Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Medieval Anchoress

by E.M. Powell

(c) E.M.Powell
The Poor Clare Sisters are part of the Franciscan family and the Order has existed for over eight hundred years. They are an austere, contemplative Order, devoting their lives to prayer. As well as taking the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, the sisters take a fourth: the vow of Enclosure. This means that a Poor Clare nun would never leave the monastery, except in exceptional circumstances.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, I used to attend Mass regularly at the local Poor Clare convent. The sisters would take part in the Mass behind a wooden grille to the side of the altar. Their voices could be heard in prayer and song, yet they could only be glimpsed as indistinct shadowy figures. The one time the grille was opened was when the nuns received Communion. But it opened outwards to make a screen to shield the women from the congregation's sight. Only a pale hand to pull the screen back in was visible.

The trips to this chapel used to fascinate me, and I found the idea of withdrawing from the world intriguing. But at the time of the foundation of the Poor Clare Order in 1212, there were other women who followed an even more austere and demanding form of enclosed religious life: that of the anchoress.

An anchoress was a nun who lived in isolation and solitude. They were very highly regarded in medieval society, with the widespread belief that their prayers and devotion brought salvation to those who supported them. The Christian Church already had a tradition of women who sought out the life of the religious recluse.

Saint Madelberte
(Image is in Public Domain)

Saint Madelberte was an eighth-century anchoress at the convent of Maulbeuge in France. Her call to the religious life is said to have been inspired by Saint Ghislain, himself an anchorite. In the picture above, we see a demonic figure disturbing her while at prayer. Distraction from her devotion and how to counteract it is a feature of much of the literature on the life of the anchoress.

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (born c1110) is known as one of the great monastic teachers and educators of the early medieval period. His approach to the religious life was a radical one.

The Rule of Saint Benedict cautioned monks against 'particular friendships.' Aelred saw them as a way to experience God's love. He wrote of his ideas in his work Spiritual Friendship.

He didn't always find monastic life easy, with references to his 'many temptations' as a young man. One of his solutions to temptation was to take numerous cold baths. There is a record of him having forty in one day!
Rievaulx Abbey
(c) Paul Fogarty- Private Collection

But while Aelred encouraged friendships within his own monastery, he took quite a different approach with his sister, who was an anchoress. He repeatedly warned her against friendships with anyone at all- male or female, insisting on this so she could maintain her purity.

The spiritual demands placed on the anchoress were challenging enough, but the physical and emotional demands were equally so. The religious ceremony that took place when an anchoress took her final vows included singing of Psalms from the Office of the Dead. She was sprinkled with dust before entering her cell and the door was closed after her.

Some anchorholds were cells as little as eight feet square. With others, even the door was bricked up. There was a tiny window left through which the anchoress would hear the prayers of others. But she always had to be screened from view, as to be seen was considered a sin.

An anchoress could be enclosed for twenty years and there are records of fifty years of enclosure. The Anglo-Saxon Eve of Wilton was brought up from the age of seven at a convent before becoming an anchoress.

(c) E.M. Powell
Aelred's advice to his sister heavily influenced a guide for anchoresses written in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century, the Ancrene Riwle or Ancrene Wisse. It lists the many, many types of sin that the anchoress may commit and ways to avoid those.

A frugal diet and little sleep are encouraged. One of the warnings is about contact with men. The author warns he would 'rather hang on a gibbet' than witness an anchoress kiss a man. Touching with hands is also frowned upon, along with a warning to anchoresses not to admire their white hands. He advises them to daily scrape up the earth from the floor of their cells, as a reminder that the earth will form their graves ‘in which they will rot.’

 Koninklijke Bibliotheek/National Library of the Netherlands

Many anchoresses never left their cells and were buried in them. The author of Ancrene Rule says that 'True anchoresses are called birds..and will fly upwards towards heaven.' Given the sacrifice that these girls and women made for others, it is to be hoped that they have.


Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship, Cistercian Publications Inc. (1977)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Leyser, Henrietta: Medieval Women, Orion (1995)
Warren, Ann K.: Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England, University of California Press (1985)
White, Hugh: Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses (Penguin Classics), Penguin (1993)


E.M. Powell is the author of The Fifth Knight, a medieval thriller based on the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. You can find it here on or here on The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight, will be released by Thomas & Mercer on January 1st 2015. Visit her website at or her Facebook page


  1. This blog continues to amaze with the quality and presentation of the material posted.

  2. Stepheny, this was my first post on EHFA. While I was delighted to get an invite, I was a little daunted as I know just how good it is! For me to get a comment like yours has made my day. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the great post. Fascinating information.

  4. You're very welcome, Jessica! I'm so pleased you found it interesting.

  5. I read a later book of yours and was advised to start with "The Fifth Knight." I had never heard of an "Anchoress" before this book. The information was enlightening.


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