The trips to this chapel used to fascinate me, and I found the idea of withdrawing from the world intriguing. But at the time of the foundation of the Poor Clare Order in 1212, there were other women who followed an even more austere and demanding form of enclosed religious life: that of the anchoress.
An anchoress was a nun who lived in isolation and solitude. They were very highly regarded in medieval society, with the widespread belief that their prayers and devotion brought salvation to those who supported them. The Christian Church already had a tradition of women who sought out the life of the religious recluse.
(Image is in Public Domain)
Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (born c1110) is known as one of the great monastic teachers and educators of the early medieval period. His approach to the religious life was a radical one.
The Rule of Saint Benedict cautioned monks against 'particular friendships.' Aelred saw them as a way to experience God's love. He wrote of his ideas in his work Spiritual Friendship.
He didn't always find monastic life easy, with references to his 'many temptations' as a young man. One of his solutions to temptation was to take numerous cold baths. There is a record of him having forty in one day!
(c) Paul Fogarty- Private Collection
The spiritual demands placed on the anchoress were challenging enough, but the physical and emotional demands were equally so. The religious ceremony that took place when an anchoress took her final vows included singing of Psalms from the Office of the Dead. She was sprinkled with dust before entering her cell and the door was closed after her.
Some anchorholds were cells as little as eight feet square. With others, even the door was bricked up. There was a tiny window left through which the anchoress would hear the prayers of others. But she always had to be screened from view, as to be seen was considered a sin.
|(c) E.M. Powell|
Aelred's advice to his sister heavily influenced a guide for anchoresses written in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century, the Ancrene Riwle or Ancrene Wisse. It lists the many, many types of sin that the anchoress may commit and ways to avoid those.
A frugal diet and little sleep are encouraged. One of the warnings is about contact with men. The author warns he would 'rather hang on a gibbet' than witness an anchoress kiss a man. Touching with hands is also frowned upon, along with a warning to anchoresses not to admire their white hands. He advises them to daily scrape up the earth from the floor of their cells, as a reminder that the earth will form their graves ‘in which they will rot.’
|Koninklijke Bibliotheek/National Library of the Netherlands|
Many anchoresses never left their cells and were buried in them. The author of Ancrene Rule says that 'True anchoresses are called birds..and will fly upwards towards heaven.' Given the sacrifice that these girls and women made for others, it is to be hoped that they have.
Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship, Cistercian Publications Inc. (1977)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Leyser, Henrietta: Medieval Women, Orion (1995)
Warren, Ann K.: Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England, University of California Press (1985)
White, Hugh: Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses (Penguin Classics), Penguin (1993)
I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in June 2014.