Rachael Kerr explains the significance of that bizarre and mystical character of the Church during the Middle Ages, the anchoress
Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast – Isaiah 26:20
We’ve all had more than enough of our chambers recently, but our struggles pale in comparison with those of the anchoress – the medieval women who would have heard these words from Isaiah as they voluntarily entered into the most extreme form of lockdown yet invented.
In a world where saints, martyrs and visionary mystics were revered as paragons, the life of an anchoress was not for the fainthearted. Unlike the hermit, who could choose to stay in one place or to wander, the anchoress – or anchorite if male – chose to withdraw completely from the world into a life of constant prayer, self-denial and asceticism, shut up in a cell usually attached to a church.
The formal procedure for what the church referred to as “enclosing servants or handmaidens of God” left the recluse in no doubt that henceforth they were dead to the world: a bishop would first say a special mass, after which the anchoress was effectively given the last rites and led to the cell, whose door was then firmly shut. Just to ram the point home, the outline of a grave might be marked on the floor and the anchoress given a spoon with which to dig out a small portion of earth each day in preparation for their internment upon death. Sometimes, they were scattered with dust before the door of the cell was permanently locked or even bricked up.
To the medieval mind, a life of contemplation meant working towards a direct experience of God’s presence. Only extreme piety, spotless virtue and good relations with the Almighty cultivated through ceaseless prayer could save you from the fiery pits of hell. The hermit and the anchorite stood very high on the “ladder of perfection” that led to heaven. The 12th-century Abbess Herrad of Landsberg compiled a theological compendium entitled the Hortus Deliciarum, or Garden Of Delights, in which there is an image of the ladder. It’s being climbed by various characters, next to which are the symbols of what is hindering each from reaching the top. On the highest rung, Caritas, or Christian love, is being handed a crown. The hermit is below, being distracted by his garden. The anchorite, on the next rung down, inclines longingly towards a bed. But they’re both still closer to heaven than the monk, who is tempted by gold, or the cleric, who can’t resist the pleasures of the table.
Standing in the Anker House attached to St Mary & St Cuthbert’s church in Chester-le-Street, Co Durham, it’s hard to comprehend how the two tiny stone rooms there housed six successive anchorites, from around 1380 until 1547 – and easy to see why staying in bed might be a temptation. The only view from inside is via a “squint”, a gap in the wall through which the anchorite could see the side altar of the church and be able to take part in the mass. A stone can be removed to deliver food or presumably to take away a chamber pot.
The whole idea is shocking to us, but it would have been relatively common in the Middle Ages. Hundreds of churches proudly supported an anchorite, whose constant prayer and closeness to God was seen as keeping the community protected. The local anchoress was a valued source of spiritual advice – should she permit the asking of such, that is.
There were rules, many and varied, and almost exclusively written by men – even though by the 13th century there were three times as many anchoresses as anchorites. Some were of noble birth, but by no means all. Some were widows, some unmarried. A surprising number were laywomen rather than experienced nuns. The Ancrene Wisse or Guide For Anchoresses – thought to be the work of a Dominican friar from Shropshire or Herefordshire – was written for three sisters, each enclosed in separate cells within the same house, sometime between 1225 and 1240. The solitary life was dark and full of terrors, and these women needed such a book of rules; inner rules for the cultivation of their souls and practical outer rules governing their bodily needs.
Alongside advice on devotional practice, the Ancrene Wisse also provides domestic instructions. The anchoresses are advised to “love your windows as little as you can”. They are warned not to listen to “evil speech”, which comes in three forms, “poisonous, foul and idle”: “They say about anchoresses that each has to have an old woman to feed her ears… so that it is said in a proverb ‘from mill and from market, from smithy and from anchor-house people bring the news’.”
While a hermit was allowed a plot of land and a cow or two, the anchoresses were exhorted to keep “no beast but one cat” because an anchoress who has livestock “must think about the cow’s fodder and the herdsman’s pay” and therefore becomes more like a housewife, taking the role of Martha rather than that of Mary. The cat, of course, could feed itself on vermin, providing a useful service without distraction.
