For-þi is ancre ancre icleopet, ant under chirche iancret
May 26, 2019 6:59 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by Chrysostom (17 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
A word I learned from Blood Meridian!
posted by thelonius at 7:35 PM on May 26, 2019

The film is outstanding.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 8:19 PM on May 26, 2019

The film is outstanding.

Absolutely! Highly recommended. I started watching it just because Christopher Eccleston was in it, but it caught my attention and Imagination from the get-go.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:05 PM on May 26, 2019

One of the next big trends in Silicon Valley will be some variation:
A. Faux anchorite LARPing.
B. Anathem-insprired techno monastic LARPing.
C. Amish LARPing.

There will be competition to see who can do do it more authentically and with the most performative asceticism.

Bonus points for remoteness of location.
posted by Telf at 10:50 PM on May 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

My favourite historical British anchorite is Christina Carpenter, who left her cell at one point and had to write to the pope (an Avignon pope, no less!) to be re-admitted. She was "kept more securely" the second time round.
posted by terretu at 1:39 AM on May 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was actually thinking of posting to Ask... what happened to anchorites during the plague or times of civil unrest? People had to take care of them through a hole in the wall, like a weird church pet. There must be stories of anchorites dying because nobody could come.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:07 AM on May 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

blnfrnk, that's a nice story!
posted by allthinky at 6:35 AM on May 27, 2019

posted by symbioid at 11:36 AM on May 27, 2019

I’ve thought to write it but I’m not much of a writer. I assume someone who knows hagiographies better would know of some saint this happened to. Probably most of the story is the anchorite trying to trust God’s will that they be a martyr of thirst. Someone else write this creepy story, please.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:44 AM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

The article beyond the first paragraph is paywalled. Is there a full-text version out there? Thanks.
posted by the sobsister at 12:27 PM on May 27, 2019

I'm not hitting the paywall, but you might have luck with the archived version?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:29 PM on May 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I doubt it never ever happened, but since the anchor-holds were generally physically attached to a church or another religious establishment, basically the entire life of the community would have had to cease for the church to be entirely unfrequented and thus there to be no one to attend to an anchorite. England didn't suffer foreign invasion of the kind that could wipe out a whole community post-1066; its internal conflicts, while substantial, were not quite that grave, especially given that support of an anchorite would be a religious obligation recognized by both sides of any conflict.

In general, I suspect anchorites had a lot more human contact than this article implies--for the simple reason that they didn't all just go mad, as most humans in solitary confinement eventually do.
posted by praemunire at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just thinking about this makes me panic.

The total power that your husband had over you and the terror of childbirth would have made even an "easy" life as a Medieval wife and mother scary, but at least in that case you still weren't being walled up alive. For becoming an anchoress to have felt freeing, society (the patriarchy?) must have been a total fucking prison in and of itself.

Apparently, the church benefited from having an anchoress in residence. It sounds like there were social and spiritual benefits, of course, but also financial benefits flowing to the church and locality from the anchoress's patron(s). That makes me think about how the US benefits from imprisoning people now, walling them up until death in little tiny cells like secular anchorites. The economic benefits are obvious in that case, all those juicy prison contracts for food and laundry and security, etc -- but our prisons and prisoners probably have a social/spiritual function, too.

And while Medieval anchoresses had to prove that they were good enough to be walled up, modern anchorites have to prove that they're bad enough, through a trial or a plea. Chilling that we keep torturing people in the same way, and reaping a lot of the same "benefits," despite coming up with antithetical justifications for it. Chilling that people keep being tortured, altogether.
posted by rue72 at 3:15 PM on May 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Amateurs. five hundred years earlier people were living atop pillars.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:24 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I found the historical fiction book about Hildegard von Bingen, Illuminations by Mary Sharatt, to be an interesting take on anchoresses.
posted by cass at 9:42 AM on May 28, 2019

In fairness, living atop a pillar in England may be more climatically challenging than doing it in say, Syria.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:11 AM on May 28, 2019

Dunno, I'd expect drinking water to be your biggest problem up on a pillar, followed by exposure to the elements.

Plenty of precipitation and cloud cover in England, and although it gets cold-ish, you're unlikely to freeze to death. Most of Syria is pretty much arid plateau . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 2:00 PM on May 30, 2019

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