Anchorite's cell in Holy Trinity Church, Skipton
Christina Carpenter was walled in to a cell in St James's Church in Shere, Surrey.[1]
The Anchorite (1881), by Teodor Axentowicz

In Christianity, an anchorite or anchoret (female: anchoress; from Ancient Greek: ἀναχωρέω, romanizedanakhōréō, lit.'I withdraw, retire') is someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society to be able to lead an intensely prayer-orientated, ascetic, or Eucharist-focused life. Anchorites are frequently considered to be a type of hermit,[2][dead link] but unlike hermits, they were required to take a vow of stability of place, opting for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches. Also unlike hermits, anchorites were subject to a religious rite of consecration that closely resembled the funeral rite, following which they would be considered dead to the world and a type of living saint. Anchorites had a certain autonomy, as they did not answer to any ecclesiastical authority apart from bishops.[3][4]

The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monasticism. In the Catholic Church, eremitic life is one of the forms of consecrated life. In medieval England, the earliest recorded anchorites lived in the 11th century. Their highest number—around 200 anchorites—was recorded in the 13th century.[5]

From the 12th to the 16th centuries, female anchorites consistently outnumbered their male counterparts, sometimes by as many as four to one (in the 13th century); this ratio eventually dropped to two to one (in the 15th century).[6] The sex of a high number of anchorites, however, is not recorded for these periods.[7]

Between 1536 and 1539, the dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII of England effectively brought the anchorite tradition to an end in England.[8]

Anchoritic life

The anchoritic life became widespread during the early and high Middle Ages.[9] Examples of the dwellings of anchorites and anchoresses survive, a large number of which are in England. They tended to be a simple cell (also called anchorhold) built against one of the walls of the local village church.[10] In Germanic-speaking areas, from at least the tenth century it was customary for the bishop to say the Office of the Dead as the anchorite entered their cell, to signify the anchorite's death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God and the angels. Sometimes, if the anchorite was walled up inside the cell, the bishop would put his seal upon the wall to stamp it with his authority. Some anchorites, however, freely moved between their cells and the adjoining churches.[11]

Most anchoritic strongholds were small, perhaps at most 3.7 to 4.6 m (12 to 15 ft) square, with three windows. Viewing the altar, hearing Mass, and receiving the Eucharist were possible through one small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary, called a "hagioscope" or "squint". Anchorites provided spiritual advice and counsel to visitors through these windows, gaining a reputation for wisdom.[12] Another small window allowed access to those who saw to the anchorite's physical needs. A third window, often facing the street but covered with translucent cloth, allowed light into the cell.[13]

Anchorites committed to a life of uncompromising enclosure. Those who considered leaving possibly believed their souls might be damned for spiritual dereliction.[14]: 93 [a] Some refused to leave their cells even when pirates or looters were pillaging their towns and consequently burned to death when the church was torched.[15] They ate frugal meals, spending their days both in contemplative prayer and interceding on behalf of others. Their body waste was managed using a chamber pot.[16][better source needed] Some anchorholds had a few small rooms or attached gardens. Servants tended to the basic needs of anchorites, providing food and water and removing waste. Julian of Norwich, for example, is known to have had several maidservants, among them Sara and Alice. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote an anchorite rule book, c. 1161, for his recluse sister titled De Institutione Inclusarum;[17] in it, he suggested keeping no housemates other than an older woman, to act as companion and doorkeeper, and a young maid as domestic servant.[18]

In addition to being the physical location wherein the anchorite could embark on a journey toward union with God, the anchorhold also provided a spiritual and geographic focus for people from the wider society seeking spiritual advice and guidance. Though set apart from the community by stone walls and specific spiritual precepts, the anchorite lay at the very centre of the community. The anchorhold has been called a communal "womb" from which would emerge an idealised sense of a community's reborn potential as Christians and as human subjects.[7]

