In this extract from his book, London: A Time Travel Guide Through Time, Dr Matthew Green gives the reader a glimpse into the strange life of a medieval anchorites, the men and women who walled themselves up for life for religious reasons
LONDON, 1390: You are looking into a tiny, suffocating cell, no more than eight feet by six. The grille admits hardly any light but it’s still enough to dazzle its sole, bleary-eyed occupant, who is slumped against the wall, muttering a prayer to himself. There is no door. He is walled in. He is barefooted, gaunt and wears a filthy, grease-smeared tunic. He makes weary, distracted eye contact. His eyes are sunk deep into his sockets, twitchy, with a tincture of madness.
He is virtually bald, but what few greasy locks he has – grey through and through – straggle down to his waist and interweave with a woolly rufous beard that clings to his face like ginger fur. His bed is a wooden board; his pillow, a log. Other than that, there’s a tiny table on which rest a pile of books, a small, workmanlike crucifix and not much else. The cell is dank and reeks of sweat and suffering. How long has he been walled up in here? Time doesn’t mean very much to him any more. Hours, days, weeks, decades – they all dissolve into one vast desert in which he bakes and shivers in the love of God.
He often harks back to the day he was walled in, he tells you, once you’ve earned his trust.
He’d been expecting the whole parish to turn up: whispering girls, loud apprentices, liverymen, the inn-keeper, perhaps even the Alderman for Cornhill ward and his wife – all craning their necks and sliding their eyes to get a glimpse of the man who was about to spend the rest of his life immured in a minuscule cell, who would never again see the waters of the Thames, the spire of St Paul’s, the bustle of the London markets or the sun setting over London Bridge. But hardly anyone came – a few old women, some beggars, a parchminer, and some drunken fishmongers, and he wasn’t even sure they had come to see him.
He pictures himself, barefoot as he is today, prostrate on the cold church floor as the priest blesses him with holy water and incense; being led by his sponsors to the high altar, reciting Suscipe me Domine (“receive me, O Lord”) and placing two candles on the altar; taking the Eucharist and vowing to serve the rest of his life in the order of the anchorite; then being taken by the hand to his anchorhold, accompanied by the chants and psalms from the Office of the Dead. He remembers the priest, outside, administering the sacrament of Extreme Unction (normally reserved for the dying), smearing oil on his forehead, and then walking into his new home…
‘Anchorite’ is derived from the Greek word anakhorein, meaning to retire or retreat, and the man beneath you has certainly done that, sequestering himself from the world and devoting himself to a life of contemplation. An anchorite is not the same thing as a hermit – you will come across several hermitages too in medieval London, many in or near city gate towers – since hermits, though reclusive, are free to work and even socialize in the real world so long as they return to their cells each night. Anchorites, on the other hand, must vow never to leave their cells until the day they die and sometimes not even then. There is evidence that some are buried underneath their cell. The Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century handbook for anchoresses advises them to ‘scrape up earth every day out of the grave in which they shall rot’, ostensibly so their hands don’t become too soft and supple. It’s possible this is meant metaphorically but if not, what better momento mori than to stare into your very own open grave?
Matthew Green’s immersive online course A History of London is on sale at half price till 26 April. Click here to see more.
Matthew Green’s fantastic book, London: A Time Travel Guide Through Time, is out now. Visit his website here.