Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe

Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe

Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe

Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe


In cities and towns across northern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a new type of religious woman took up authoritative positions in society, all the while living as public recluses in cells attached to the sides of churches. In Lives of the Anchoresses, Anneke Mulder-Bakker offers a new history of these women who chose to forsake the world but did not avoid it.

Unlike nuns, anchoresses maintained their ties to society and belonged to no formal religious order. From their solitary anchorholds in very public places, they acted as teachers and counselors and, in some cases, theological innovators for parishioners who would speak to them from the street, through small openings in the walls of their cells. Available at all hours, the anchoresses were ready to care for the community's faithful whenever needed.

Through careful biographical studies of five emblematic anchoresses, Mulder-Bakker reveals the details of these influential religious women. The life of the unnamed anchoress who was mother to Guibert of Nogent shows the anchoress's role as a spiritual guide in an oral culture. A study of Yvette of Huy shows the myriad possibilities open to one woman who eventually chose the life of an anchoress. The accounts of Juliana of Cornillon and Eve of St. Martin raise questions about the participation of religious women in theological discussions and their contributions to church liturgy. And the biographical study of Margaret the Lame of Magdeburg explores the anchoress's role as day-to-day religious instructor to the ordinary faithful.

Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker is a senior lecturer in history and medieval studies at the University of Groningen.


“For among bees there is a king,” declared Bishop
Robert of Thourotte in Liège in 1246, therefore holy
women must live in communities under a leader.

AT THE MARTINI CHURCH in Groningen, showpiece of a city still young in the thirteenth century, lived an anchoress. Enclosed in her cell, she was devoted to God in a highly conspicuous way. Directly on the Great Marketplace, visible and audible to those passing through the heart of the city, she lived the “life of angels” and functioned as a spiritual intermediary for the faithful of the town.

When a German merchant residing in Groningen once found himself in serious trouble, it was with her that he sought refuge. On one of his trips to the East he had managed to acquire a precious relic—the arm of John the Baptist, he claimed—and had it bricked into the masonry of his house. This made him feel invulnerable. When a large fire broke out in the city—probably the fire of the 1190s—and all the people made frantic attempts to rescue their possessions, he stayed defiantly in the tavern, sure that his house would be safe. This aroused the fury and suspicion of his fellow residents. Feeling that his life was in danger, he entrusted the arm to the recluse and fled from the town.

And so it happened, Caesarius of Heisterbach writes, that Groningen acquired its most precious relic, source of spiritual and material welfare of the city. Because the recluse “could not keep the secret to herself and told someone what had been entrusted to her, who in turn informed the citizenry, the latter immediately carried off the relic and brought it to the church.” Subsequently the arm, displayed in a gilt reliquary and decorated with precious stones, attracted hundreds of pilgrims to the Martini . . .

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