Anchoritic Spirituality in Medieval England:

The Form, the Substance, the Rule



A small number of women in England from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries deliberately pursued the harsh, isolated, and ascetic religious life of the anchoress.  Details of their peculiar lifestyle have been scantily documented, probably because they were so few in number.[1]  The fact that a number of women chose such a difficult and restrictive way of life suggests that the alternatives may have been even worse, and in fact that was often the case.  The anchorhold provided a way to escape domesticity, childbearing, and communal life in the convent, and offered at the same time a sure path to holiness and the high esteem of one’s peers.  Anchoresses ranked high among mulieres sanctae of the Middle Ages.[2]

Just what was an anchoress? Lina Eckenstein provides the following definition in her discussion of Ancrene Wisse:  "The 'ancre,' or recluse, called in Latin inclusa, is the nun who, after receiving a convent education, lives a holy life away from the nunnery, and it is for 'ancren,' or nuns of this type, that the book [Ancrene Wisse] . . . was written."[3]  The word anchoress comes from the Greek anachoretes,  meaning "one who has withdrawn."  The author of the Ancrene Wisse played on the word "anchor," using it in the traditional sense of being anchored to something -- in this case, the actual church building: 


The bird of night under the eves signifies recluses, who dwell under the eaves of a church because they understand that they ought to be of so holy a life that all Holy Church . . . can lean upon them and trust them while they hold her up with their holiness of life and their blessed prayers.  This is why an anchoress is called an anchoress, and is  anchored under a church like an anchor under the side of a ship, to hold that ship so that waves and storms do not overturn it.  In the same way all Holy Church, which is called a ship, must anchor on the anchoress.[4]


The anchoress, then, was a devout woman who chose to live a solitary life, enclosed in a cell and “anchored” to the church. 

The anchoritic lifestyle was a peculiarly English phenomenon, and a predominantly female one.  A few anchoresses lived on the continent, but England had a disproportionate number of women recluses.  Several possible explanations have been posited as to why this movement came about in England in the twelfth century, and it is likely that a number of factors contributed to its growth.

One interesting and probably unintentional result of the popularity of the anchorhold for medieval English women was that an entire sub-genre of male-authored devotional literature was created specifically to address the unique living situation of the anchoress.  Many of these treatises have survived, and they provide a fascinating picture of the way women were perceived by men, as well as the myriad ways in which religious men attempted to shape the lives and behaviors of religious women.  Feminist criticisms notwithstanding, these texts serve to document male support and encouragement of female sanctity.  In fact, most of them bear a remarkable resemblance to devotional works written for men during the same period, so the common feminist argument for gender bias is not only anachronistic but highly dubious.

Autobiographical works by anchoresses, such as those of  Julian of Norwich and Christina of Markyate, provide another perspective on the anchoritic lifestyle.  Christina’s life describes the lengths to which one woman was willing to go to honor her commitment to a life of chastity.  It also offers clues about how anchorholds which housed one or two women occasionally grew into communities of up to twenty women.  Julian’s work is a fascinating example of the spiritual fruits of female solitude; unlike Christina’s book, Julian’s Revelations is more theological treatise than autobiography.

Although medieval English women’s lives were controlled to a large extent by church and state (as were the lives of most men), women throughout history have found various ways of circumventing male control and influence.  The anchorhold provided one way.



The development of the anchoritic movement in twelfth-century England is usually attributed to the increase in religious fervor and the enthusiasm for affective piety which  took place on the continent at around the same time.  Monastic reforms, like those initiated at Cluny, were apparent in England, as in France, Germany, and Italy, and the popularity of asceticism had also made its way across the Channel, but the peculiar lifestyle of the anchorite was largely confined to England. Elkins suggests that one explanation for the popularity of the anchorhold may have been an Anglo-Saxon reaction to the imposition of Norman rule and spirituality:  “Because several of the hermits and hermitesses had Anglo-Saxon names, they may reflect a reappropriation of the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic eremitic heritage in the face of imported Norman ideas of monastic spirituality.”[5]  It could certainly be argued that the intensely emotional spirituality of mystics like Angela of Folignio, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Francis of Assisi did not appeal to the more restrained English temperament.  For example, Margery Kempe, a later English mystic, engaged in extravagant emotion-charged public demonstrations, and was far more often the object of scorn and derision than of reverence.[6]  Early English spirituality tended to focus much more on the interior life than on exterior manifestations of piety, and this interior focus intensified in the High Middle Ages.[7]

However, Anglo-Saxon loyalties and differences in ethnic temperament cannot fully explain the anchoritic movement in England, nor do they account for the disproportionate number of women who entered the anchorhold.  A number of social, cultural, and political factors came together in just the right combination in the twelfth century for English women to find the anchorhold an attractive option.  Although there were male anchorites in England, they were greatly outnumbered by women, at times by a ratio as high as five to one.[8]  The anchoritic lifestyle had a particular appeal for English women, for a number of reasons.

