Medieval Anchoritism

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‘Anchoritism- Is the term ‘living death’ an accurate description of the life of an anchorite/ess? Why/why not?’ (This is an essay I wrote for university a couple of years ago)

Submitted: August 05, 2018

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Submitted: August 05, 2018



Anchoritism in the Middle Ages allowed people to be placed in a state of solitude to further their relationship with God. It centred considerably around a personal relationship through ignoring the outside world. In this way people who undertook this profession existed in a state of living death due to their liminal position in the world. Through the way they interacted with the world, aided by the architecture of their anchorhold and what they attempted in this, they resided in a liminal threshold. They lived in a state where they were continually growing towards God but never being able to fully break through the liminal permanency of their life. The Ancrene Wisse is one guidance text written for anchoresses that aided them on their spiritual journey by instructing them how to conduct themselves in the world. It aided them in their liminal state of living death.

The Ancrene Wisse in its original form is believed to be have been written in the 13th Century for three sisters who were most like of noble birth and who had all take on the profession of anchoresses. The author is writing to guide them on how they should rightly conduct themselves including instructions of their prayers, interactions and the anchorhold. Whilst the original audience was only for three anchoresses it expanded through the community and came to serve as a guide for other people who had taken it on. The intention was to help them on their path towards God and achieving complete holiness.

An anchorhold was where an anchoress would reside for the rest of her days. The anchorhold in many ways played a significant role in the development of an anchoress and her path towards God. It acted as a physical space to ensure an anchoress maintained both a solitary and social presence and also as a space which allowed growth of the soul. An anchorhold acted to aid the anchoress in its different representations and how these reflected upon her and also the influence of the physical architecture.

The anchorhold represented many different concepts, one of these being the womb. A womb surrounded ideas of enclosure and could be compared to the Virgin Mary and the holy birth of Jesus. An anchorhold also in comparison to the womb was often depicted as a tomb. The Ancrene Wisse reminds its readers of the need to remember their mortality and to reflect on their anchorhold as their grave[1]. They were shut off from the world and its temptations and not be continually tempted by world desires and sin.  The concept of the anchorhold as a tomb expresses the idea of an anchoress being in a state of living death. They already resided in the place where they would die, continually being reminded of this, and they were no longer able to go outside in the world. The Ancrene Wisse discusses both of these concepts of how the anchorites cell is like the womb that bore Jesus and the stone tomb that he rested in. Both are levels of confinements there were broken through by Jesus though in a way which brought wholeness.[2] The anchoress is to regard that just as Jesus was made a man he was still greater than this world and they too were to neglect things of the world as take themselves as far away from it as possible, looking to Jesus as the exemplar. The anchorhold acting to represent both the womb and the tomb places the anchoress in a state of liminality between these two contrasting concepts. Whilst a womb represents birth and the tomb death an anchoress rests within the liminal state of life, however reminded of its temporality. For the anchoress each day she was reminded of this by the tomb-like walls around her. Thinking of the cell as a womb and tomb allowed the anchoress to remember the temporality of the world and her mortality and what she sought to gain in the world by neglecting its temptations. This thereby brought contemplation on what was more important to worry about in regards to her eternal soul. The term living death accurately fits here because of what the anchoress was reminded of each day and what she wanted to achieve in the world. With the anchoress in her tomb God can grant them guidance that cannot be gained in normal life.[3] The Through the vows and rites she had taken her life now was to remain in an enclosed place til her death where she would gain something greater than she could on earth. Whilst this did not mean she looked forward to death, it was the vehicle that would gain her true holiness. Through her living she sought what could only be accomplished through death.

Conceptually the anchorhold as a womb and tomb was important for the anchoress and the walls around her did acutely resemble that of a tomb and aid them in their path towards God. However, whilst it aided an anchoress through the contemplation it brought it did shut them off entirely from the world. It took the anchoress from going out through the world and interacting with the community but it did not stop the community from coming and interacting with her. This could threaten the anchoress in what should be considered a safe and holy place from the world and this is where the architecture of the anchorhold allowed them to maintain this social and interactive presence but also continue a life of solitude. An anchoress reflected the idea of a living death through this because of how she was considered dead to the world and the features of it, however she remained in a liminal state because she could never truly be away from it.  

The Ancrene Wisse does not specifically detail the anchorhold but gives information that expresses a knowledge by the author of what it is already like and how the anchoress should act within it. The author of the Ancrene Wisse was aware that there were desires of the community to interact with the anchoress. People may come to ask for advice, spiritual direction and prayers. In many cases of anchorholds this could be done through a small window or grate that opened onto the church courtyard or a small parlour. Through members of the community or visitors the anchoress could maintain a social presence without leaving the anchorhold. An anchorhold in some cases could act as a post office, bank or school being the fixed place and person in the community. Whilst this was appropriate in some cases the author of the Ancrene Wisse warned against these, seeing it as dealing too much in the world[4]. The anchoress instead is limited to advice and prayers and must be wary to withdraw herself if gossip or other similar sinful conversations and temptations arise. They were also meant to avoid conversing with men unless it was necessary or they have come from far away and then still draw themselves far from the window and to make the conversation as minimal as possible if at all.[5] To provide further safety from temptations a curtain was instructed to be by the window so that the anchoress can draw across if she wishes to reside into solitary contemplation.[6] To the outside community the anchoress reflected the idea of living death, being in a space which is similar to death and being limited with interactions in the world just as someone who is not alive would be.

