Anchoress - a True Tale of Medieval and Mystical - Women Entombed for Life
A Time of Belief
In a time of Mystical belief, when men and women believed solely in the will of the Father, there came to be a brave and devoted group of women. They called themselves the Anchoress.
Back in time, in the period we call Medieval, there was so much hardship and disease. Many people believed everything was connected to God. The Catholic Church held the population in its grip, and many men and women turned to the religious orders to live out their lives. Some did this out of piety, some out of desperation. The world was a harsh place. Every family, and every turn of life around them was set by God's will. Nobody had any idea that disease was caused by germs, and the howling winds were just part of nature. Each and every natural event must be God's plan, or His anger. Amongst this turmoil, the towns and villages were filthy. People were dying, and pitifully poor.
The local population tried to grow their own crops, sometimes successfully, other times a disaster. War's ravished the land and out of desperation came the Anchoress.
This is the story of a young woman. Just one of many.
A young girl, brought up in a devout household, suddenly comes of age. She has been praying to God ever since she was a small child, and now, on the cusp of womanhood, decides to take the ultimate leap of faith. Poverty or hardship have worn her down. She is mentally old, her hands are calloused and she is so tired of feeling ill or frightened.
Collecting her things, she goes to see the Bishop. She ask him if she can become an Anchoress. Before she is accepted, she has to undertake a few tests to see if she is physically or mentally suitable for such a dramatic departure from her everyday life. What she is about to do is nothing short of complete bravery.
Because of the test, she will be placed in isolation for a short time to see if she can take the solitude and loneliness.
Then the Bishop, finding her suitable, will try to find out whether there was adequate money to cover her complete withdrawal from life. Somebody had to pay for her to eat.
When he has decided that the girl had passed all of these tests, the Bishop would contemplate where she would spend the rest of her life.
The Bishop, once he was satisfied, called her to him. He explained what was about to happen. After her acceptance, he then performed the ceremony or rite of enclosure. From this day forward he would be in charge of her wellbeing and support.
the Rule of Life
Also known as the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule of Life stated that the Anchoress was the anchor underneath the Church, similar to an anchor of a ship. Because of this, the woman would be placed within the anchorhold, a small building attached to the side of the Church. The Rule stated that the cell should have three windows including a 'squint'. A small peephole that opened into the Church so the Anchoress could take Holy Communion and follow the services.
The second window was to serve as a food hatch and it was also where she could talk to her assistant. And the third was for the people to come to seek out her wisdom, prayers and advice. If she had a vision, or Mystical experience, the people could come and Pray with her.
Enclosure - the Living Entombment and Burial of the Anchoress
The ceremony of Entombment was her life into death. When the Anchoress enters the cell which will be her home until her physical body dies, the ritual is one of burial. It is an act of binding her body and material possessions to the body of Christ. In affect, she is being buried alive. Officially she is dead to the world.
She will fast for one night and make confession. Then, in the morning she will attend Mass. By this time she would have been feeling either nervous or elated. Then, she would prostrate herself in front of the altar.
Carrying a lighted Taper, a procession of the congregation would then chant, and say prayers as they followed her out, and start making their way towards her cell. When the girl entered the dark room, one of the first things she would have seen would have been her grave. Known as the Memento Mori, she would have to take part in her own funeral.
Placing her on a funeral bier, she would then be given the Last Rites. Then, prayers echoeing from the walls, the Anchoress would be left alone, staring down at the open grave which would be left until she died.
Through the darkness, as the voices of the congregation began to move away, the only sound she would hear is the noise of the priests, as they hammered and plastered the last bricks into place. She had now been buried alive. The walls, entrance and any other openings were bricked up, and totally sealed.
Sometimes there would be a door that was locked from the outside. But most of the time, they would wall in the Anchoress. Left alone in the isolation of her cell, the grave open in front of her, she must have been frightened. Even the most devout would have had a feeling of dread and panic.
Kneeling down beside her bed, she would have taken comfort in the Cruxifix and Altar. The only other objects that she was allowed to have in her cell.
Clothing and Everyday Life
All alone, left to contemplate her life and surroundings, she would have been cold and uncomfortable. The winters would have been freezing. Being only allowed to wear a Pilch, a triangle piece of material, or a garment to keep out the chill. And in the Summer, a kirtle (dress) with mantle, (cloak) black headress wimple, cape and veil.
Within those walls, she would have eaten vegetables for food that had been passed through the small window, and at the same time, she would pass out her water pot that she had used for waste. Afterwards, for the rest of the day, she would Pray and sit in silence. After being there for a while, she would be allowed to sew embroidery, and have writing materials. Many of the famous Anchoresses wrote books of Prayers and devotions, Most of which are still around today.
Her whole life revolved around these acts, mostly giving her time to people who wanted her to pray for them. Sitting at the small window, her only contact with the outside world, the people who wanted her help.
One of the most important things of the Rule was that she musn't be allowed to get too comfortable. At all times she must 'flagellate her skin' (whip) Wear course garments that itched and scratched her body, and and sleep on a hard bed. She must have devotion, compassion, pity, mercy and charity.
The Death of an Anchoress
When her body gave up, or she grew old, the Anchoress would die in the cell that she had lived in all of her days. Most of the time she was buried in the Anchorhold, occasionally she would be taken out and buried in the Church yard. Each day, when she had been alive, she had to meditate on her own mortality by staring into the grave, and, kneeling down on the cold floor, scoop up some dirt from the hole. She was never allowed to forget about her last days on Earth.
Fortitude Devotion and Strength
On occasion some Anchoresses were allowed out of the cell to attend Mass. But most of the time, they were kept in a closed, walled up cell. The Bishop would stamp his Seal against the wall to signify his authority.
If the town or Church was sacked by pirates or looters, the Anchoresses would refuse to leave, and many were burned in their cell.
The life of an Anchoress was a hard, lonely and painful existence. Not only for the physical discomfort, but for the mental anguish. Or was it? We forget how different people were then. To us, today, it seems like an unbelievable torture, not only frightening, but downright terrifying. No sun ever entered her cell, and she would never see the beauty of nature around her. To see the grass grow, or feel the wind on her face.
But maybe back then, when all the other options were just as horrible, the life of an Anchoress may well have been an alternative that kept them alive. Both physically and Spiritually.
Imagine for just one moment, that this was still happening today. And the girl being sealed inside a tiny cell, never to see the sun again, is you, or your daughter. Chilling thought.
Julian of Norwich
One of the most famous Anchoressess was Julian of Norwich. 1342-1416. Nobody knows her real name as she took the name Julian from the Church that she resided in. At the age of 30, suffering with a severe illness, she began to have visions of Jesus. After she recovered, she became an Anchoress. She also became famous as the first woman to write in English, and produced the Sixteen revelations of Divine Love. She was also known to have been the woman who first introduced us to this famous saying:
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
There were many quotes associated with Julian. This, I believe is the one that you will all recognise.
Questions & Answers
How did the medieval Anchoress cleanse herself?
She was allowed out in the day to wander the grounds, and I believe it was at that time she would wash. But of course back then hygiene wasn't what it is today. She probably only ever washed occasionally.
Were there every any male "anchoresses"?
Yes, they were Anchorites. But there were at least double the number of women than men. One of the most famous men was called Anthony the Great, Father of Christian Monasticism.
© 2011 Nell Rose