In Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (known also as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), there is a chapter called “The Rat Hole.” The term refers to a hermit’s cell in medieval Paris. For twenty years, writes the novelist, a woman lived in that cell—a “premature tomb”—as she prayed for the soul of her father. The city of Paris, Hugo notes, teemed with such cells, as did many other towns in the Middle Ages: “Even in the busiest street, or in the noisiest, most motley marketplace, one often came across, right in the very center...a cellar, a well, a walled and grated dungeon, in whose depths a human being prayed night and day.”

To readers familiar with Hugo’s tale of the lonely hunchback, this reference to living tombs may seem a dramatic flourish—an imaginative detail that adds to the novel’s gothic atmosphere. But there is a grain of truth to Hugo’s portrayal of female recluses and their walled-in chambers. Some cells in medieval Europe were located in houses and town walls. Others were added onto, or built into, religious structures. Female hermits, known as anchoresses, actually lived in the walls of some European churches. To understand the phenomenon better, we must turn to a source from the thirteenth century, a Middle English text known as the Ancrene Wisse.

The Ancrene Wisse, also called the Ancrene Riwle, was written by an anonymous cleric. A spiritual classic (available in a Penguin edition), the book celebrates a life of solitary piety. According to its author, an anchoress is called by that name because she holds steady the church “as an anchor under the ship.” Her mission is to protect the church so that “storms and waves do not overturn it.” In reality, this nautical explanation may contain a touch of whimsy on the author’s part. It is more likely that the word anchoress (and, for men, anchorite) derived simply from the Greek verb anachorein, which means to withdraw, as if into a desert.

The Ancrene Wisse reminds us of a curious tradition that has long since disappeared. Anchoresses had been popular during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries. Today, historians grapple with two interrelated questions: Why did anchoresses flourish for several centuries during the High Middle Ages? And how do we explain their subsequent decline by the time of the Renaissance?

By definition, an anchoress pledged herself to a life of prayer. While a nun usually resided in the group setting of a monastery or convent, the anchoress lived in a reclusorum, or anchorhold, a small room either in a church or attached to it. One of the responsibilities of the female hermit was to pray for the local Christian community. She prayed for the welfare of the living as well as for the souls of those who had died.

Typically, an anchorhold contained two small windows. One opened into the church itself, usually with a view of the altar. Through it the anchoress could view the services and partake of the Eucharist. The second window opened out to the public. Sometimes it overlooked the graveyard by a church. Though covered with cloth, the window enabled the recluse to converse with her visitors. Some callers may have brought food. Others requested her prayers for salvation, seeking advice on matters both spiritual and practical. Some anchoresses, like East Anglia’s Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–1416), were relatively famous. People traveled long distances to hear their words of wisdom.

The Ancrene Wisse attests to these women’s unusual roles. Enclosed for life, sometimes literally locked into their cells, anchoresses kept watch night and day over the property. The author of the Ancrene Wisse alludes to their continual church presence, comparing the women to owls or night-birds who live under the eaves of buildings. The anchorhold was, in essence, a type of prayer capsule, and the anchoress was to keep the tiny space “holy” with her pure thoughts and perpetual prayer. She was also to aspire to lofty spiritual heights, to “leave the earth,” and “through yearning in heart for heavenly things fly upward toward heaven.” Many medieval Christians treasured these prayers, believing they were most pleasing to God and, thus, helpful for the saving of souls. In one passage, the author writes: “God calls the good anchoresses birds of heaven.”

As scholars continue to debate the roles of spiritual women in the church, the anchoritic phenomenon underscores how complicated these issues are. Did women have a role—and voice—in medieval Christianity? Did clerical leaders respect and support the contributions of religious women? On the one hand, it appears that many people in medieval society did value the work of anchoresses. Historical records show that their patrons included a wide range of people: kings, bishops, laypeople, and clergy. Moreover, it appears that many women actively pursued this vocation for themselves. There seem to have been more aspiring anchoresses than available openings.

On the other hand, the anchoritic life had its own challenges. Once enclosed, the anchoress was not only confined physically but also was considered “dead” to the world. Even though she could speak with visitors, she was to keep herself removed from them as much as possible. The author of Ancrene Wisse cautions the anchoress to “love your windows as little as ever you can” and to refrain from “peeping.”

A male hermit, by contrast, tended to have more options than his female peers. He could choose the enclosed life of an anchorhold, or he could practice his solitary spiritual calling in a cave or out in the open forests. Although his vocation was similar, he was generally allowed more latitude in his day-to-day practices.

What’s fascinating about Notre-Dame de Paris is not only Hugo’s awareness of Christianity’s “living tomb” tradition, but also his understanding of women as playing a major role. In thirteenth-century Europe, anchoresses outnumbered their male counterparts. The female-to-male ratio may have been as high as four to one, at least in England. Yet, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, the number of anchoresses began to dwindle. With the advent of the Renaissance and the Reformation in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries, many churches ceased to house hermits, male or female. Although some European Christians still chose the lifestyle, formal anchorholds eventually became a vestige of medieval piety.

Over the past forty years, historians have worked to compile a female-inclusive picture of medieval society. Anchoresses, along with nuns, beguines, and female saints, have received much attention. The fruits of this scholarship include important works by JoAnn McNamara, Penelope Johnson, and Caroline Walker Bynum. (McNamara and Johnson focus on nuns, Bynum on holy women in general.) Studies of anchoresses in particular include Ann Warren’s pioneering book Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England (1985), which compares the experiences of men with those of women, and Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker’s Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe (2005). Yet, even with this plethora of research, anchoresses, like so many medieval figures, remain an enigma to modern investigators. Much of the historical evidence—written, visual, archaeological—has simply been lost or destroyed over the centuries. So questions abound, and mysteries linger.

For some medievalists, the anchoress is emblematic of the complexity and richness of women’s spiritual traditions. Forever confined—yet with her soul flying freely to God—she remains a compelling Christian figure.


Related: Simple Lives, by Jean Hughes Raber

Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: View Contents

Christina Stern teaches history at the City University of New York.

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