Influential texts

An idea of their daily routine can be gleaned from an anchoritic rule. The most widely known today is the early 13th-century text known as Ancrene Wisse.[19] Another, less widely known, example is the rule known as De Institutione Inclusarum written in the 12th century, around 1160–1162, by Aelred of Rievaulx for his sister.[20] It is estimated that the daily set devotions detailed in Ancrene Wisse would take some four hours, on top of which anchoresses would listen to services in the church and engage in their own private prayers and devotional reading.[21]

Richard Rolle, an English hermit and mystic, wrote one of the most influential guide books regarding the life of an anchoress. His book The Form of Living was addressed to a young anchoress named Margaret Kirkby who was responsible for preserving his texts.[22]: 29  Her connection to the town of Hampole has been commonly associated with Rolle; he is sometimes referred to as 'Richard Rolle of Hampole' despite a lack of conclusive evidence that Rolle was ever in the small village.[23]

Notable anchorites

Anthony the Great, father of Christian Monasticism and early anchorite. The Coptic inscription reads ' Ⲡⲓⲛⲓϣϯ Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ Ⲁⲛⲧⲱⲛⲓ' or 'The Great Father Anthony'.

The earliest recorded anchorites lived in the third century AD. Saint Anthony the Anchorite (251-356), also known as "Anthony of the Desert", has a traditional reputation as Christianity's "Father of Monasticism".[24] Hilarion (Gaza, 291 – Cyprus, 371) was known as the founder of anchoritic life in Palestine.[25]

The anchoritic life proved popular in England, where women outnumbered men in the ranks of the anchorites, especially in the 13th century.[21] Written evidence supports the existence of 780 anchorites on 600 sites between 1100 and 1539,[26] when the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII brought anchoritism in England to an end.[27] However, the lack of a consistent registration system for anchorites suggests there may have been substantially more.[28] English anchorholds can still be seen at Chester-le-Street in County Durham and at Hartlip in Kent.[29]

Other anchorites included Calogerus the Anchorite (c. 466 - 561), Cyriacus the Anchorite (448 - 557) and Suster Bertken (1426 - 1514).

See also

Explanatory footnotes

  1. ^ "The cell of enclosure, however, was equated with a prison, into which the anchorite propelled himself for fear of hell and for love of Christ. The eternal punishment of hell might be escaped by the lifetime refusal of escape from the anchorhold. At the same time, union with Christ might be achieved even in this life." — A. K. Warren (1985)[14]


