Through the Veiled Window

Aspen Amanda Hougen “Through the Veiled Window. Feminine Authority, Masculine Authority and Discursive Tension in Anchoritic Writings” A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, 2011
“An examination of English Medieval texts produced by and for women who chose to live as anchoresses, pursuing a hermitic lifestyle of religious contemplation and prayer. Contemporary framings and traditional scholarly discussions of anchoritic women have tended to view them as powerless and silenced due to their life of permanent enclosure within their hermit’s cell. This thesis argues for a more nuanced view of the personal freedom these women enjoyed and of the awareness of that freedom possessed by anchoresses and by the male religious authorities who supervised them. The thesis invokes close readings, discourse analysis, and historical context to reach the conclusion that anchoresses possessed a remarkable level of personal freedom and social power, and that this was known, if not acknowledged, by the writers of anchoritic texts.”
“Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, a unique form of Christian monastic life developed. Like hermits, those who followed this discipline lived lives of solitary devotion; like cloistered religious men and women, they devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation; and like the lay members of the Church, they were intimately involved in the everyday life of the community. Yet the predominantly female followers of this religious discipline were neither hermits, monks, nor laypeople; the anchorites – and anchoresses – inhabited a space influenced by and yet uniquely different from these other social roles.
Anchoritic life and spirituality was especially popular in England, and much of what we now know about the discipline comes from English sources. In the most common scenario, the anchoress was a single woman of some education who, in a solemn ceremony presided over by the bishop, would be enclosed within the walls of a small one or two-room cell built adjoining the local church. She would remain within these walls, cut off from the world around her with the exception of two windows, for the rest of her life. One of these windows opened into the church, so that the anchoress could hear Mass and receive the sacraments; the other opened onto the world outside, and it was through this window that the more mundane necessities of life were passed. This window to the world was ideally intended to be veiled by a heavy curtain, a symbol of the anchoress’s separation; she was “a woman buried,” symbolically dead to the world even as she continued to contemplate and pray on its behalf. However, the veil was not impenetrable; while the curtain might have remained drawn, the window to the world nevertheless served as a conduit for discourse. Ultimately, the window also allowed for the dispersal of knowledge, power, and individuality, as the anchoress exchanged religious and personal counsel with the members of the community as recompense for the substance of her daily life.
In many ways, this image of the window to the world – veiled but not closed – mimics the form of the texts left to us by anchoritic authors. Within these texts, much remains veiled, unspoken, and hidden, buried by a dominant rhetoric which heavily emphasizes giving up and putting away the world and its notions of individuality and power. Yet beneath this dominant rhetoric – behind the metaphorical veil – there lies another, more complicated image of the anchoress. She was a woman who, through the very act of renunciation and putting-away, actually managed to step into a position of individual authority and spiritual fulfillment. Within the walls of the cell that was meant to be her tomb, the anchoress not only lived on – she flourished. In order to catch a glimpse of the anchoress as she truly was, we must look not only at what the texts concerning her claim to be saying; we must look beyond the veil, at what they say without words.”

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