Anchoress

Medieval Religious Life for Women

Anchorite Saint Jerome in his cell, 1520s. Artist: Joos van Cleve
Anchorite Saint Jerome in his cell, 1520s. Artist: Joos van Cleve. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Definition:

An anchoress is (was) a woman who withdraws from secular life for religious purposes, a female religious hermit or recluse. The male term is anchorite. Anchoresses and anchorites lived in seclusion, often in remote locations or walled into a room with only a shuttered window through which food was passed. The position of anchorite is still recognized in canon law of the Roman Catholic church as one form of consecrated life.

The position was not one, generally, of complete seclusion. The anchoress was to be kept in connection with a church, and visitors to the anchoress, who could talk to her through a window in her cell, often came seeking prayers or practical advice.  She spent her time in prayer and contemplation, but often also engaged in writing and such typical women’s activities as embroidery.

The anchoress was expected to eat and dress simply.

An anchoress needed permission from a bishop to take up the life of semi-reclusion. He would determine if she was likely to adapt to the life of an anchoress and whether she had adequate financial support (this was not a way for the poor to be fed).  The bishop would oversee the anchoress’ life and make sure she was cared for well. 

A special rite of enclosure marked the agreement between the church and the anchoress, and her dedication to the enclosed life. This ceremony echoed a burial or entombment, with last rites, as ritually the anchoress was dead to the world.

Anchorhold

The room, called an anchorhold or anchorage, was often connected to a church wall.  The cell had very little in it, just a bed, crucifix and altar.

According to the Ancrene Wisse (see below) the cell was to have three windows.  One was on the outside, so that people could visit the anchoress and seek her advice, counsel and prayers.

  Another was to the inside of the church.  Through this window, the anchoress could experience the worship service in the church, and could also be given communion.  A third window allowed an assistant to deliver food and take away waste.

Sometimes there was a door to the anchorhold that was locked as part of the enclosure ceremony

At death, it was customary to bury the anchoress in her anchorhold.  The grave was sometimes prepared as part of the enclosure rite.

Examples:

Julian of Norwich (14th and 15th centuries) was an anchoress; she did not live in complete seclusion though she was walled into her chamber. The chamber was connected to a church, she had a servant walled in with her and she sometimes advised pilgrims and other visitors.

Alfwen (12th century England) was an anchoress who helped Christina of Markyate hide from her family, who were trying to force Christina into marriage.

Among anchorites (male religious recluses enclosed in cells), Saint Jerome is one of the most famous, and is depicted in his cell in several art treatments.

Living in a convent, as did figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Hrotsvitha von Gandershei, was not the equivalent of being an anchoress.

Background of the Term Anchoress

Anchoress, and the related term anchorite, are derived from the Greek verb anacwre-ein or anachoreo, meaning “withdraw.”  The Ancrene Wisse (see below), compares the anchoress to an anchor which holds a ship during storms and waves.

Ancrene Wisse

translation: anchoresses' rule (or manual)

Also Known As: Ancren Riwle, Ancrene Rule

An unknown 13th century author wrote this work describing how women could live in religious seclusion.  A few convents used the rule in their order.

The Ancrene Wisse is written in a dialect common in the West Midlands in the 13th century. There are eleven manuscripts known, some merely in fragments, written in Middle English. Four others are translated into Anglo-Norman French and another four into Latin.

The writer J.R.R. Tolkien researched and edited this text, publishing in 1929.

Popular Culture

The 1993 movie Anchoress is modeled after a 14th century anchoress, quite loosely.  In the film, Christine Carpenter, who is a peasant girl, is locked up at the urging of the priest who has designs on her.

The priest tries and convicts her mother of being a witch, so Christine digs her way out of her cell.

Robyn Cadwallader published a book, The Anchoress, in 2015, about a girl in the 13th century who bcame an anchoress.  Sarah takes up the life of an anchoress in order to avoid her landlord’s son, who has designs on her; for her, becoming an anchoress is a way to protect her virginity.