In the century after the Norman Conquest, England experienced major social and cultural shifts.  The imposition of Norman rule on the Anglo-Saxons resulted in dramatic changes in language, domestic life, law, and religion.  In general, these changes did little or nothing to enhance the status of women, and in many areas, women lost considerable power and privilege under the Normans. 

While women had enjoyed substantial legal rights under Anglo-Saxon law, under the Normans many of these rights were summarily eliminated.[9]  Feudalism reduced women to chattel, and primogeniture made the acquisition of inherited property all but impossible.  Under Norman law, marriage was far less attractive to women than it had been under Anglo-Saxon rule.[10]  The legal and social status of an unmarried woman was uncomfortably precarious unless she entered a convent.[11]  A married woman might achieve some autonomy after the death of her husband, but with widowhood came increased responsibility, squabbles with children over property, and the possibility of another marriage arranged by her late husband’s lord, in which case all her property would be transferred to her new husband.[12]  In addition to the routine hardships of domesticity, the rigors of repeated pregnancy and childbearing shortened women’s lives, and the high infant mortality rate undoubtedly took its toll on women’s psychological as well as physical well-being. 

The religious life offered the only escape from endless domestic toil for women, but there, too, English women’s choices were limited, due in part to the paucity of post-Conquest nunneries.  According to the Domesday survey, only eight Anglo-Saxon nunneries remained in England after the Conquest, and these were crowded with noblewomen who had fled the violence of war.[13]  As in continental Europe, English convents had long been centers of learning for women; with fewer convents, intellectual opportunities for women declined sharply after the arrival of the Normans.[14]  Of course, for lower-class women, the nunnery had never been an option.  Convents welcomed only noblewomen whose families could make substantial contributions to the support of the community.[15]  

Religious women on the continent, even those of limited means, had several options from which to choose, as new forms of Christian piety were developed. Francis of Assisi, the best-known advocate of the vita apostolica, counted several women among his followers, although women were not permitted to pursue the mendicant life.[16]  Newer religious orders that skated dangerously close to heresy -- at least as it was defined in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries -- counted many women among their ranks.  Women were affiliated with groups such as the Humiliati and the Fraticelli,  as well as other groups not officially sanctioned by the Church, and heretical sects such as the Cathari in the south of France welcomed women, and attracted them in large numbers.  Beguine communities offered women the opportunity to pursue lives of service to the poor, combined with the Franciscan ideal of apostolic poverty—and without the restrictions of enclosure.  England, on the other hand, was still a bastion of orthodoxy.

No evidence exists for the presence of Beguines in England, and few heretical or unorthodox sects made their way that far north.  Elkins theorizes that the unwillingness of male clerics to perform sacramental services for religious women on the continent led women to join heretical sects and fringe groups, but she argues that, based on the evidence, English men had no such reluctance.[17]  This situation may explain, at least in part, why the Beguine lifestyle did not become popular in England.  Male religious figured prominently in the lives of English recluses.  Unlike the Beguines, who were largely unsupervised by male clergy, anchoresses enjoyed close relationships with male religious, a circumstance which apparently did not pose any insurmountable problems for the English.[18]  Nevertheless, a contemplative lifestyle was difficult for women to achieve.

Life in a medieval English convent was only marginally better than life as a married woman.  The average monastery did not lend itself to a quiet existence of uninterrupted contemplation, for men or women.[19]   A woman entering a convent and seeking a contemplative life might be dismayed to find that she had to take on time-consuming duties in convent administration, housekeeping, and even farming.  Since a convent was supposed to be self-supporting, the nuns were responsible for earning their living as well as for rountine maintenance and upkeep on their property.  Ironically, the more ascetic and devout a woman was, the more likely she was to be elected abbess, a position which entailed even greater and more time-consuming responsibilities. The anchorhold, grim and unpleasant though it may have been, may well have seemed preferable for a woman of contemplative habits when compared with the available alternatives

Hermits and solitaries were not new to the English landscape, and Clay described several types of solitary religious lifestyles, some of which had existed in England since the time of the Roman occupation.[20]  Male hermits still lived and roamed in England, but by the twelfth century, women’s lives were more tightly circumscribed, partly due to the ever-present possibility of male violence, and it was no longer safe for a lone woman to wander about begging alms or to live in the forest, as her male counterpart might do.[21]  A woman seeking the contemplative solitary life of a recluse (or a woman who just wanted to be left alone) had to be enclosed, for her own safety if for no other reason.

