The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.
An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.
I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.
Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.
It was not only during the moment of enclosure that anchoresses were invited to meditate on their death to the world. The Ancrene Wisse (‘Anchoresses’ Guide’) – an important early 13th-century advisory text – instructs that recluses should use their bare hands to ‘scrape up the earth every day from the grave in which they will rot’. The text also prescribes the daily recitation of two psalms from the Office of the Dead, and notes that there is no difference between a ‘smiret ancre’ (‘anointed anchoress’) and an ‘ancre biburiet’ (‘buried anchoress’), because ‘hwet is ancre-hus bute hire burinesse?’ (‘what is an anchorhold but her grave?’). At St Anne’s in Lewes, an anchoress was buried in the exact place she would have knelt at her squint in order to see the high altar, meaning, as Roberta Gilchrist put it in Contemplation and Action: The Other Monasticism, ‘she would have had to kneel daily in her own grave.’
There is a body of medieval literature about the anchoritic life, as well as a wealth of documentary evidence, much of it collected in E.A. Jones’s new volume Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200-1550. It often makes for grim reading. Anchoresses were required to remain in their cells (on average 12 feet square); any windows were covered by a thick black curtain. They were tended to by a servant, or sometimes two, who brought them food and took away waste through a window that would have opened onto a servants’ parlour. Some had access to walled gardens or adjoining rooms, but most remained inside a single room.
Some writers of anchoritic guidance saw the space as confined only in a physical sense. In a letter to the recluse Eve of Wilton (c.1058-1125), who lived in an eight foot cell, Goscelin of St Bertin wrote, echoing Psalm 30, that God ‘has set you in a spacious place, for he has saved you from the afflictions of worldly desires … he has begun to close hell for you and open heaven for you, that you may walk with a spacious heart.’ Yet many others recognised the threat of boredom and claustrophobia. In De Institutione Inclusarum, Aelred of Rievaulx describes idleness as ‘the enemy of the soul’, a vice that ‘sows evil thoughts in the mind … kindles and inflames illicit desires’ and ‘breeds distaste for quiet and disgust for the cell’.
In their cells anchoresses followed a regime of prayer, and guidance literature advised that they should occupy themselves with reading, writing or activities suitable to the enclosed life, like mending church vestments or making cloth. Jones provides an extract from the 15th-century Speculum Inclusorum, which instructs that the moment a recluse’s ‘taste for prayer or delight in meditation decreases’ they should ‘immediately’ read or perform some kind of manual work. If they are unable to read Latin, they are advised to read in English, French or their vernacular language.
Anchoresses were encouraged to fast frequently and to remain silent as much as possible. The 13th-century Dublin Rule recommends resorting to sign language if necessary. Even sleep was seen as a luxury. Walter’s Rule, also written in the 13th century, says that recluses should vary where they sleep – sometimes standing up, and sometimes on the floor. They are advised to lie on nothing softer than a rush mat and use an arm in lieu of a pillow. This was a life of sensory deprivation, with limited light, fresh air, conversation, laughter or touch. The squint – the window onto the church’s altar – became a conduit of sensation. If the parlour window was covered by a curtain, the light from candles on the altar, glimpsed through the squint, might at times be the only source of illumination. And through the squint the anchoress might hear the sung liturgy, smell the incense and, importantly, receive the Eucharist. The narrator of Robyn Cadwallader’s 2015 novel, The Anchoress, learns to distinguish the sounds of different carts passing her cell and smell the changes of the seasons. I imagine they got used to their own smell. Walter’s Rule advises that a recluse should shake out their clothes ‘when required’, but says nothing of washing.
Contact with the outside world was limited. Anchoresses might receive visitors at their windows and it seems their counsel was often sought. The Dublin Rule recommends that before speaking to a visitor the recluse should cross herself upon her mouth and not look too long on the face of the visitor lest she be tempted. Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, which is addressed to a 14th-century anchoress, advises her to receive visitors with grace and humility, offering words of comfort. But, should their talk turn to idle chatter, she should ‘give little answer’, and if the visitor is a man of the Church, she must only ask questions and never instruct him, for ‘it is not your place to teach a priest.’
Of all these advisory texts, the Ancrene Wisse is the most compelling and provided my first encounter with the history of anchoresses. It was written for three sisters who enclosed themselves in the early 13th century (although textual modifications in later manuscripts show its subsequent intended audience was larger). The three sisters, whose names aren’t recorded, may have been enclosed together – there are accounts of anchoresses sharing cells – but I sense it is unlikely: a later version of the text says ‘Tendre of cun ne limpeð nawt ancre beonne’ (‘family feeling is not appropriate for an anchoress’). They were evidently genetic sisters, not spiritual ones. The Wisse’s anonymous author remarks: ‘you are much talked about, what well-bred women you are, sought after by many for your goodness and your generosity, and sisters from one father and one mother, [who] in the bloom of your youth renounced all the joys of the world and became anchoresses.’ I have often wondered why. Were they just very devout or had something happened to these sisters to make them crave the darkness of a cell? They appear to have come from a well-to-do gentry family. Some recluses may have been of humble origin and there are accounts of aristocratic women being enclosed, but many seem to have been from the burgess and gentry class.
