The ultimate isolation chamber
Anchoresses retired from the world in order to discover a new, mystical one
While mystics such as Angela of Foligno chose to get closer to God by becoming prominent, active members of their community, others disappeared from their communities altogether. Women who did this were called ‘anchoresses’ (after the ancient Greek verb anachoreo, which means ‘to retire’ or ‘to withdraw’), and their particularly extreme brand of mysticism saw them enter self-imposed solitary confinement for the rest of their lives.
To become an anchoress, you first had to have enough wealth and status to persuade a bishop to support you. Once you’d done this, you would enter a small cell, usually adjoining a church. As you did so, a priest would read you the death rites (after which you were considered metaphorically dead). And here you would remain, with the cell sealed up behind you, until your death. Sometimes, the anchoress’s grave would be prepared during the ceremony and kept open in the cell, a reminder of her mortality. Her life would now follow a strict religious timetable, involving cycles of prayer and penitence.
To most people today, this may sound like a vision of hell, but it had its attractions back in the 14th and 15th centuries – perhaps because it offered an alternative to the perils of marriage and childbirth.
And while anchoresses condemned themselves to extreme isolation, such enclosure could act as a gateway to another world – that of mystical experience. A number of anchoresses recorded vivid visions which came to them in their tiny cells, visions which could feel more real to them than their everyday life.
Julian of Norwich (1342– c1416), one of the most famous medieval anchoresses, spent most of her enclosed life (in a cell next to St Julian’s Church, Norwich) recording and interpreting a series of visions in which she not only saw Christ bleeding on the cross but also conversed with him about theology. In one particularly evocative moment, she records Christ opening up the wound in his side and showing her the cavernous space inside – big enough to fit all of mankind within.
The anchoress Julian of Norwich spent decades in a bricked-up cell, studying the Bible and experiencing visions of speaking with Jesus