Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.
Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.
To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.
A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.
The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.
Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.
One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.
Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.
Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.