Anchoresses were medieval women who chose to pursue a particularly demanding form of monastic life, namely complete isolation from the world. Once enclosed, they would typically live out their lives in a small cell, servants delivering their food and the priest hearing their confession being the only people with whom they would have contact.
So I was intrigued when I found out that there is a historical novel titled The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallander. What possible story could a life that is by design limited and uneventful inspire?
Sarah is a young woman who vows, after the death of her sister in childbirth, to never risk her life in that way. Over the objections of her father, she secures a benefactor who would sponsor anchorite life, and she is enclosed in a stone cell attached to a small church in the village of Hartham, England.
What should be the end of the story, turns out to be just the beginning because Sarah’s past keeps intruding on her isolation and starts affecting those around her. By degrees we learn that Sarah is not just running away from her grief, but also from something more sinister. Sir Thomas, the son of a local baron, had once tried to seduce her in a violent episode that left her deeply traumatized.
Thomas is upset with Sarah escaping his clutches, and in an act of vengeance rapes her maid Anna, still almost a child, who becomes pregnant and subsequently dies. When the news of the pregnancy spreads through the village, both Anna and Sarah are blamed for the scandal, even though everyone suspects the identity of the father and the circumstances of the conception.
The story unfolds slowly and is interwoven with Sarah’s meditation on faith, vocation, the desirability of the path she had chosen, and the rules to which anchoresses are bound. The life of enclosure begins to take an emotional and physical toll. Will Sarah stay the course, or will she abandon the cell like one of the previous anchoress did?
The Anchoress is about whether it is possible—or wise—to turn one’s back on the world and one’s past. It is also a study of the fear and contempt with which women met for most of history, the abuses they suffered, and the impunity with which those abuses tended to be committed.
I am a great lover of the Middle Ages, and I wrote a novel set in that era. But, despite the great architectural achievements and the strength of monastic learning, it was probably one of the worst times in history to be a woman. With rampant lawlessness and institutional misogyny, it is no wonder that some would have seen their only hope for safety in sealing themselves in a tomb-like cell.
Of course, the great irony, both then and in more recent times, is that many of those abuses were either enabled or covered up by the Church itself.