotio Moderna guide De Imitatione Christi (c. 1427), provide a final example of how suspicion of solitude left its trace in Protestant culture. The original includes a chapter ‘De amore solitudinis et silentii’, translated as ‘Of the loue of onlynes and scylence’ by the Roman Catholic Richard Whitford in 1535, ‘Of the loue of Solitude, and Silence’, by the Jesuit Anthony Hoskins in 1613, but ‘Of solitarines, and silence’ by the Protestant Thomas Rogers in 1580.[10] Rogers’ translation is subtly reforming, inserting scripture references that anchor the text in Protestant Biblical scholarship, and slightly altering the wording, as in the omission of ‘love’ in the title of chapter 20. For example, Rogers translates ‘Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant’ as ‘after the example of the most godlie, who shunned the companie of men, as much as they might, and choase to liue apart vnto God.’ Rogers’s language evokes Senecan retirement from public life rather than outright solitude; ‘living apart’ in an early modern context could mean retreat to the country rather than seclusion. Hoskins’s translation is clearer, and much closer to the Latin: ‘The greatest Saints auoyded the company of men as much as they could, {{Heb. 3.}} and chose to liue to God in secret.’[11]


Hoskins also emphasises secrecy in a paragraph that describes solitary meditation as the only source of godly remorse:


  1. Si vis corde tenus compungi, intra cubiculum tuum, et exclude tumultus mundi. Sicut scriptum est, In cubilibus vestris compungimini.


If thou desirest true contrition of hart, retire thy selfe into some secret and solitary place, and exclude from thy mind the tumultes, & vnquietnes of the world, as it is written: In your chambers be ye sory. {{Psal. 4.}}


Rogers, on the other hand, chooses the more neutral term ‘chamber’, more closely aligning the instruction with Jesus’s rules for praying in the gospel of Matthew:


the which thou shalt the more easilie attaine, if thou enter into thy chamber {{Matth. 6, 6.}}, and shut thy selfe from trobles of the worlde, as it is written {{Psalm. 4, 4.}}, Examine your owne hart vpon your bed, and be stil.


Rogers’s translation is closer to the Latin ‘cubiculum tuum’, but Hoskins’s ‘some secret and solitary place’ is much more explicitly solitary. ‘Chamber’ usually referred to a bedroom, and early modern beds and bedrooms were surprisingly communal places.[12]


Most telling is a slightly confusing passage about how the wonders of the world are ultimately unsatsifying:


Quid potes videre alicubi, quod die potest sub solem permanere. Credis te forsitan satiari, sed non poteris pertingere.


Hoskins renders this as


What is there any where to be seene that can long continue vnder the sunne? Thou thinkest perhaps to satiate thy selfe, & haue thy fill; but thou shalt neuer attaine it[.]


But Rogers turns this into a warning about too much thinking:


What seest thou in any place that abideth euer {{1. Cor. 7, verse. 31. 1. Iohn. 2, verse. 17.}}? Perchance thou thinkest to satisfie thy self with contemplation; but thou shalt neuer do so.


Rogers goes on to make the same point that the devout should ‘lift vp thine eies’ to God, rather than looking on earthly things, but the hint that ‘contemplation’ might be unsatisfying and even distracting is a reminder that fear of thought crept in even to this adaptation of a classic of Roman Catholic devotion.[13]


Many of my fellow early modernists would be startled to read these passages; we still tend to think of Protestants as those who are happy to enter into their closets. We cannot understand the evolution of Protestant devotion, and thus of early modern concepts of the self, until we take this suspicion of solitude into account. But this phenomenon has implications beyond histories of the reformation. It provides evidence of the long and deep-rooted history of the pathology of solitude, of the natural ‘horror and affrightfulnesse’ that many still feel at the prospect of time alone. It also problematises the questions at the heart of today’s seminar about inner presence and the inner voice, and changing perceptions of the source of that presence. Godly writers may warn of Satan’s ability to manipulate those who are alone, but the dangerous thoughts come from within, from the sinful nature of the individual, not an external spiritual force. The fear articulated here is fundamentally a fear of the unguarded, unwatched self: no solitary space is sufficiently holy to ‘shut our selues from our selues’.


Erica Longfellow is Dean of Divinity at New College, Oxford.


[1] Timothy J Wilson et al, ‘Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind’, Science 4 July 2014, pp. 75-77,

[2] J[ohn] B[ullokar], An English expositor, STC 4083 (1616), 100; OED, ‘solitude, n.’, 2, 3, 4.

[3] Joseph Hall, The vvorks of Ioseph Hall Doctor in Diuinitie, STC 12635b (1625), 1192.

[4] John Downame, A guide to godlynesse or a Treatise of a Christian life, STC 7143 (1622), 302. Richard Rogers, Seuen treatises, STC 21215 (1603), 381.

[5] John Reading, Dauids soliloquie Containing many comforts for afflicted mindes. As they were deliuered in sundry sermons at Saint Maries in Douer, STC 20788 (1627), 181.

[6] [6] John Downame, A guide to godlynesse, 297, 299, 300, 301, 302.

[7] John Downame, A guide to godlynesse, 302, 303, 304.

[8] Richard Rogers, Seuen treatises, 384, 383.

[9] John Donne, ‘To my worthy friend F. H.’, Letters to severall persons of honour, Wing D1864 (1651), 228.

[10] Richard Whitford, trans., A boke newly translated out of Latyn in to Englisshe, called The folowing of Christe, STC 23964.7 (1535); Thomas Rogers, trans., Of the imitation of Christ, STC 23973 (1580); Anthony Hoskins, trans., The follovving of Christ Deuided into foure bookes, STC 23987 (Saint-Omer, 1613).

[11] Thomas Rogers, trans., Of the imitation of Christ, 41; Anthony Hoskins, trans., The follovving of Christ, 47.

[12] Anthony Hoskins, trans., The follovving of Christ, 49; Thomas Rogers, trans., Of the imitation of Christ, 42.

[13] Anthony Hoskins, trans., The follovving of Christ, 51; Thomas Rogers, trans., Of the imitation of Christ, 44.