A Day As An Anchorite
Alicia Smith | 17 October 2018
◇ Religious History | European History | Medieval History
In January 2017, an unusual job opening was reported in the international press: an Austrian town seeking a new occupant for its 350-year-old cliffside hermitage. With no modern amenities, no real job description, and no pay, the role was clearly not for everyone – although a candidate was found and has since moved in (along with his dog).
The news value of the story was its strangeness. Religiously motivated solitude is a difficult concept for many modern people to relate to, even the fairly relaxed version practiced in Saalfelden’s hermitage (the hermit only lives there for half the year, and schnapps and cake are always available for visitors).
Medieval reclusion is another level entirely. Can you imagine deciding to spend the rest of your life in a single, small room, every day strictly regulated by the same routine? I can’t – but recently I tried to experience a small part of it, by living a day as an anchorite. I researched, carried out in real time, and recorded my impressions of the prayer routine a thirteenth-century recluse would have used.
The reason I decided to try this ‘experiment’ was to bring my doctoral work to life through experience.
I study literature written for and about anchorites – recluses enclosed in a cell, often beside a church. A big part of the interest for me is the sheer difference of their mindset. Where we prize freedom, comfort, and a social life, medieval anchorites were committed to restriction, discipline, and solitude.
Trying to think myself back into this world is challenging, to say the least. So in my experiment, I focused on the most important part of the anchoritic day: their prayer life. I can’t easily recreate living in a medieval cell or wearing medieval clothes, but I do have an authentic medieval prayer routine for anchorites.
This comes from Ancrene Wisse, a spiritual and practical guidebook written around 1215 for anchoritic women and a central text in my research. I must have read it half a dozen times, but I wanted to know how the routine would work in practice. How much of the day would an anchorite spend praying? And what would that day be like as an experience?
My day began before the sun was up, at 3:30am, with a sequence of Latin prayers to be said as I got up and dressed. The day’s work was well under way before I ate breakfast, with the first Hour of the Daily Office of prayer beginning at sunrise.
The morning was particularly dense with devotional work. I recited various kinds of prayer: Latin and Middle English, verse and prose, well-known and obscure. It wasn’t just speaking, either: there are lots of recommendations for engaging the body, from kneeling repeatedly to crossing yourself to raising your hands. This all built up to mid-morning Mass (I watched a re-enacted version of the medieval rite on Youtube) and a long period of responsory prayer.
By the time I had eaten my midday meal I was tired out – this seems to be something the Ancrene Wisse author expects, as he notes that if his readers are going to have a nap, it should be at this point in the day. I happily followed this part of the routine! The quieter afternoon was punctuated by the remaining Hours, and the final sequence of prayers took place before bed, around 7pm.
By recording the timings of the routine, I established that just under five hours were spent in prayer (counting Mass, closer to six): about the length I expected.
The more striking aspect of practicing the routine in real time, however, was how prayer dominated the shape of the day. I was never more than 90 minutes or so without praying, and so, although I read and worked during the ‘free’ periods, the spiritual posture of prayer – placing myself before God, trying to shape myself to the prescribed words – was a much more continual part of my thinking than I’m used to.
Of course, this kind of re-enactment is limited in experiential terms: I’ll never know what it was like to practise this routine daily, over months and years. But even this small taste helped me appreciate how anchorites gave up the right to order their own time. No one can concentrate on spiritual things continuously, but anchoritism is designed to enable people to turn their lives over to God more completely than anyone else.
There are a few hermits and anchorites around today, but by and large this way of life has vanished. Just like monks and nuns, anchorites seem to have been turned out of their cells under Henry VIII. Their history after that is even more patchy and unwritten than it was before.
Ancrene Wisse, however, had become a popular religious text even for laypeople and was copied and translated multiple times. It played a large part in the developing study of medieval English literature in the twentieth century. A text originally written for just three specific women continues to intrigue and challenge modern readers almost a millenium on.
Experiencing a small part of this ancient lifestyle for myself – echoing the words of eight-hundred-year-old prayers – was a strange, but ultimately illuminating experience.
Bella Millett’s translation of Ancrene Wisse (2005) is very accessible, with an introduction and notes which provide a helpful guide to its context and ideas.
Ann K. Warren’s Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (1985) is a classic and readable study of English anchoritic life.
For a less academic approach, Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress (2015) is a novel which draws extensively on the details and ideas of devotion found in Ancrene Wisse, and also manages to be enjoyable historical fiction.