To become an anchoress, they would have had to apply to their local bishop. Their application had to demonstrate that they were of good character, suited to the contemplative life and were of independent financial means or had a patron or patrons. The three sisters had a male patron. The text says they have ‘no worries about food or clothing, either for yourselves or for your maids’. Anne Warren’s work on anchoritic patronage has shown that anchorites and anchoresses were supported by people from almost every level of society. This patronage could take various forms. Wills and household accounts reveal that money was often bequeathed. In other cases, bread or books were donated. In 1435, William Fylham, canon of Exeter Cathedral, left ‘three canonical loaves’ per week, for a year, to an anchorite at the church of St Leonard. A decade earlier Thomas Dunham, rector of Little Torrington, left twenty shillings and ‘a book of Sunday sermons written in English’ to an anchoress in Exeter called Alice.
I’ve sometimes wondered if the three sisters’ patron was their father, brother or another family member. The text states that the permission of the confessor must be sought before an anchoress may receive visits from friends or relations. Perhaps they had no immediate family left. There are several accounts of women becoming enclosed in widowhood. Grief could drive you to seek a living death.
The Ancrene Wisse prescribes a life of privation predicated on the idea that the recluses were inherently sinful creatures. They were forbidden to touch anyone from the moment of their enclosure and were never to look at or be seen by a man. If a bishop came to visit and insisted on looking at them, the sisters were advised that this gaze should be very brief and to ‘lower your veil at once and draw back’. It stipulates a virginity so totalising that even the intrusion of a person’s hand into the anchoritic cell is a sinful penetration. The anchoresses’ bodies became one with the cell, and thus became organs of the church that could be controlled and contained. Among the activities the text condemns are crossing the legs, affecting a lisp, arching the eyebrows with moistened fingers, certain kinds of embroidery, owning gloves, wearing pleated garments and writing without the permission of the confessor. They also had to seek permission to wear a belt made of iron or hair or ilespiles felles (‘hedgehog skins’). The text says that the anchoress should ‘not beat herself with these things, nor with a lead-weighted scourge, nor with holly or brambles, nor should she bloody herself … nor sting herself with nettles, nor beat the front of her body, nor lacerate herself with cuts’. These self-inflicted tortures are like treats to be rationed, and are permissible only with authorisation.
The Ancrene Wisse is unsettling in a number of ways. The experience of reading it is sensuous. Its rhythmic, alliterative language delights the ear and contorts the tongue (some of the best alliteration comes in pairs, like ‘swete ant swote’ or ‘woh of word’).
Mine leoue sustren, alswa as ȝe witeð wel ower wittes utewið, alswa ouer alle þing lokið þet ȝe beon inwið softe ant milde ant eadmode, swete and swote iheortet, ant þolemode aȝein woh of word
My beloved sisters, just as you watch your wits outwardly, also you must look inwardly and be sure that you are soft, mild and meek, sweet and sweet-of-heart, and patient against woeful words
The imagery is rich, allegorical and unforgettable. In other words, it glorifies its own aesthetic. In one passage, the author – always alive to sonic play – riffs on the dual sense of the Middle English word ancre, meaning ‘anchoress’ and also ‘anchor’:
For-þi is ancre ancre icleopet, ant under chirche iancret as ancre under schipes bord forte halden þet schip, þet uþen ant stormes hit ne ouerwarpen. Alswa al Hali Chirche (þet is schip icleopet) schal ancrin o þe ancre, þet heo hit swa halde þet uþen ant stormes hit ne ouerwarpen.
The anchoress is called an anchor, and anchored under the church like an anchor under the side of a ship to hold the ship, so that waves and storms do not blow it over. Just so all Holy Church (which is described as a ship) should anchor on the anchoress, for her to hold it so that the devil’s blasts, which are temptations, do not blow it over.
This is a rhetorical pirouette – playing on the different meanings of ancre, but also of the chirch as both the physical building of the parish church and the global Church. It moves from particular, local detail (an anchor, a church building) to the cosmic battle between good and evil. The language makes the tongue take several trips: the cr-, cl-, ch- and sh- sounds half-echoing each other while the repetition of ‘ouerwarpen’ loops the sentences together.
The use of allegory here is typical of the text. The author is particularly fond of animal and bird allegories, describing the angry anchoress as a pelican that kills its own chicks (figured as good works) with the beak of sharp anger. In Part Four, he warns against the lion of pride, the serpent of envy, the bear of sloth, the rhinoceros of wrath, the sow of gluttony and the scorpion of lechery. Each beast has offspring which are varieties of the sins. The sow’s piglets have names like ‘To Frechliche’ (‘Too Greedily’) and ‘To Ofte’ (‘Too Often’). You can’t forget the snouting, scuttling, slithering, slouching creatures of this sermon.
The tone is also unsettling. Read one way, the Ancrene Wisse is veined with hatred of women, but it is also a work of love: ‘Godde hit wat as me were muche deale leouere þet Ich isehe ow alle þreo, mine leoue sustren, wummen me leouest, hongin on a gibet forte wiðbuhe sunne’ (‘God knows I would rather see all three of you, my dear sisters, women dearest to me, hanging from a gibbet in order to avoid sin’). These words are intimate, affectionate – ‘mine leoue sustren, wummen me leouest’ – but it is the image of three sisters hanging from a gallows that sticks in the mind.
