The cell: real and imagined

He closed the heavy wooden door behind him. Five of us were now shut in this small room about ten paces from end to end, and even fewer across. It was late afternoon in early spring; some sun came through the leadlight windows and candles were burning, but we were glad to have the lights on.AllSaintsSthLynn Interior1

We were at All Saints’, Kings Lynn, in Norfolk, England, and I had come hunting anchorholds. This small room was the oratory for an anchoress — the place where she came to pray; her living space would have been attached to this room, but it wouldn’t have been any bigger.

The priest had said we were very welcome to visit the anchoress’s oratory, but because there was a baptism in the church, we would need to stay there for the next 20 minutes so we didn’t disturb the service. Fine, we said. Sitting in a small room isn’t difficult, is it? We do that often, for short periods of time: an office, a doctor’s waiting roomAllSaintsSthLynnInterior2, a train carriage.

But then we know the room isn’t designed to live in, and we’ll be leaving soon. As I sat with my husband and children in this enclosed space, we chatted about the woman who would have committed herself to stay here for the rest of her life. No ‘twenty minutes and then we can go’, as I told my kids. No leaving at all. With those thoughts and words, the room became a little darker, a little smaller. And we were relieved when the door was opened.

From the outside, we could see how small the oratory was against the size of the church, and on the outer wall were the marks that indicated where the anchoress’s dwelling would have been.

AllSaintsSthLynnExterior All Saints South Lynn

When I tell people the title of my novel, there’s often a pause to digest this strange word, and then the question. ‘So what’s an anchoress?’

Fair enough. It’s not a word you hear every day, and was a complete mystery to me when I first came across it while I was doing research for my thesis. I was reading about the Life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, proclaiming herself a kempe, a hero. In thirteenth-century England, the story had been written down and bound into a collection of texts to be given to anchoresses.

An anchoress freely chose to withdraw from the world in order to commit herself entirely to Christ, denying the world and suffering with him. The anchorholds could vary in size and situation, but most were small, and attached to a church for the safety of the woman enclosed. The anchoresses that most interested me were the ones who were given the Life of St Margaret to read, along with the Lives of St Juliana and St Katherine, and the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses.

In this Rule, the cell is described as having two windows: one through which the maids can provide the anchoress’s daily needs, and a second one, covered with a curtain, that looks out into a parlour where visitors can come for counsel. A third kind of window, usually tiny and often a long, thin slit, was called a squint; it was cut into the church wall and enabled the anchoress to see the altar; a small niche beneath it allowed her to receive the bread at Mass.

The language of enclosure was all about becoming dead to the world, and the enclosure ceremony often included reading the burial rites over the anchoress. In some cases, a grave was dug in the cell as a reminder that she must ‘daily dig the dirt of her own grave’. The door was closed on her, sometimes nailed up, and sometimes bricked up, the confronting physical affirmation of the permanence of her commitment. Evidence about anchoresses is very limited, but it is becoming clear that some women had larger cells, and that some could leave their cell to travel. Nonetheless, the intention was to withdraw as fully as possible from the world, and the women were honoured for their commitment.

It’s very extreme, I know, and at first I was horrified. But contexts of time, place and culture are so important. Women who became anchoresses chose this way of life: their intention was examined by a bishop to be sure they were serious about enclosure, and to be certain that they understood the gravity of their commitment. Some writers have commented that a life of prayer, reading and counselling may have been attractive to an intelligent woman who did not want marriage or the convent. It’s hard to imagine, I know, from our position now.

But that was exactly the challenge for me: not to dismiss these women as foolish, weird and deluded, but to respect the choice they made, and to try to understand it. And so began my imagining into the head and heart of Sarah, my anchoress.

7 comments on “The cell: real and imagined

  1. Val says:

    Hello, A very interesting post, particularly in regard to your own personal experience of staying inside one of the cells to try and get a sense (a little one anyway) of what it might have felt like .I have been fascinated for many years with anchorites as well as hermits. I am sure you know of one of the other well known cells (just the foundation of the actual cell remaining ) of a well documented anchoress In Shere Surrey. I was wondering however, if you are familiar with or have seen a very good film entitled The Anchoress made in 1993 ?~ I think it is a brilliantly crafted film ~ shot in sepia tones and very in keeping with what medieval rural peasant life was like ~ no Hollywood starlets or make up in this film and very like in style to the Danish filmmaker Carl Dryer if you know his work (he did Joan of Arc ) Christopher Ecceleston plays the priest and probably the best known actor in the film apart from one or two others ~I love the fact too that the main character( who is based on a real woman Christine Carpenter, the one from Surrey,) is still so dedicated and immersed in Pagan beliefs despite also believing in the comparatively new god, and how she identifies easily with Mary. It illustrates well I think how very pagan most people would still have been, even if they had accepted Christianity , there would have been so much interwoven and remaining of the old faith and beliefs that it would not resemble what most later Christians would have practiced or thought. If you have not seen it, I would highly recommend it. I think the film comes closest to what life was like during that period and how most illiterate people would have acted and thought than almost all period films I have seen. You might find the film inspiring. Thank you for an interesting post and photos.

    • Hello Val, and thanks for your interesting comment. I’ve seen the remains of the cell at Shere, and the fascinating letters about her plea to be released from, and later, returned to her cell. There’s also a double-storey cell at Chester-le-Street, although it has been changed as the years have passed. And yes, I’ve watched The Anchoress. It’s an intriguing film and I do like it. I’m sure pagan and Christian rituals were interwoven for quite a long time and still are, in many ways — so many Christian rituals and feast days coincide with the pagan (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em). I’m not sure whether The Anchoress is set in England or in a Scandinavian country, though I know that parts of England can be as harsh as the setting in the film. From memory, the film seemed to be creating a strong stylistic atmosphere rather than any particular focus on verisimilitude, and the setting adds enormously to that. I’m not sure when the film is supposed to be set — I thought perhaps a few centuries earlier than Christine’s time, when Christianity was relatively new to England. But I can’t remember it well enough to say. I must watch it again! Thanks for the reminder, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post

      • Val says:

        Hello again Robyn. Thank you for responding so soon. So , obviously, you are very familiar with all I mentioned~ I am glad you have seen the film~ I read not too long ago that it was supposed to be based on Christine although the time period was changed ~ dramatic license I guess. I do not know whether you are even supposed to pay any heed to where exactly the story is set as you say, it is hard to say whether it was England, Poland, Scandinavia or several possible European countries ~ . You are right , there is a strong stylistic atmosphere created and not so much emphasis in telling Christine’s story per se~ Perhaps the filmmaker read about Christine but decided he wanted it set during the earlier period while Christianity was still relatively new? I am not sure of any of those aspects of the film, but I have long been intrigued as to just what people newly confronted with a monotheistic faith would have thought and how difficult it would be to let go of many ideas and ways of looking at the world> I know that proponents of Christianity were clever enough to realise they must make that transition as easy as possible so left the sacred sites intact but built a church there atop the mound or in the grove ect and feast days coincided with the feast days of pagan observances. It is all fascinating anyway~ I only just discovered your website and your books so am looking forward to reading them! Thank you again. All the best.

  2. Omid says:

    I am currently in the midst of a reading challenge to read fifty books this year (http://www.popsugar.com/love/Reading-Challenge-2015-36071458) and searched online to get an idea of possible titles. I narrowed my search to that of women and was immediately attracted to ‘The Anchoress’ because of my interest in Blessed Julian of Norwich.

    I am very much looking forward to your novel and hope to meet you in person, as I live in the region. Best wishes.

  3. Omid says:

    Thanks for the website link! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s