Artful Restoration of the Portrait of the Medieval Anchoress from Reformation Polemic to Nineteenth Century Church Historiography

By Flynn, Rebecca D. | Magistra, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Artful Restoration of the Portrait of the Medieval Anchoress from Reformation Polemic to Nineteenth Century Church Historiography


Flynn, Rebecca D., Magistra


The facts surrounding the individual lives of most medieval anchoresses have been lost in obscurity over time. Archaeological remains of a forgotten anchorage or a brief reference to a particular recluse in surviving medieval ecclesiastical or legal records often serve as the only proof of their existence. Interest in anchoritic archaeological remains was sparked in nineteenthcentury England when there was "a huge outpouring of public expenditure on buildings [and] between 1840 and 1875 more than 7,000 medieval parish churches were restored, rebuilt or enlarged."1

The reconstruction in the nineteenth century was hotly debated even before its peak, and many architects fought against harsh restoration, claiming that it deviated from the original spirit of the edifice while lining the pockets of less scrupulous craftsmen. Leaders of the architectural profession were concerned that if the "practice of restoration were allowed to go unchecked, medieval remains stood very little chance of surviving the century without being so rebuilt, copied or enlarged as to be unrecognisable as ancient buildings."2 Seeking to revive Gothic architecture by reconstructing medieval buildings in accordance with the contemporary notion of what was thought to be medieval, many Victorian architects had overrestored churches. The result was said to be an "even and machine-like finish" with an "array of features which signal, like flashing lights, the medieval character of the structure at the expense of the literal antiquity of the stones."3

The number of Victorian-era restorations was dramatic. Nearly eighty percent of all parish churches were restored in England and Wales during this time, leading to a plethora of archaeological finds of anchoritic evidence such as walled-up doors and anchorage squints.4 The discoveries fed into the national interest in the Middle Ages, which had emerged in the mid-eighteenth century. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writing on the issue of British religious orders, thus were encouraged to further investigate the anchoritic figure, whose way of life was greatly disrupted during the Reformation's dissolution of the monasteries.5

Much like the architects of their time, these authors attempted to piece together an understanding of the identity of these individuals and how they functioned within English society. Their constructed portraits of the anchoress figure relied upon limited information and equivocal sources. These overwhelmingly unfavorable illustrations were incorporated into subsequent scholarship, developing an intricate network of mutual citation, perpetuating an extremely distorted version of the medieval anchoress, which continued well into the twentieth century.

For many reasons, it is relevant to reconsider these initial portrayals of anchoresses in order to reassess the accuracy of their depictions. The books and articles consulted in this article form in large part the basis for all successive scholarship concerning anchorites, and examining them can trace how these authors influenced later writers and also how recent studies on anchoritic existence deviate from these foundational works.

One major change is that contemporary scholarship focusing on medieval anchoresses is primarily written by women, striking a sharp contrast with early writings that function as the basis for all subsequent anchoritic scholarship. Because the early works were written largely by male ecclesiasts, such a patriarchal line of scholarly descent, although supplying vital documentation, was inclined to view the life of medieval anchoresses in a negative light. While modern scholarship bends sharply in the opposite direction, as will be shown, aiming to deliver medieval anchoresses from the entrapments of medieval misogyny in order to empower and vindicate these historical figures, early assessments of the figure overwhelmingly concentrate on female anchoritic degeneracy. …

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