It also uses the imagery of love. There is a famous passage about a lady who lives in a castle beset by enemies. A powerful king comes to her aid, giving her protection and showering her with gifts. She treats him with contempt. He visits her, he is ‘of alle men feherst to bihalden’ (‘of all men fairest to behold’), speaks tenderly to her, offers to make her his queen. She continues to treat him with contempt. He tells her that she is in mortal danger, that she will be captured and put to a shameful death. He vows that he will die to protect her and does so, in an act of great sacrifice. It could be the plot of a romantic novel, except that the king is a metaphor for Christ.
Reading the text, I feel pulled in different directions. I’m sure that the author – perhaps a Dominican monk – thought he was writing something that would offer kindly instruction to the sisters, ensuring their eternal salvation. In spite of this, I want to condemn him. And yet I can’t help enjoying his wordplay, his imagery; his text delights me again and again. I feel similarly conflicted about the choices of the women themselves. Why would you want to rend your own skin with a lead whip? Why would you want to spend decades inside your own grave? (And it was decades – a 13th-century record for a church in Frodsham in Cheshire shows that an anchoress called Wymark was enclosed there for around fifty years.) Sometimes I think that the three sisters for whom the Ancrene Wisse was written were trapped in an abusive relationship with Christ. But their choices look more reasoned when you consider that becoming an anchoress was a way of avoiding the dangers of childbirth and the misery of a forced marriage. It was also a position of authority and social standing. Margery Kempe – most boisterous of the late medieval English mystics – describes how she sought the counsel of the anchoress Julian of Norwich, spending ‘many days’ with her. In an all-male church, Julian’s position was unusual. Anchoresses were not usually attached to a particular order, so their spiritual authority rested on them alone, unlike, say, an abbess whose spiritual authority came in part from her institution. It is no small irony that one of the few ways women could achieve autonomy and social standing in this period was by imprisoning themselves.
For those three sisters, enclosing themselves was an act of love. Bodily mortification was seen as a form of imitatio Christi – a way to experience Christ’s suffering and thereby commune with him. Anchoresses were thought to be mystically married to Christ. A prayer that appears alongside the Ancrene Wisse in an early manuscript, written in the same alliterative language, begins, ‘Mi druð, mi derling, mi drihtin, mi healend, mi huniter, mi haliwei, swetter is munegunge of þe þen mildeu o muðe’ (‘my dear, my darling, my lord, my saviour, my honey-drop, my healing balm, sweeter is the memory of you than honey-dew in the mouth’). The narrator is a woman: ‘Yif that I wile ani mon for feirnesse luve, luve I wile the’ (‘If I will love any man for beauty, I will love you’). This prayer is anonymous, but it’s not unreasonable to assume it was written by a woman, perhaps an anchoress. It is a work of passionate love and longing.
The only surviving text securely attributed to an anchoress is Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. We know her as Julian because she was enclosed in the church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich (although the name ‘Julian’ could also be given to a woman in this period). If she had another name, we don’t know what it was. Her work survives in two forms: a shorter version, composed in 1373 when, at the age of thirty, she had a near-death experience and received ‘shewings’ from God, and a longer text written decades later.
We are not sure when Julian became an anchoress, but the description of her deathbed ‘shewings’ suggests she was not a recluse at that point (Jones suggests that the shorter text may have been written as part of her application for enclosure). After her revelatory experience she spent around twenty years meditating on the meaning of her visions and producing the longer work, in which she describes each of her 16 visions and gives an account of her spiritual life and sufferings. This text represents her transition from mystic to sophisticated theologian. Given the privation of the anchoritic life, it is strikingly hopeful, almost radically so. Its most famous line – ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ – encapsulates her generous vision of God’s love. Julian never discusses the realities of her enclosed existence. At one point she writes that ‘this place is pryson, and this lyfe is penance,’ but she was likely referring to her life on earth, rather than the confines of her cell. She probably saw her life as no more than a way-station on the road to heaven. Bequests made to her show that she was an anchoress for at least twenty years, if not more. The date of her death is unknown.
Alongside Julian’s work there is an anonymous 15th-century text called A Revelation of Purgatory, which some scholars think may have been written by an anchoress, though the attribution isn’t secure. It is a description of purgatory that reads like a low-budget horror film, in which sinners are boiled in barrels, pierced with hooks, forced to drink poison and have their lips cut off. Similar tortures are inflicted on a pet cat and dog, for reasons that elude us. As a colleague recently remarked, ‘If that was purgatory, what was hell like?’
The twin poles of these two texts – one suffused with love and the other suffused with fear – get at a tension in the anchoritic vocation: it was probably driven as much by love as by fear. Love and fear are also what I feel reading the Ancrene Wisse, except that my love is not of Christ but of language and rhetorical flourish, and my fear is not of the flames of hell or the torments of purgatory, but of a centuries’ old hatred of the female body that stalks the text and lives on in our own age.