  1. ^ a b Thomas, Wyndham (2012). Robert Saxton: Caritas. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 16–20. ISBN 978-0-7546-6601-1.
  2. ^ "BBB Radio 4: Making History – Anchorites".
  3. ^ Black, Joseph, ed. (8 September 2011). "Julian of Norwich". The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Volume A. Vol. 1 (2 ed.). Broadview Press. p. 348. ISBN 9781770480865. Retrieved 22 October 2023. [...] anchorites and anchoresses did not answer to any ecclesiastical authority other than the bishop.
  4. ^ Hevelone-Harper, Jennifer L. (19 November 2019) [2017]. "The Letter Collection of Barsanuphius and John". In Sogno, Cristiana; Storin, Bradley K.; Watts, Edward J. (eds.). Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide (reprint ed.). Oakland, California: University of California Press. p. 428. ISBN 9780520308411. Retrieved 22 October 2023. The correspondence of Barsanuphius and John reveals the anchorites' authority over bishops as well as their submission to bishops.
  5. ^ "The Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 603".
  6. ^ McAvoy 2010, p. 11.
  7. ^ a b McAvoy, Liz Herbert (2005). Anchorites, Wombs And Tombs : Intersections Of Gender And Enclosure In The Middle Ages. University of Wales. p. 13.
  8. ^ Rotha, Mary Clay (1914). The Hermits and Anchorites of England. Methuen.
  9. ^ McAvoy 2010, p. 96.
  10. ^ Licence 2013, pp. 87–89.
  11. ^ Licence 2013, pp. 123, 120.
  12. ^ Licence 2013, pp. 158–172.
  13. ^ LePan, Don (2011). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Broadview Press. p. 348.
  14. ^ a b Warren, A. K. (1985). Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
  15. ^ Licence 2013, pp. 77–79.
  16. ^ "Questions comments from the e‑mail". The Anchoress online. On‑line Q&As. 2008-06-02. Archived from the original on 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2008-10-01.
  17. ^ Wellesley, M. (13 March 2018). "The Life of the Anchoress". Medieval Literature. British Library. Discovering Literature: Medieval.
  18. ^ Adamson, J.W. (1919). A Short History of Education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 75. ISBN 9781107696440.
  19. ^ Ancrene Wisse[full citation needed]
  20. ^ A translation of De Institutione Inclusarum by Mary Paul MacPherson is included in Treatises and the Pastoral Prayer, Cistercian Fathers Series 2, (Kalamazoo, 1971). In English the work is variously titled The Eremitical Life, The Rule of Life for a Recluse, or The Training of Anchoresses.
  21. ^ a b c d Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses. Translated by White, Hugh. London: Penguin Books. 1993. p. xiii.
  22. ^ Roman, C. M. (2017) Queering Richard Rolle: Mystical theology and the hermit in fourteenth-century England. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 29.
  23. ^ Hughes, Jonathan. "Rolle, Richard (1305×10–1349)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24024. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  24. ^ O'Malley, John W. (30 June 2009) [2004]. Four Cultures of the West (revised ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780674041691. Retrieved 1 November 2023. The traditional 'Father of Monasticism,' St. Anthony the Abbot [...].
  25. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Jerome, Vita Sancti Hilarionis in P.L., III, 29–54.
  26. ^ Jones, E. A. (2019). Hermits and anchorites in England, 1200–1550. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 7.
  27. ^ Erler, M.C. (2013). Reading and Writing during the Dissolution: Monks, Friars, and Nuns 1530–1558. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 32–37.
  28. ^ Jones, E. A. (2019). Hermits and anchorites in England, 1200–1550. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 7.
  29. ^ Hughes-Edwards, M., (2010). "Anchoritism: the English Tradition", in McAvoy, L.H. [ed.] Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe. Suffolk: Boydell Press, p. 143.
  30. ^ Grimmer, M. (January 2006). "Bede and the Augustine's Oak conferences: Implications for Anglo-British ecclesiastical interaction in early Anglo-Saxon England", Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Nr. 2, pp. 103–119.
  31. ^ "Book of Saints – Ulrick". 17 February 2017.
  32. ^ Petition to Become an Anchoress University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN,, 2003, 2012-04-22
  33. ^ History of Shere,, 2011, 2012-04-22
  34. ^ Hughes, Jonathan (2004). "Kirkby, Margaret (d. 1391~1394), anchoress". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/57764. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  35. ^ Hilton, W., tr. J.P. Clark & R. Dorward. (1991). The Scale of Perfection, p. 19. New York City: Paulist Press.
  36. ^ "Eve of Wilton: the Anchorite, her Cell, and Medieval Women's Literary Culture in England and the Continent". Retrieved 2023-07-08.
  37. ^ Past, Ed Hannon-Visions of the (2017-11-29). "Anchorite's Cell, Westmeath, Ireland". Visions Of The Past. Retrieved 2023-07-08.
  38. ^ Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love[full citation needed]
  39. ^ "The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and a Revelation of Love Edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins".
  40. ^ Milton, R. (2002). Julian's Cell: The earthy story of Julian of Norwich. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing.
  41. ^ Chalupsky, Mary. "Glastonbury native led ascetic life in Rome", Catholic Transcript, Archdiocese of Hartford.

General and cited references

Further reading

Historical development

Roman Catholic Church links