The decision to live as an enclosed recluse was not one that could be made lightly, or even alone.  It was not easy to become an anchoress;  the process was quite complicated.  A nun or pious lay woman first had to obtain permission and approval from the bishop, and from the nobleman who was responsible for the church to which she wanted to become "anchored," in some cases the king.  She had to then be examined as to her faith and beliefs, to ensure that she was not harboring any heretical notions, and her reasons for wanting to become an anchoress were questioned at length.  She had to have members of her religious community, or in the case of a lay woman, her family and neighbors, as well as anyone else who knew her and was willing to vouch for her character, testify to her purity and fitness for solitary religious life.[22]

Once the fitness of her character had been ascertained, the aspiring anchoress had to prove that she had some way to support herself, so as not to be a burden on the church or the community.  She might accomplish this by placing money or future income from land holdings in trust with the lord, and arranging for those monies to be paid to her as a pension for the rest of her life.  Less commonly, a woman might persuade a wealthy relative or friend to act as her patron, and guarantee her a small income, sufficient to feed and clothe her.  If a woman became ill or impoverished after enclosure, the bishop or lord would usually see to it that she was cared for.  The anchorage frequently appealed to widows who had found communal life in a convent less than satisfying; such women usually had at least some control over their husbands' estates, and could arrange an income for themselves.  It was not uncommon for women to have royal patronage, as such benevolence provided kings with a way to prove their virtue.  The anchoress earned heavenly grace for both herself and her patron.[23]

            The enclosure itself was an elaborate formal religious ceremony.  The ceremony included a Requiem Mass and a procession which escorted the postulant to the anchorhold.  The cell was blessed and censed by the celebrant, and since the anchoress would henceforth be "dead" to the world, she was given the Last Rites.  Finally, after she had affirmed one last time her desire for enclosure, she was enclosed within her cell, attached to the church, ostensibly to live in solitude for the rest of her life. Several enclosure ceremonies were in use, and although the details differed, the ritual form was essentially the same in all of them.[24]  The ceremonies often referred to the anchoress being admitted to “the order of ancress.”  The reference must have been to the consecrated lifestyle, rather than to a specific order, as no formal order for anchoresses ever existed; women entered the reclusoria from several religious orders, and often from no order at all.[25]

            The descriptions of the enclosure rituals suggest a life of extreme asceticism and deprivation, and some anchoresses actually lived solitary, ascetic lives.  For the most part, however, the reality was somewhat different than one might expect.  A life of "solitude" might include the company of a cook, a laundress, and a personal maid.  The ritual of enclosure, carried out with a distinct air of burial-like finality, was actually symbolic;  anchoresses had occasional visitors in their cells, and their servants were able to come and go at will.  Each cell contained a window looking into the church, from which the anchoress might receive the sacraments, and another window facing the street. The anchoress herself was not at liberty to leave, but this did not mean that others could not approach.  Most communication with the outside world took place from the anchoress's small street-facing window, but that provided many opportunities for socialization with visitors and passers-by, opportunities so tempting that Ancrene Wisse's author cautioned the anchoress to "love your window as little as you possibly can," and provided detailed instructions  regarding the draping of the window.[26]

            A few anchorholds existed which housed more than one woman. The three anchoresses for whom the Ancrene Wisse  was written shared their space with two female servants. Usually in such an arrangement, each woman had her own cell, much as in a convent, but although the women prayed and said the Office in private, they often shared a dining area (and a cook) and other living space.  They heard Mass as a group, and engaged in other communal activities.  These women could hardly be called "hermits," although technically they were anchoresses -- they were "anchored" to the church, and had vowed to remain so.  But with a staff of servants, a roommate or two, and an occasional guest, their lives were hardly solitary.

