Extreme Hermits: The Anchorites
There is increasing interest in and research into what might be thought of as the “Extreme Hermits”, the Anchorites.
“(‘anachoréo, I withdraw), also hermits (èremîtai, desert-dwellers, Latin, eremitæ).
In Christian terminology, men who have sought to triumph over the two unavoidable enemies of human salvation, the flesh and the devil, by depriving them of the assistance of their ally, the world. The natural impulse of all earnest souls to withdraw temporarily or forever from the tumult of social life was sanctioned by the examples and teachings of Scripture. St. John Baptist in the desert and Our Lord, withdrawing ever and anon into solitude, were examples which incited a host of holy men to imitate them. Since these men despised and shunned the world, it cannot surprise us that the world answered with corresponding contempt. The world is an imperious tyrant, and thoroughly selfish; niggardly in its gratitude to those lofty souls whose lives are entirely devoted to its betterment without regard to its praise or censure. It pursues as rebels, and derides as fools, those who shake off its yoke and scatter to the winds its riches, honours, and pleasures. In its extremest isolation, the life of the Christian anchorite is no Nirvana. The soul occupied with divine thoughts freed from all distracting cares leads an existence most consonant to man’s rational nature, and consequently productive of the highest type of happiness obtainable on this earth.”
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” (1907) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01462b.htm
“The anchorite’s was one of the most extreme of the religious lives of the Middle Ages: it inspired awe in contemporaries, and has held a morbid fascination for modern observers. It was a life of strict and irreversible enclosure, entered into in an elaborate ceremony during which the last rites were administered, and at the conclusion of which the door to the reclusory would be walled up. An anchorite who left their enclosure could be forcibly returned by the authorities, and faced damnation in the hereafter.
And yet, it was a life that continued to attract vocations, and that the rest of society was happy to endorse, throughout the Middle Ages. In England, the earliest examples are recorded from the 11th century. It seems to have been at the height of its popularity in the 13th, for which we can identify some 200 individuals. There is no sign of decline in the 16th century, and anchorites can be found among the religious who were turned out of their houses at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The anchoritic life was embraced by both men and women. The men were almost always priests, but it seems to have been unusual for anchorites of either sex to have been a professed religious (monk, friar or nun) before enclosure. Women outnumbered men throughout the period — perhaps because of medieval prejudices concerning women (whose unruly bodies needed to be kept under strict control), or perhaps simply because the range of religious vocations open to women was more limited than that available to men.
The cell or reclusory was most often sited adjoining the parish church. A narrow window or “squint” looked into the church, and afforded the anchorite a view of the altar. A second window opened on the outside world (often into a parlour) and allowed the anchorite to converse with visitors. Some “cells” had several rooms; some had gardens attached to them.
The solitary life of the anchorite could not be lived alone. A servant was required to bring food and remove waste, and to attend to visitors. Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote an influential “Rule” for anchorites (addressed to his sister), advised having two: an older woman, for her sober influence, and a younger, to do the fetching and carrying. Julian of Norwich had maidservants (at different times) named Sara and Alice. Material support had to be in place before the authorities would sanction enclosure: anchorites had, therefore, to be of independent means. They were also the recipients of alms and grants from all levels of society, from the king down to their fellow parishioners.”
“Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe” Elizabeth Herbert McAvoy, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2010
“The practice of anchoritism – religious enclosure which was frequently solitary and voluntarily embraced, very often in a permanent capacity – was widespread in many areas of Europe throughout the middle ages. This volume presents the latest research on the phenomenon. Tracing the vocation’s origins from the Egyptian deserts of early Christian activity through to its multiple expressions in western Europe, it also identifies some of those regions – Wales and Scotland, for example – where the phenomenon does not appear to have been as widespread, and offers some explanations as to why this might be.”
“Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life”, Elizabeth Herbert McAvoy , Gender in the Middle Ages series, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2011
“Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs: Intersections of Gender and Enclosure in the Middle Ages”, Elizabeth Herbert McAvoy and Mari Hughes-Edwards, Religion and Culture Series, Cardiff: University of Wales Press 2005.
Reading Medieval Anchoritism – Ideology and Spiritual Practices Elizabeth Herbert McAvoy, University of Wales Pres, 2012
“A thought-provoking study tracing the harshest form of spiritual solitude over five centuries has been explored by an Edge Hill University academic in a new book. “Reading Medieval Anchoritism – Ideology and Spiritual Practices”, focuses on the anchoritic life, one of the earliest forms of Christian solitary living which saw men and women withdraw from society in order to lead an intensely contemplative life.
Written by Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, the book argues that medieval men and women “willingly sought extreme enclosure, the better to forge a strong connection with God”. She says: “Anchorites waged war against their own deepest desires for food, light, heat, sleep and above all, social contact. Yet the goal of anchoritism was not self-harm, as some critics have argued – but heightened contemplative experience; anchorites were accomplished meditators, visionaries and mystics. Many writers sought to help anchorites reach these spiritual heights, and my book focuses, for the first time, on every single anchoritic guide written for English women.”
