by Robyn Cadwallader
In Christianity, an anchoress is a woman who chooses to withdraw from the world to live a solitary life of prayer and mortification. Julian of Norwich was an anchoress whose writings tell of her life and spiritual journey. The word anchoress comes from the Greek “anachoreo” meaning to withdraw. Whilst anchoresses are frequently considered to be a type of religious hermit, unlike hermits they were required to take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.
10 Fascinating Facts about the Life of an Anchoress
- 1. In the centuries of the church, hermits (‘desert dwellers’) went out into the desert or the forest in order to retreat from the world; they also became known as the Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers. This practice of withdrawal for the purposes of renunciation, meditation and prayer is a feature of many other religions beside Christianity.
- 2. In the Middle Ages, anchoresses were usually sealed in a cell adjoining the village church to ensure that she remained safe, and so that she could hear Mass and receive the Eucharist. An anchoress freely chose to be confined in a cell so that she could pray and read, committing her life to God. Men could become anchorites similarly enclosed in a cell, but their life was not always as restricted as that of an anchoress. In some cases they could leave to travel, and some were priests who chose to be enclosed, but would leave their cell to celebrate Mass in the church.
- 3. The word anchorhold is from the Greek, anachōreō, meaning ‘to withdraw’.
- 4. Very few such cells remain, but evidence from documents suggests that there was one window, called a squint, that enabled the anchoress to see a limited view of the altar in the church; one curtained window through which she could counsel women and receive visitors such as her confessor and bishop; and possibly one extra window through which she could communicate with her maids.
- 5. A medieval anchoress needed a patron who would undertake to supply all her needs, both physical and spiritual — a significant and costly undertaking. A parish, an abbey, a member of the nobility, and the Crown are all recorded as patrons. Individuals might also donate to the upkeep of the anchoress.
- 6. A woman choosing enclosure was questioned closely by a bishop to ensure that she was suited to such a harsh living and would remain in her cell for the rest of her life. The cell was often sited in the cemetery, indicating that the anchoress was committed to a living death. The committal service for an anchoress also suggested that her grave be dug in the cell, often where she knelt to pray — a grave in which she would eventually be buried. In many cases the door would be nailed up or sometimes bricked up.
- 7. There were at least 123 anchoresses in England in the thirteenth century (from a population of between five and six million).
- 8. Anchoresses were highly regarded, both within the church and within broader society, for their holiness, their wisdom, and their healing powers, even beyond the religious men and women who chose a monastic life. Many anchoresses were literate and there is evidence that some anchoresses may have worked as scribes.
- 9. Although an anchoress was closed from the world, her cell was not always a place of complete retreat. A cell adjoining a church would be in the center of the local community’s spiritual life, and much of its social and business life. A medieval proverb suggests that the anchorhold could be the source of gossip as well as the latest news: ‘From mill and from market, from smithy and from anchor-house, people bring the news.’
- 10. Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century Rule for anchoresses, advised that an anchoress was permitted to keep a cat, but she was warned not to keep a cow or to trade, or to keep any objects in safe keeping for others. The fact that the Rule counsels against such things suggests that they occurred frequently enough to be of concern.
Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous prizewinning short stories and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a nonfiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes toward virginity and women in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra, Australia, when not traveling to England for research and visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way. The Anchoress is her first novel.