            The multi-occupant anchorhold occasionally became the site of a larger religious community.  Anchoresses, because of their reputations for holiness, often attracted disciples who sought them out for spiritual guidance, and it was not uncommon for the disciples to form their own groups, centered around the anchorhold.  Christina of Markyate, for example, began her religious life as an anchoress, but she eventually attracted a group of followers, and she and her group established Markyate Priory in 1145, under the sponsorship of St. Albans Abbey.[27]  This phenomenon mirrors the development of male cenobitic communities which originally formed around a solitary monk, in what Thompson refers to as “the slide to cenobitism.”  Markyate Priory was far from unique; a good number of English convents began in just this way.[28]

            Anchoritic  accommodations, regardless of the number of occupants, were not gracious by any means.  Clay noted that the anchorite’s cell was known by several names: “domus anachoritae, reclusorium, inclusorium, reclusagium, and anchoragium.”  She provided the following description drawing from Grimlaic’s Regula Solitariorium:


Grimlaic . . . directs that the dwelling be very small and surrounded, if possible, by an enclosed garden.  Two anchorites might share a single chamber. If the recluse had disciples, they dwelt in a separate apartment and served [her] though the window. . . . A Bavarian rule directs that the cell be of stone, 12 feet square.  Through one window, towards the choir, the recluse partook of the Blessed Sacrament; through another, on the opposite side, she received food; a third, closed with glass or horn, lighted the dwelling.[29]



The cell was attached to the church or cathedral wall, or less often, a monastery.  Not all cells were as small as twelve feet square, but none were spacious.  A few cells actually became the burial chamber of the inhabitant; most were passed on to a new occupant after the death of the anchoress.

Once sealed inside her cell, the anchoress was dependent upon the good will of her patron for the necessities of life. Unlike nuns, who were mostly from aristocratic families, anchoresses came from every social group.  It was not unusual for the servant of an anchoress to succeed her mistress in the anchorhold.[30]  If the recluse was without funds of her own, patronage became her only means of support.  Patronage assumed many forms, from bequests and one-time gifts to cells endowed in perpetuity.  An endowed cell was greatly to be preferred, since the patron (and often his heirs) was under a contractual obligation to provide alms to the cell inhabitant.[31]  An under-endowed anchoress could usually count on support from the surrounding community.  Although the anchoress took no formal vow of poverty, she lived a frugal life.  Warren noted that: “The typical royal rate for an anchorite pension during the twelfth century and on into the thirteenth was one penny per day (30s. 5d. per annum) and it was adequate to sustain an anchorite household.”[32]

Much of the daily routine of the anchoress was taken up with a series of prayers and devotions.  Since anchoresses were under exhortation to always keep busy, even if they had a secure income, they usually had some kind of handwork to do.  Several of them did needlework, made church vestments, and sewed clothing for the poor. If their funds were adequate, they simply gave the clothing away or turned it over to the church for distribution.  Anchoresses also wrote, copied manuscripts, and even did illuminations;  it is believed, for example, that part of the work on the Lindisfarne Gospels was completed by women recluses.[33]

Anchoresses who were nuns (not all were) had had formal religious training in the convent, and had made a profession of vows to an order prior to enclosure, but little in their earlier training prepared them for the anchoritic life.  Formal rules, such as the Benedictine and Augustinian, focused primarily on the problems of communal living.  Enclosed recluses did not live under the constraints of these rules, and in fact there was never an official rule devised specifically for anchoresses.  Male clerics occasionally undertook the writing of handbooks for female anchoritic life, almost always at the request of the anchoresses.  These authors include Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Aelred of Rievaulx, and the anonymous author of Ancrene Wisse.[34]



The Ancrene Wisse, or "Guide for Anchoresses," was written very early in the thirteenth century, to serve as a book of rules for living for three anchoresses, sisters who shared an anchorhold.  It was later modified for use by other recluses.  In its earliest appearance, it is one of a group of devotional works for women, collectively known as the Katherine Group, written in England between 1200 and 1230.[35]  The author of Ancrene Wisse is not known with certainty; although E. J. Dobson, in his 1976 work The Origins of Ancrene Wisse, made a compelling case for Brian of Lingen, a secular Augustinian canon, as the author, more recent scholarship by Bella Millett suggests that the earlier assumption of Dominican authorship may have been correct.  Millett argues:


The closest parallels to contemporary monastic legislation seemed to be rather with the earliest Dominican constitutions, and while the Dominicans had drawn heavily on Augustinian customs, the model they used was . . . the Premonstratensian statutes. . . . The assumption of Dominican authorship for Ancrene Wisse would explain a number of its features which are otherwise problematic.[36]