The book analyses five centuries of the guides’ negotiations of four anchoritic ideals – enclosure, solitude, chastity and orthodoxy – and of the vital anchoritic spiritual practices of asceticism and contemplative experience. It refutes the myth of the anchorhold as simply a solitary death-cell, revealing it as the site of potential intellectual exchange and spiritual growth.” http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2012/08/english-anchoritic-tradition-explored-in-new-book-1/
“Individuals withdraw from society for a variety of reasons. Some medieval people entered a reclusive lifestyle because they found it spiritually uplifting. Instead of isolating and lonely, to them solitude was a source of comfort and supported an unencumbered existence that allowed them to focus on acts of religous devotion. Instead of hating the world, these individuals loved it, and in their voluntary isolation from secular society they believed that they were a blessing to it through prayer. In the medieval period as today this was not a monolithic group; religious recluses, or ‘anchorites’ (from a Greek word meaning, ‘to withdraw’), were motivated by different things and even conceived of their lifestyle in different ways. Mari Hughes-Edwards examines how the ideologies of religious recluses, or anchorites, changed during the late eleventh through the mid-fifteenth century.”
“Anchoritism in the Middle Ages. Texts and Traditions” by Catherine Innes-Parker and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa, 2013
University of Wales Press – Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages
“Anchoritism in the Middle Ages approaches medieval anchoritism from a variety of critical angles. Individually, the essays challenge perceived notions of the very concept of anchoritic rule and guidance, study the interaction between language and linguistic forms in anchoritic texts, address the connection between anchoritism and other forms of solitude, and explore the influence of anchoritic literature on lay devotion. As a whole, the volume, which ranges from the third century to the sixteenth and spans all of Europe, illuminates the richness and fluidity of anchoritic works and shows how anchoritism pervaded the spirituality of the Middle Ages, for the lay and religious alike.”
“Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works” (The Classics of Western Spirituality) Anne Savage. 1991“Sometime in the first quarter of the thirteenth century a numberof works were written for anchoresses, women who lived as religious recluses in cells adjoining churches. The most influential is Ancrene Wisse (A Guide for Anchoresses), which discusses in great detail the daily life of the anchoress, both outer–her prayers, her house, her food and clothing–and innter–her attitudes to everything she is and does. Holy Maidenhood, a treatise on virginity, praises the freedom and joy of the unmarried state of the anchoress, providing a series of arguments to support her in her way of life when she may be tempted to leave it. Sawles War (The Soul’s Keeping) looks at the pains of hell and the joys of heaven as recounted by two messengers, Fear and Love of Life. The passions of three early virgin martyrs, Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana provide models of heroic strength and determination int he face of bribery, argument and torture by disappointed would-be lovers, who demand the virgins’ renunciation of their new Christian faith. The Wooing of Our Lord is the longest of several short prayers and meditations which court the anchoress, body and soul, on behalf of Christ as lover. Together, the works give us an extraordinarily detailed sense of a powerful, multi-faceted spirituality which is most respects quite different from that of the later and better known fourteenth-century English mystics. This is the first time all of these works have appeared together in print.”
“Rhetoric of the Anchorhold” Liz Herbert McEvoy (ed), University of Chicago Press, 2008 This volume of essays focuses on religious reclusion in England—commonly referred to as anchoritic enclosure—which reached the height of its popularity, particularly for women, in the later Middle Ages. Examining this extraordinary phenomenon of voluntary, permanent solitary enclosure in a cell attached to a church from a number of different perspectives, Rhetoric of the Anchorhold demonstrates how the rhetoric of this form of enclosure became a key part of religious discourse. Exploring how the anchorhold’s associations traveled into lay culture, this volume argues for the centrality of anchoritic spirituality to the religious climate of the Middle Ages in spite of its seemingly marginalized—and solitary—status.”
There are several website dedicated to Anchoritic studies. For example:
The International Anchoritic Society
A society for support and promotion of the study of medieval anchoritism and other forms of religious reclusion in the Middle Ages. The International Anchoritic Society aims to support and promote the academic study of medieval anchoritism and other forms of religous reclusion in the Middle Ages. It convenes regular international conferences and sponsors annual sessions on anchoritic and associated topics at the international medieval congresses of Kalamazoo, Michigan and Leeds, UK. It also hosts a discussion group for purposes of information dissemination, networking and collaboration,
See also the project based at the University of Exeter: Hermits and Anchorites is a project to bring together all the information that survives about the religious solitaries of medieval England. http://hermits.ex.ac.uk/
For an on-line list of resources see: http://faculty.winthrop.edu/kosterj/engl310h/anchoress.htm
“The Anchorite” of Zuloaga seems entirely 17th century El Greco, with the elongated human figure, and the whirlwind of sky and dwarfed town like the latter’s famous “View of Toledo.” But the artist is Ignacio Zuloaga, who painted it in 1907. Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta (July 26, 1870 – October 31, 1945) was a Spanish painter, born in Eibar (Guipuzcoa), near the monastery of Loyola. The landscape here has become an odd counterpart to the desert, to the world as desert, and though his vestment is conventional, the hermit’s expression is not. The unshaven, barefoot hermit has not a pious but disengaged expression on his face, wistful or mad, the input of centuries of Spanish art, peaking around Goya. The anchorite is not approachable, for he is no longer of this world.