Sealed In, Yet Soaring

Anchoresses in the Middle Ages

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...

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About the Author

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