The tradition of anchoritism – of withdrawing from the world to live in solitude – has its roots in the practices of the early Christian desert fathers. In the Benedictine rule, anchoritism is mentioned as an elite form of monasticism: monks who wanted a more rigorous and ascetic life would withdraw from the community and be immured in a solitary cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation, fighting the temptations of the flesh as elite soliders. In the early Middle Ages, hermits followed a similar life of solitude and asceticism, but without the strict enclosure of anchorites. Later in the Middle Ages we find lay men and women entering cells or anchorholds to pursue a life of solitude, prayer and penance without first taking religious vows. An anchorhold was a small room, usually attached to a church, in which the anchorite was symbolically walled up: their vows included stability of abode, and they remained in the anchorhold for the rest of their lives. A servant usually catered for their needs, and a window from the anchorhold into the church allowed them to receive communion.
From the twelfth century onwards, many of these lay anchorites were women – anchoresses – who were often attached to parish churches, becoming wise women for the community. This may have been because there was no available place for them in a convent, especially as the established Benedictine convents in England were almost exclusively aristocratic, and increasing numbers of women from the gentry class seem to have wanted to lead a religious life. Probably the most famous anchoress was Julian of Norwich who was attached to a parish church in Norwich, though she may have been formerly a nun at Carrow. Julian is famous for recording her visions of the dying Christ and interpreting his message of redemption and salvation. Most anchoresses, however, led quiet lives bearing witness to their faith. Some were accused of being gossips, but maybe it should be remembered that the etymology of ‘gossip‘ is from god [deity] and sib [relative]: a gossip was a godparent!
We live in an age which believes self-fulfilment and -development to be the right and duty of an individual (which, indeed, privileges the individual over the community), so it is difficult to comprehend the motivation of someone prepared to renounce their own selfhood and to live a life of chastity and obedience in a small cell, never to leave its walls, but to spend every day in prayer. Anchorites believed their fulfilment, and their reward would come in the next world, not this.