England,  ER,  Western Europe

The Lonely Life of an Anchorite

The enclosure of an anchorite Photo Credit- Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol.
The enclosure of an anchorite Photo Credit- Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol.

In the medieval world, the power of prayer had a very real meaning.  Monks and nuns retired from the world to pray, but for some of the faithful even this wasn’t enough.  An anchorite was an extreme of withdrawing from the world for the religious faithful, and was held in awe in the Middle Ages.  They followed the example of John the Baptist and withdrew completely from secular life into isolation to pray for the sins of the world.  St. Cuthbert was said to wade into the freezing waters of the Celtic Sea to pray.

To become an anchorite, one had to go through a strict ceremony where the last rites were administered and then the person was walled up into an enclosure.  If the anchorite tried to leave the enclosure, he or she was escorted back and subject to damnation.  The life of the anchorite was open to both men and women.  In fact, more women than men chose this life.  No one is quite sure why.  Perhaps it was because the religious vocations for women were more limited.  An anchoress was more revered than a simple nun, and even an abbott would defer to her judgement.  Any stoles or altar clothes embroidered by an anchoress would take on holy meaning.  The same for a book illuminated by an anchorite.  A woman could choose this life after being widowed or as a young woman to escape marriage, although it was rather a drastic escape.

As a group, people who followed these rules were called Solitaries.  Sometimes they were priests, monks or nuns, but a solitary could be anyone who was very devout.  The difference between a hermit and an anchorite was rather blurry, but the general rule was that a hermit was out in nature, the more difficult the better, and an anchorite was “anchored” to a church.  

In Constantinople, the enclosure was too luxurious for some and they lived on top of a pillar as stylites.  St. Daniel the Stylite lived on top of a pillar for thirty-three years because being a hermit was too easy.  The first anchorites in England were recorded in the 11th century, and unbelievably there were still some anchorites at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.  The height of the trend was in the 13th century where up to 200 people were enclosed as anchorites.

St Julians remains of an Anchorite cell Photo Credit- Google Images
St Julian’s remains of an Anchorite cell Photo Credit- Google Images

The enclosure was often next to the parish church and had a small slit window, or “squint”, that looked in on the church.  That way the anchorite could see the altar of the church for mass.  There was also a “squint” that looked onto the world to interact with visitors, even though they were few and far between.  Alms were given for their upkeep as a servant was required to bring the anchorite food and remove their waste.  In fact Aelred of Rievaulx wrote in his “Rule” for anchorites that there should be an older woman servant for her sober influence and a younger one who could fetch and carry more easily.  However, the anchorite was supposed to be of sufficient means before they were walled up.  In return for alms, the anchorite dedicated his or herself to prayer and meditation to intercede for the sins of the world.

Ironically, the life of an anchorite was not always solitary.  Pilgrims and followers flocked to the anchorites, and their alms were needed to support the anchorites’ way of life.  One of the most famous anchorites was Julian of Norwich.  She became an anchorite in the 15th century.  There is debate as to whether she became an anchorite after her family died of plague or if she had originally been a Benedictine nun.  When Julian was 30, she suffered an illness and saw sixteen visions of Jesus Christ.  This became her work Revelations of Divine Love, which is thought to be the earliest surviving English work by a woman.  She is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church.


Sources available on request