Perhaps the most famous anchoress is Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations Of Divine Love is an account of 16 visions she experienced during a “bodily sickness” that assailed her in May 1373, in the course of which she believed she was dying. Despite describing herself as an unlettered “simple creature”, Julian’s “shewings” are the first works in English that can definitely be attributed to a woman, and survive in two versions. The first was recorded shortly after her recovery; the second revised over a period of more than 20 years’ meditation on their meaning.
From her description of the people around her when stricken, it seems she was not enclosed at that point, but by 1394 evidence confirms her enclosure at St Julian’s Church. She gives us almost no information about herself – we don’t even know if she was actually christened Julian or whether she took that name from the church to which her anchorhold was attached – but she does give us the only insight we have into a mind grappling with the ineffable. Her language is forever trying to bridge the space between knowing and expressing, interpreting her spiritual experience in a surprisingly modern way. The Revelations Of Divine Love is not an instruction manual, but a sharing of an “understondying” that lies almost beyond words, but not quite:
He shewed a littil thing the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand, and it was as round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made.
Transcribed and preserved by other women, it was shared among nuns and taken into exile with them during the Reformation. Eventually published in 1670, it remained largely obscure until it began to find resonance with modern readers like TS Eliot, who in his poem Little Gidding uses the words Christ speaks to Julian in her 13th revelation:
Sin is behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well
Although her work wasn’t published in her lifetime, Julian’s reputation as a holy woman was sufficient to attract a visit from the other great female mystic of the age, Margery Kempe, who claims in her autobiography The Book Of Margery Kempe – the earliest known in English – that she was “commanded by our Lord” to go to “Dame Julian”: “And so she did, and showed her the grace that God put in her soul… and many wonderful revelations which she shared with the anchoress to know if there was any deception in them, for the anchoress was an expert in such things and could give good counsel.”
Margery refers to herself in the third person throughout, most frequently as “this creature”. She was illiterate but not ignorant; a young priest read her the Bible, the lives of saints and books of spiritual guidance, and she dictated her Book to scribes.
Born in around 1373 in what is now King’s Lynn, Margery was 20 when, after the birth of her first child, she suffered what is now thought to be an episode of post-partum psychosis. She vividly describes demons attacking her so violently that “she knew no virtue or goodness, and desired all wickedness”. After weeks of torment, Christ appears to her and she is “settled in her wits”. Thereafter she regularly chats with Jesus and the Virgin Mary and feels her soul “ravished” by God.
She aspires to a more religious life, gives up her fashionable clothes to wear white, and having borne her husband 14 children, begs him to agree to a chaste marriage – which, in an endearing conversation between them on the road from York to Bridlington on a hot Midsummer’s eve, he eventually does in exchange for her paying off all his debts and consenting to give up her weekly fast to eat dinner with him on Fridays.
After Margery checks with Jesus, who confirms he no longer wishes her to fast, the deal is done. Margery embarks on pilgrimages to the Holy Land and all over Europe, annoying her fellow passengers with her “gift of tears”, which causes her to weep uncontrollably, and arguing with priests and clerics she meets who are sceptical of her visions.
Such is Margery’s immense energy and ebullience that you long to know what the careful, dignified Julian made of this loud, chaotic woman who claimed to hear God speak to her daily. We can’t know precisely, but Margery convincingly records Julian’s advice that she should be obedient to the voice of God because only He, and not the devil, could bestow the tokens He has given her of tears, contrition, devotion and compassion.
What can we learn from these women and the solitary lives they chose? Their motives surely stem from the realities of being female in the Middle Ages. Quite apart from devotional solace, the monastic life offered an escape from marriage, domestic servitude and childbirth; education to a level unobtainable outside the walls of the convent; a measure of protection from hunger and disease; a life that, though given up to God, could be called their own. But even the humblest novice in the chilliest cloister would find a comfort that seems absent from the anchorhold.
However strongly Julian’s solitude appeals to one’s higher spiritual nature, I think we could probably all do with being a bit more Margery.