The anchorite's was one of the most extreme of the religious lives of the Middle Ages: it inspired awe in contemporaries, and has held a morbid fascination for modern observers. It was a life of strict and irreversible enclosure, entered into in an elaborate ceremony during which the last rites were administered, and at the conclusion of which the door to the reclusory would be walled up. An anchorite who left their enclosure could be forcibly returned by the authorities, and faced damnation in the hereafter.
And yet, it was a life that continued to attract vocations, and that the rest of society was happy to endorse, throughout the Middle Ages. In England, the earliest examples are recorded from the 11th century. It seems to have been at the height of its popularity in the 13th, for which we can identify some 200 individuals. There is no sign of decline in the 16th century, and anchorites can be found among the religious who were turned out of their houses at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The anchoritic life was embraced by both men and women. The men were almost always priests, but it seems to have been unusual for anchorites of either sex to have been a professed religious (monk, friar or nun) before enclosure. Women outnumbered men throughout the period — perhaps because of medieval prejudices concerning women (whose unruly bodies needed to be kept under strict control), or perhaps simply because the range of religious vocations open to women was more limited than that available to men.
The cell or reclusory was most often sited adjoining the parish church. A narrow window or “squint” looked into the church, and afforded the anchorite a view of the altar. A second window opened on the outside world (often into a parlour) and allowed the anchorite to converse with visitors. Some “cells” had several rooms; some had gardens attached to them.
The solitary life of the anchorite could not be lived alone. A servant was required to bring food and remove waste, and to attend to visitors. Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote an influential “Rule” for anchorites (addressed to his sister), advised having two: an older woman, for her sober influence, and a younger, to do the fetching and carrying. Julian of Norwich had maidservants (at different times) named Sara and Alice. Material support had to be in place before the authorities would sanction enclosure: anchorites had, therefore, to be of independent means. They were also the recipients of alms and grants from all levels of society, from the king down to their fellow parishioners.
In return, anchorites gave themselves entirely to prayer and meditation — interceding for the world, and occasionally (like Julian of Norwich) touching the heights of contemplation — having chosen, like Martha's sister Mary, “the better part”.