The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

22929570Anchoresses 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.

4 thoughts on “The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

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  1. It does sound like an interesting book, although I disagree with the conclusion that ‘it was one of the worst times in history to be a woman’. Maybe it was in the church, but in secular society women could inherit and administer land, run businesses, and even bring a case in the courts. There were female authors in the Middle Ages, as well as a considerable number of powerful women in the political sphere.

    Medieval woman arguably had more rights over property and who they married than they did in the ancient world. Certainly, there were inequalities, and there was misogyny- mostly from the church, but there were times when it was worse. For instance, contrary to popular opinion, adultery was never a capital offense in the Middle Ages – that was a trope from Arthurian Literature. The Puritans briefly made it so, but not Medieval people. Medieval women could even divorce their husbands on certain grounds: I can think of a couple of examples on the grounds of non-consummation and force.

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    1. Thank you for commenting on my post. You are right in many ways, which is why I wrote that it was “one of the worst times”, not “the worst time”. Also, the fact that the Church was the source of misogyny and inequality cannot be seen as mere blip in the otherwise (supposedly) female-friendly medieval world. The Church was immensely powerful, its teachings permeated every facet of life – public, domestic, even intimate, and that made its attitude towards women unavoidable to said women in everyday life. Finally, yes, there were powerful women in the Middle Ages, but they were either royal wives or daughters, or women who claimed to have visionary experiences. Outside of this narrow group, few had access to education or were accorded sufficient respect. Those who ran businesses were typically widows who inherited them from their late husbands (in most cases taverns, inns, etc.) and experienced regular harassment in the course of running their business. This forced many to remarry, at which point the business would be taken over and become the property of their new husband.

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  2. There were great women doctors of the church during middle ages like Saints Teresa of Ávila (St. Teresa of Jesus) Catherine of Siena; Thérèse de Lisieux ; St. Hildegard of Bingen, while there were a hundred or so Saints that are too many to list here. Most of these women led monastic lives, without which they would not have become saints in the first place.

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