Academic journal article Magistra

Women of Thf Medieval Anchorhold

Academic journal article Magistra

Women of Thf Medieval Anchorhold

Article excerpt

Introduction: Individual Anchoresses & the Written Word

Anchorites and anchoressses have long been the subject of historical fascination if not the subject of scholarly inteipretation. Parish historians in England, for instance, often made note of odd rooms or chambers in their church buildings - and still do. To some extent, this has given rise to a variety of popular legends about anchorites that are humorously mistaken, such as the notion bandied about in Chester-le-Street that "the anchoress" served as village wise woman and herbalist. Nevertheless, these legends provide hints regarding a fascinating vocation found almost exclusively in the early Church.1

However, just as with many other parts of medieval life, the majority of the names of individual anchoresses have been lost to time. Or, sometimes all we have left of the anchoress might be her name, often noted in a will or other bequest, but very little else. Only rarely do we see the intersection of both name and information; more rarely still, do we have the intersection of name, information, and written text beyond historical record.

Yet despite this relative dearth of individual examples, two of the most important female authors of medieval England have direct ties to the anchoritic tradition. Julian of Norwich, who is perhaps the best-known anchoress throughout the world, is often regarded as the "first female English author," since her book is the first in the English language known to have been female-authored. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the product of a series of visions she experienced while severely ill. Immediately upon recovering, she wrote about her vision in a version that is now commonly known as the Short Text. It consists of 11,000 words in 25 chapters. Some 20 to 30 years later, Julian wrote a theological consideration of her earlier visions, interweaving expositions and explanations with the actual visions. This came to be known as the Long Text, which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,000 words.2

Julian's book is one of the most popular devotional texts from late medieval England and continues to be a source of spirituality even today. As Alexandra Barratt notes, "Julian's texts have had a more robustly continuous life than those of any other Middle English mystic. Their history ... is virtually unbroken since the fifteenth century."3 Academic interest in her has burgeoned as attention to the study of female-authored and female-oriented texts has increased. Similarly, she enjoys a following among the lay populace, and a great many general devotionals feature her works. One of the most admired of these is A 40-Day Journey in the Company of Julian of Norwich: Devotional Readings,4 which follows a common pattem among these texts, combining Julian's actual writings with guided meditations, prayers, and questions to consider. Many other modem editions and adaptations exist. In fact, Julian is venerated as a saint in both the Anglican and Lutheran churches, although she is not canonized in Roman Catholicism.5 She is also a common figure in popular culture, including books, movies, trinkets, jewelry, and other assorted oddities.6

The other significant female English author related to anchoritism is Margery Kempe, long considered to have authored the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe, which was completed in the 1430s. Although Kempe herself was not an anchoress, she consorted with them, and desperately desired to be one. Like several of the other women featured in this volume, including Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy of Montau, Kempe herself was illiterate; therefore, she dictated her life's events to a scribe (or, in her case, to two scribes).

Although modem readers may feel this removes authenticity from authorship, that standard is not so easily applied in the Middle Ages. Unlike the twentieth century, where authorship became identified as a singular product of an individual imagination (thank you, T. …

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