Medieval Anchorites in Their Communities

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Cate Gunn, Liz Herbert McAvoy
Studies in the History of Medieval Religion
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This brilliantly edited collection takes aim at the common trope of the isolated and solitary anchorite. Medieval Anchorites in Their Communities readily disposes of this misinterpretation and proves instead how anchorites were embedded in their religious and/or urban communities. The editors Cate Gunn and Liz Herbert McAvoy have brought together diverse essays to illuminate “the interdependent relationship between solitaries and communities,” whether religious, lay, or textual (1). With eight illustrations, a detailed bibliography (including online sources for the classroom), and a variety of unusual cross-disciplinary perspectives, this book represents a high achievement in scholarship, especially its contribution towards proving the communal sociability of rural and urban anchorites in medieval communities. 

Medieval anchorites are frequently understood as having embraced solitude in its most extreme forms. Ceremonies of enclosure, including the ritual blocking of the cell’s door, indicated to society the separation, and quasi-death, of the anchorite. The co-authored introductory essay by Gunn and McAvoy contributes by redefining community to mean both tangible and intangible connections, whether spiritual or textual, and in doing so highlights the activity of anchorites within the religious or secular community, despite their isolation and loneliness. From a modern example they draw on a contemporary anchorite, Sister Rachel Denton, who lives “silent and alone” yet also experiences community through the Internet. They argue that medieval anchorites sought to transcend the self “readily attained within the social setting of community” (3). Spiritual attainment was a process of mutual engagement between the self and the community: “To belong was both personal and communal” (5). 

The first three essays contribute to the argument that anchorites were deeply aligned with or influenced their religious and/or spiritual communities. Gunn offers an examination of the anchoress of Colne Priory in the context of other anchoritic texts, and addresses themes of renunciation and withdrawal alongside the meaning of onesse in the Ancrene Wisse. Translated as unity, Gunn suggests a kind of virtual community by which anchoresses saw themselves as a larger group devoted to God and each other. Another essay addresses the anchorite’s relationship with angels and their heavenly communities, in keeping with the theme that inward contemplation has outward ramifications. A third essay examines Grimlaicus’s Regula Solitariorum, an anchoritic text of guidance, written for those wishing to follow a more reclusive form of monastic life. These essays provide a foundation to examine other ways that anchorites mediated self and community.

The largest section of the book considers the reciprocal nature of anchoritic culture and the lay community. Demonstrating connections between anchoritic, monastic, and lay communities, Clarck Drieshen uses the 15th-century visionary text A Revelation of Purgatory to show how anchorites were seen to be effective spiritual intercessors. Nuns relied on the text not only to strengthen their spirituality but also to seek financial contributions from the wealthy gentry. Drawing on a study of purgatory, Michelle Sauer suggests that the friendly relationship between patrons and their gifts to chantries characterizes a unique patronage system that sought to connect the living and the dead. Equally illustrative, Clare Dowding analyzes churchwardens’ accounts to document the connections between a parish and its succession of anchorites at the church of All Hallows London Wall from 1455 to 1536. Far from being lone actors, anchorites were dependent on the community around them for monetary support. But the community as well was reliant on the anchorites; for instance, the anchorite at All Hallows contributed to building and repair work on the church. Other essays document a fraudulent hermit in the aftermath of the Black Death and Julian of Norwich’s nightmare sequence, particularly her visions of the devil, which intersected not only with orthodox beliefs but also communal folklore. 

The final three chapters address the textual communities of medieval anchorites. Catherine Innes-Parker’s analysis of the Wooing Group prayers suggests not only that these texts had a wide circulation in scrolls and booklets, but that anchorites and lay women may have shared texts, forming a reading community with their maidservants serving as couriers. A subsequent essay demonstrates the Wooing Group prayers’ influence on later medieval texts. Finally, an analysis of the relationship between the anchoritic text Ancrene Wisse and the illuminated manuscript Egerton Hours brings to light new evidence concerning Jewish-Christian relations. Here Dorothy Kim’s comparative analysis of the texts demonstrates a mutual fascination and anxiety; she reads the illuminated initials, headgear, and images of naked Jewish and Christian men to understand the iconographic choices which influenced the largely female readership. 

Together these essays provide a significant contribution to the field. The introductory essay could have been framed more within the historiography of anchoritic sociability. However, the editors have done a remarkable job linking these essays to suggest that anchoritic life was dynamic, complex, and community-oriented. They also expand on the definition of community to highlight important new scholarship relying on comparative texts, financial records, illuminations, readership, folklore, and the metaphysical. Anchorites were rarely stationed at the periphery of culture; instead their perceived death created many opportunities for the convergence of communities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shelley Wolbrink is Professor of History at Drury University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cate Gunn has taught in the continuing education and literature departments of the University of Essex.

Liz Herbert McAvoy is professor of medieval literature at Swansea University.




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