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Medieval life and Times

What was and Anchoress? What sort of life did an anchoress lead in Medieval Times? An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchor-holds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities.

The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church. The most famous English Anchoress was:

Julian of Norwich

The Anchorite
This religious Medieval life style was also pursued by men, who were called anchorites.

The Anchoress and the 'Rule of Life'
A “Rule of Life” was created in the Medieval times of the Middle Ages. This rule was devised for an  anchoress. The “Rule of Life” was known as the 'Ancrene Wisse'. The Ancrene Wisse  stated that an anchoress was anchored under a church like an anchor under the side of a ship, to hold it, so that the waves and storms do not pitch it over." In fact, the word anchorite comes ultimately from the Greek verb 'anacwre-ein' which means "to withdraw." The anchor hold was often attached to the wall of a church. The Rule decreed that:

  • The cell, or anchor hold, of an anchoress should have three windows including the 'Squint':
    • One window was to open into the church so that the anchoress could receive communion and follow the church services. This window was called a 'Squint'
    • The second window was to allow the anchoress to be in contact with her assistant. Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out
    • The third window allowed people to come and seek her wisdom, advice, and prayers

An anchorage alos contained a private altar, a bed, and a crucifix.

Permission to become an Anchoress
A potential anchoress, or anchorite, required permission from a bishop to enter this way of life. The Bishop would undertake the following process:

  • The personal credentials of the would-be anchoress were checked to ensure her fitness of such a life - sometimes ordering a probationary period before permanent enclosure
  • The bishop then determined if their was adequate financial support to sustain the anchoress for their lifetime
  • He then determined a suitable location for the anchorage
  • He then performed (or ordered performed) the ceremony, or rite, of enclosure
  • He then agreed to oversee the well-being and support of the anchoress

Enclosure - The Living Entombment and Ritual Burial of the Anchoress
The incarceration of an anchoress was accompanied with due ceremony. This was called the Enclosure ceremony in which an anchorite or anchoress, was incarcerated, or enclosed, in a cell. Her living entombment and ritual burial, was an act of binding her body and her material surroundings to the body of Christ. The Anchoress was essentially dead to the World. The order of enclosure stated that:

  • The soon to be Anchoress should fast and make confession
  • Keeping vigil throughout the preceding night
  • Attend Mass. This would include her prostration before the altar
  • After the Mass a procession of the congregation would include chanting and the anchoress would carry a lighted taper
  • Sometimes her grave would be made ready at the time of her enclosure and kept open in the cell as a 'memento mori'. In these instances there was a complete burial ceremony. The anchoress would be laid out on a funeral bier and given the last rites
  • Prayers would be said and the door to the cell, or anchorage, would be locked. In some instances there was no door to the anchorage - the anchoress would be walled up

The Clothes worn by an Anchoress
There was no regulation clothes but in winter a pilch (a triangular piece of material)  or a thick garment to keep out the cold and in summer a kirtle with mantle, black head-dress, wimple, cape or veil. The one stipulation was that the dress had to be plain.

The Life of an Anchoress
An anchoress lived in extreme poverty eating chiefly vegetarian food. The life of an anchoress would be spent in prayer and contemplation. Other solitary pursuits were also followed especially embroidery and writing. The anchoress would also receive people who would seek her advice on both practical and religious matters. The anchoress would offer prayers for these people and pray with them. In the Rule the Anchoress was warned to

 “let not anyone handle herself too gently lest she deceive herself. She will not be able to keep herself pure ..without two things: the one is giving pain to the flesh by fasting, by watching, by flagellations, by wearing coarse garments, by a hard bed; the other thing is the moral qualities of the heart, devotion, compassion, mercy, pity, charity, humility”.

The Death of an Anchoress
At the end of her life the anchoress was often buried in the anchorhold.  Sometimes her grave would be made ready at the time of her enclosure and kept open as a 'memento mori'. The anchoress was bidden not just to meditate on their own mortality by staring into the empty grave but, with their bare hands, to scrape up some earth from the grave every day. When she died the anchoress was buried in the anchorage grave.  

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