Hermits and Anchorites

Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.

An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.

I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.

Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.

More at the link.

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