The Life of the Anchoress

Well-known 14th century anchoress and author Julian of Norwich

Virginia Woolf, in 1928, noted that a woman needed “money and a room of her own” to write fiction.

The medieval anchoress, (one of the five religious options available to religiously-minded women of the middle ages) may confirm Woolf’s insight. The anchoress secured both money and a room of her own, not for the writing of fiction but for the religious life of contemplation and study.

An anchoress took upon herself a vow to remain in one place — the anchorhold, typically a small enclosed structure attached to a church — for the remainder of her life. This anchoritic practice was not new, being in fact one of the oldest forms of monasticism, but it flourished during the middle ages.

The life of an anchoress involved renunciation, undertaken for the sake of devotion to God and the religious life. In practice, however, the life of an anchoress was not necessarily:

  • lived out in a single small cell; anchorholds might have several rooms, and might include gardens. Animals other than a single cat were, however, discouraged.
  • solitary; anchorholds might house groups of women, and servants might be part of the group. (Although whether life in a small space with a group would be preferable to life in a small space alone might be debated.)
  • reclusive; typically, anchorholds permitted communication with the outside world in various directions; the small openings into a church, known as “hagioscopes” or “squints,” enabled the anchoress to view the elevation of the host and to receive the eucharist; through their windows onto the outside world, anchoresses received visitors, dispensed advice and counsel, and even engaged in commerce, such as the sale of goods made in the anchorhold. “Sometimes, if criticism of them has any truth to it, they were a little too involved in the community, entertaining visitors, teaching children, and even acting as local bankers.” (Schaus, 17)
  • officially enclosed (!) — The classic image of an anchoress is of a contemplative immured in her space, after a ceremony that emphasized their death to the world; she might have been carried into the cell in her coffin, or she might work daily on digging her own grave. This image does fit some anchorholds! Others, however, simply had doors that locked from the inside, in effect creating a sacred, private space for a woman’s religious life that was under her exclusive control. (Sauer)

Moreover, while an anchoress was not expected to live lavishly, she would not have been destitute. Most anchoresses seem to have come from the upper middle or middle classes of medieval society. Before entering the anchorhold, an anchoress would typically have made arrangements for the provision of her needs, either through her own endowment, or through the sponsorship of a local patron — who might find the merit associated with this charitable deed attractive. In short, anchoresses did not just have the rooms of their own, but also the money, to live lives devoted to contemplation, rather than ones taken up by the daily demands of a household, husband and children.

Most anchoresses were somewhat anonymous, like the 12th century anchorite and poet known simply as Ava, though they conferred prestige on the communities of which they were a part, and would have been significant local presences. Some, however, were well and widely known. Perhaps the most famous of these medieval anchoresses is the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who authored her magisterial Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love after taking up the anchoritic life.

Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, while not a work of fiction, is the first book in English written by a woman.

Read more about . . .

medieval anchoresses in Margaret Schaus, ed., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006) or, more briefly, at Middle Ages.org

the Ancrene wisse, or rule for anchoresses, in Robert J. Hasenfratz, ed. Ancrene Wisse (Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2000) full text online — for those who read Latin and middle Anglo-Saxon and in Yoko Wada, ed. A Companion to Ancrene Wisse (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003)

Julian of Norwich at her official site or at Other Women’s Voices

Ava the anchorite at Other Women’s Voices

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