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  • Introduction: Anchoritism, Liminality, and the Boundaries of Vocational Withdrawal
  • Michelle M. Sauer

In the past twenty years or so, scholarship focusing on anchorites and hermits has found new life. There was a rush of interest in the early twentieth century, particularly after Rotha Mary Clay’s seminal work The Hermits and Anchorites of England was published.1 Unfortunately, scholars such as J. R. R. Tolkien fostered critical disillusionment early in the twentieth century. He dismissed anchoritic treatises such as Hali Meidenhad and “all accompanying texts,” probably meaning the anchoritic-related texts of the Katherine Group and Wooing Group, as stern and worthless, thereby damaging their already precarious reputation.2 With the upsurge in interest in women’s studies in the 1980s and 1990s, however, came a renewed engagement with many of these texts, since many of them had been written for a female audience. The reintroduction of anchoritic literature to the scholarly conversation has yielded new understandings of the intersection of sexuality and spirituality in particular, but this has not been the only profitable approach. This special issue, for example, focuses on the intersection of this fascinating medieval vocation with the anthropological concept of liminality, or a state of being in transition. The articles all concentrate on medieval Britain and the anchoritic texts produced within that tradition: Guthlac and his lives, Ancrene Wisse (the thirteenth-century guide for anchoresses), the works of the Katherine Group (Sawles Warde, Hali Meidenhad, St Katherine, St Margaret, and St Juliana), Aelred of Rievaulx’s Rule for a Recluse, and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations. While other anchoritic traditions can and should be investigated using these principles, that will need to be taken on in a different venue.

So what exactly was an anchorite? In general, anchorites were men and women who chose to live a life of extreme vocational withdrawal. The tradition derives from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Patristic era who led lives of prayer and contemplation in the Egyptian desert wilderness. These holy men and women developed reputations for piety and drew followers and supplicants. Although they deliberately shunned towns and villages, they [End Page v] also provided for the community in lean times, sharing food and gold as necessary. From these early beginnings, the later European tradition developed. Instead of dwelling in the desert, anchorites resided in small cells often attached to churches but also built on or near chapels in gates or on bridges, constructed as freestanding structures in churchyards, or created in unusual spaces such as underneath chapels and above church rafters. Topographically, these are all somewhat central locations. Churches were both spiritual and social centers of the medieval village, and the other places for cells were all public social areas. Also, conceptually, though these areas are public, bridges and gates are also boundaries—between land and water and between city and country. Significantly, the anchoress, too, exists both as a boundary and between boundaries. She is bound within her cell and bound to keep her body pure; she stands between death and life. Moreover, as women, anchoresses were suspended in a liminal state of social and spiritual development, more than the common male Christian, who could be complete, while she remained in a state of becoming. Anchorholds at gateways can be seen as forming an axis of this transitional state, marking the teleological movement from wilderness (spiritual deprivation) to civilization (spiritual satisfaction).

No matter where the cell was built, however, anchorites were expected to remain in one location. In fact, the vows they took included a vow of stability alongside vows of chastity and obedience: “By my counsel, no anchoress shall make profession, that is promise as vow, except in three matters: these are obedience, chastity, and stability of abode.”3 Before embarking on the life of a recluse, the prospective anchorite had to secure permission from his or her bishop. The anchoritic life was considered the strictest form of devotion; therefore, it was necessary to ascertain that the applicant was truly committed to the vocation. It was also important to determine financial soundness. Once incarcerated, the anchoress became dependent upon her saved financial resources, money from her family, gifts from spiritual children, and the largesse...


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