In Victor Hugo's 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (known also as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), there is a chapter called "The Rat Hole." The term refers to a hermit's cell in medieval Paris. For twenty years, writes the novelist, a woman lived in that cell--a "premature tomb"--as she prayed for the soul of her father. The city of Paris, Hugo notes, teemed with such cells, as did many other towns in the Middle Ages: "Even in the busiest street, or in the noisiest, most motley marketplace, one often came across, right in the very center ... a cellar, a well, a walled and grated dungeon, in whose depths a human being prayed night and day."
To readers familiar with Hugo's tale of the lonely hunchback, this reference to living tombs may seem a dramatic flourish--an imaginative detail that adds to the novel's gothic atmosphere. But there is a grain of truth to Hugo's portrayal of female recluses and their walled-in chambers. Some cells in medieval Europe were located in houses and town walls. Others were added onto, or built into, religious structures. Female hermits, known as anchoresses, actually lived in the walls of some European churches. To understand the phenomenon better, we must turn to a source from the thirteenth century, a Middle English text known as the Ancrene Wisse.
The Ancrene Wisse, also called the Ancrene Riwle, was written by an anonymous cleric. A spiritual classic (available in a Penguin edition), the book celebrates a life of solitary piety. According to its author, an anchoress is called by that name because she holds steady the church "as an anchor under the ship." Her mission is to protect the church so that "storms and waves do not overturn it." In reality, this nautical explanation may contain a touch of whimsy on the author's part. It is more likely that the word anchoress (and, for men, anchorite) derived simply from the Greek verb, anachorein, which means to withdraw, as if into a desert.
The Ancrene Wisse reminds us of a curious tradition that has long since disappeared. Anchoresses had been popular during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries. Today, historians grapple with two interrelated questions: Why did anchoresses flourish for several centuries during the High Middle Ages? And how do we explain their subsequent decline by the time of the Renaissance?
By definition, an anchoress pledged herself to a life of prayer. While a nun usually resided in the group setting of a monastery or convent, the anchoress lived in a reclusorum, or anchorhold, a small room either in a church or attached to it. One of the responsibilities of the female hermit was to pray for the local Christian community. She prayed for the welfare of the living as well as for the souls of those who had died.
Typically, an anchorhold contained two small windows. One opened into the church itself, usually with a view of the altar. Through it the anchoress could view the services and partake of the Eucharist. The second window opened out to the public. Sometimes it overlooked the graveyard by a church. Though covered with cloth, the window enabled the recluse to converse with her visitors. Some callers may have brought food. Others requested her prayers for salvation, seeking advice on matters both spiritual and practical. Some anchoresses, like East Anglia's Julian of Norwich (c. 1343-1416), were relatively famous. People traveled long distances to hear their words of wisdom.
The Ancrene Wisse attests to these women's unusual roles. Enclosed for life, sometimes literally locked into their cells, anchoresses kept watch night and day over the property. The author of the Ancrene Wisse alludes to their continual church presence, comparing the women to owls or night-birds who live under the eaves of buildings. The anchorhold was, in essence, a type of prayer capsule, and the anchoress was to keep the tiny space "holy" with her pure thoughts and perpetual prayer. …