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14th century lockdown – the life of an Anchoress

8th March 2021
Photo by Katharine Hunter, Anchorite’s Cell at All Saint’s Church, King’s Lynn

The modern idea of anchorites in the medieval period is that they were recluses who were bricked up into a cell, never to see light of day or have any conversation with humans again. The truth is surprisingly different, in that certainly by the fourteenth century, anchorites – or anchoresses as I will refer to them here, as there were many more women than men – actually were at the heart of community life. Their cells were usually attached to the parish church, overlooking the graveyard, a social place in medieval times where people met to chat and attend markets and fairs. The anchoress had a small window, covered with a curtain, and anyone in need of prayer or spiritual advice would approach her to ask her to intercede with God on their behalf. On the inside wall she had a window into the church where daily services were held, and a maid or two would either live with her or come every day to see to her needs such as cooking, bringing food and cleaning – and emptying the chamber pot. There was a door provided for all this to-ing and fro-ing and some anchoresses also had an enclosed garden where they could sit and sew, or read the Bible or the lives of the saints. The food was plain and there was fasting, but fortunately by the time the fourteenth century came the worst of the self-punishments (flagellation, sleep deprivation, eating of mouldy food) were discouraged by the Church.

By the early part of the fifteenth century, there were known to be 110 female anchorites in Britain with 66 males and 29 whose sex was not known. Women from all strata of society were permitted to apply to be an anchoress, in contrast to entering a nunnery which had a high financial cost to it. The would-be anchoress needed to find a sponsor who was required to pay for her upkeep; they provided the money to keep the anchoress in clothes, food, and accommodation. The sponsor would expect, in return, that he would be foremost in the prayers of the anchoress with a view to shortening the time he spent in Purgatory, the place between Heaven and Earth where the dead did penance for their sins. Finally, the Bishop needed to approve the anchoritic vocation and to carry out a service of committal, saying the Last Rites over the candidate and leading the procession to the cell where they were ceremoniously immured. No anchorite was ever bricked up alive to die.

So why did the women choose to become an anchoress? In an era were women were expected to marry and produce children, it was one way of avoiding the domestic sphere and being assured of a roof over your head, some food and ample time to spend in contemplative pursuits. There was an associated rise in status too; anchorites were revered because they were effectively set apart from society, on a holy quest for God, whilst simultaneously expected to be of service to their community. Their fasting and praying led them to highly spiritual experiences where many saw visions. England’s best-known anchoress, Julian of Norwich was an anchoress in St Julian’s Church for around twenty years; she wrote A Revelation of Divine Love, a text describing her vision of Christ and His love for humanity. This was in sharp contrast to most of religious works of the time which emphasised sin and death.

And so, the next time we are reflecting on what lockdown has meant in the time of COVID-19, maybe we should spare a thought for the holy anchoress, immured forever within the same four walls, gazing out from behind her curtain on to the graveyard, caught between life and death.

Anna Wilde is Project Support Officer here at Caring for God’s Acre and has just completed an MA in Death, Religion and Culture at the University of Winchester