I am giving this paper at the Medieval Anchorites in their Communities conference to be held at Gregynog Hall, Newtown, Powys, April 22-April 24, 2014; see Anchorites in their Communities
See also a short version of the paper I have published on Academia.edu.
A paper of mine, ‘Was there an anchoress at Colne Priory?’ was published in 2013 by The Essex Society for Archaeology and History. An excavation by Channel 4’s Time Team had uncovered a small cell which may have been that of an anchorite; one of the signatories to three late 12th century charters associated with the priory was Robert, filius recluse. This suggests the presence of a female, presumably widowed, anchorite who was well-enough known in her community to endow her son with a matronymic but who herself remained anonymous.
There is no more evidence than this to go on, but I want to pursue the question of the role of this woman, and women like her, leading solitary lives at the heart of their communities; in the case of the Colne anchorite that would have been the communities of the Priory and of the village. If this small village in north Essex, on the banks of the river Colne and in the patronage of the powerful de Vere family, accepted the presence of an anchorite as part of daily life, how many more anonymous anchorites were there?
One of the interesting aspects of the anchoress of Colne Priory is the combination of material and documentary evidence, paltry and inconclusive though it may be. I am hoping to combine this with the evidence of guidance texts. My present project is on the English translation of the Speculum religiosorum by Edmund of Abingdon; written originally for guidance in the religious life for a member of a religious community, there are also suggestions of its applicability for a solitary. I am also continuing to look at the early-Middle English dialogue, Vices and Virtues, which also mentions the solitary life as being ideal.
Bringing all of this together, I am hoping to be able to say something interesting about solitaries not being at odds with communities, but embedded within them.