The Ancrene Wisse mentions two other windows for the anchoress; one that is positioned in view of the church altar so that anchoress can gain that further contemplation and the other opened onto her servants quarters through which food and other necessities could be passed. Instructions on how the anchoress should interact with these windows which could potentially cause temptation for instructs that they should be used in necessity and for spiritual guidance.[7]

These three windows placed the solitary anchoress in a liminal state between the world and her anchorhold. Whilst she was considered to lead a solitary life, she still had means of communication and interaction with the outside, acting as being between these worlds. She could never be able to truly neglect the world and by doing this she could never truly breach the point of complete purity to be with God until death. In her solitude she remained connected to the world and therefore rested in a liminal state where the worldly desires could not truly be forgotten or ignored however at the same time she attempted to withdraw further from this in her mind and soul. An anchoress attempted to achieve what only death could, furthering herself from social interactions as much as she could and bringing herself closer to God. In her communication he tried to express a solitude that resembles that of death, however her place in life could be forgotten.

An anchoress could never truly reach a state of complete holiness with God. Whilst in the world and being faced with its temptations and sinful desires an anchoress could only try and purify herself as much as possible, growing closer to God but being held back by the sinful body and mind. Through prayer and meditation they attempted to rid themselves of sin but they would always remain in this liminal state, having to continually purify themselves more each day and never fully reaching God until death.

An important aspect of an anchoress that expresses the concept of their liminality was their ability to bring petitions and requests to God on the behalf of others or a community. Due to their being closer to God they could do this with a better heart and it was more likely for their request to be accepted by God than if a normal villager had prayed. The state of them being on earth in body but closer to God in mind placed them within this liminal state which allowed their petitions to be heard. Even though they were not dead they took on this role that was guaranteed with saints and people who were with god, and embodied this ability to intercede. Whilst they were alive as much as a villager be there soul was closer to what it would be like after death with God.

Even though an anchoress was a solitary figure they required support from the people around them. They required a servant to provide them with food and other necessities and she also needed to be financially supported in some way. This could come from money that was previously set aside for her, from her family or elsewhere, otherwise it could come from the church or the community. These needs that depended support from others were needs of the body, something which the desires of they had to continually fight against. In attempting to ignore the body they were always reminded of it and needed support from others to survive. This kept them from breaking past the liminal stage of the soul with God and kept them on earth. They could attempt to be independent of the world in soul and be dependent on God but they could not fully escape the body. The support from a servant also brought the threat of sin, considerably gossip or other such business which could break their attempts at a pure mind.[8] They had to ensure that those that supported them had the right intentions and maintained a certain level of purity around them. Even though death seemed to give much gain for an anchoress it was not their desire to die and they were continually brought back to the world and life through the necessary support of others.

Through different aspects of their lives an anchoresses rested within a liminal state of living death. The architecture of their anchorhold influenced how they interacted with the world and attempted to grow closer towards God. Through the representations of the anchorhold and their liminal state they attempted to neglect the world however they could not truly be rid of it. This placed them in a position of living death, embodying aspects of the dead and growing closer to this whilst still remaining alive with the need for support. The Ancrene Wisse explores how an anchoress should conduct herself in the world and take on these ideas, helping the anchoress on her spiritual journey to be with God.






Savage, Anna, trans., Watson, Nicholas, trans., Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works (New York, Paulish Press, 1991).


Dowding, Clare, ‘“A Certain Tourelle on London Wall . . . Was Granted . . . for Him to Inhabit the Same”: London Anchorites and the City Wall’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 42, no. 1 (2016), pp.44- 55.


Gunn, Cate, Ancrene Wisse: From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008).


Hasenfrazt, Bob, ‘The Anchorhold as Symbolic Space in Ancrene Wisse’, Philological Quarterly 84, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1- 26.


Hughes-Edwards, Mari, ‘”How Good it is to be Alone”? Solitude, Sociability, and Medieval English Anchoritism’, Mystics Quarterly 35, no.3/4 (September/December 2009), pp. 31- 61.


Hughes-Edwards, Mari, Reading Medieval Anchoritism: Ideology and Spiritual Practices (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012).

Jones, E.A ‘Hermits and Anchorites in Historical Context’ in Dee Dyas, Valerie Edden, Roger Ellis (eds.) Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts, (Cambridge: D.S Brewer, 2005), pp. 3-18.


Millet, Bella, ‘Can there be such a thing as an ‘anchoritic rule’?’, in Catherine Innes-Parker, eds., Naoe Kukita Yoshikawa, eds. Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2013), pp.11- 30.


Rotha, Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England, (London: Meuthen, 1914).


Sauer, Michelle, ‘Introduction: Anchoritism, Liminality, and the Boundaries of Vocational Withdrawal’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 42, no. 1 (2016), pp. v- xii.


Savage, Anne, ‘The Solitary Heroine: Aspects of Meditation and Mysticism in Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group’, in William F. Pollard, eds., Robert Boenig, eds., Mysticism and Spirituality in Medieval England (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewyer Ltd. 1997), pp.63- 82.



[1] Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson (trans.), Anchoritic Spirituality: ‘Ancrene Wisse’ and Associated Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), p. 186.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mari Hughes-Edwards, Reading Medieval Anchoritism: Ideology and Spiritual Practices (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 36.

[4] Savage and Watson, Anchoritic Spirituality, p. 204.

[5] Ibid, p. 74.

[6] Ibid, p. 66

[7] Ibid, p. 74.

[8] Hughes-Edwards, Mari, ‘”How Good it is to be Alone”? Solitude, Sociability, and Medieval English Anchoritism’, Mystics Quarterly 35, no.3/4 (September/December 2009), p 40.

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