Dominican or Augustinian, the author of  Ancrene Wisse drew heavily from an earlier work by Aelred of Rievaulx, A Rule of Life for a Recluse (De Institutione Inclusarum), written by Aelred for his sister, who was a recluse.[37]  Like Aelred, the author of Ancrene Wisse was not free of the prejudices of his time. His sentiments, "In the body there is filth and weakness.  Does not there come out of a vessel whatever is in it? . . . Are you not come from foul slime?  Are you not a vessel of filth?" are not exclusive to this text, or even very unusual.[38]  The author, thoroughly trained in the theology of his day, railed against the intrinsic evils of the female body with the same fervor exhibited by any other medieval religious writer.  However, he also demonstrated a deep concern for the interior spiritual growth of the women he counseled, and his use of the standard anti-female conventions is balanced to a great extent by the tenderness and solicitude with which he directed the anchoresses who looked to him for guidance. 

Male-authored devotional texts such as Ancrene Wisse are frequently criticized by feminist scholars for their emphasis on the female body as the source of sin, for their general misogyny, and for the distorted views of women which they represent.[39]  The arguments presented in feminist analyses frequently fail to position the texts within an appropriate cultural and historical framework, however, and attempts to superimpose postmodern rhetoric on medieval devotional literature usually fail.  A more realistic approach might be to examine a text like Ancrene Wisse within its own context, taking into consideration such factors as why and for whom the text was written, earlier texts upon which the author drew, and how the text was used by its intended audience.  Another useful method of interpretation is a comparison of texts like Wisse with similar works directed at male audiences, although this methodology is seldom attempted by feminist scholars.  An analysis of Ancrene Wisse within an appropriate historical and socio-cultural context suggests that the author’s intention was not to warp the psyches of the women for whom he wrote, but rather to offer them a path to self-discovery and a superior spirituality.

Ancrene Wisse consists of two parts, one dealing briefly with the "outer" rule, the other addressing the "inner" rule in much greater detail. Of the "outer rule," the eighth and last part of the work,  the author states, "you should not in any way promise to keep any of the exterior rules as though under a vow . . . Compared with what has gone before they are of little importance."[40]   The author clearly believed that outer observances were merely the vehicle by which the more important inner observances might be more easily attained.  Far from being an anti-female text,  Ancrene Wisse provides an example of male recognition, support, and encouragement of the quest of female religious for a deeper spirituality, a quest that would eventually bear such mystical fruit as Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love.

Although much of Ancrene Wisse is comparable to devotional texts written for monks and thus predictable, in terms of its repeated cautions against yielding to temptation, entertaining inappropriate guests, and engaging in extreme, life-threatening acts of penance, and its exhortations to pray, read, and keep constantly busy, parts of it reveal an intriguing originality of symbolism.  For example, the author compared the anchoresses to birds: pelicans, which kill their own chicks (their good works) in anger, but then tear at their breast in repentance, until the chicks are brought back to life; eagles, which keep agate in their nests so that no poisonous thing may enter (the agate of the anchoress is the love of Christ); and the night bird, which "flies by night and gathers food in the darkness. In the same way an anchoress must fly by night toward heaven with contemplation -- that is, with high thought and with holy prayers – and gather her soul-food by night."[41]  The author has employed vivid animal symbolism as a teaching tool, in a way that allowed the anchoresses, confined indoors for life, to imagine themselves soaring, like owls, through the night sky.

The creative use of animal imagery is apparent in other contexts throughout the text.  For example, as Lucinda Rumsey observed, "Ancrene Wisse is the first extant English text systematically to equate each of the Seven Deadly Sins with a specific animal."[42]  Beasts had been used to represent sin and to allegorize man's baser instincts since the earliest days of Christianity.  What is remarkable here is the creativity with which the author of Ancrene Wisse used the medieval bestiary to provide the visually deprived anchoresses with a set of imaginative meditation images. 

His representations include the lion of pride, the serpent of envy, the unicorn of anger, the bear of sloth, the fox of covetousness, the sow of gluttony, and the scorpion of lechery.   Each of these animals/sins is discussed at length, along with its numerous offspring -- except the scorpion, of which the author says, "The scorpion of lechery, that is, of lustfulness, has such offspring that the very names of some of them cannot properly be mentioned by a well-mannered mouth . . . I dare not name the unnatural offspring of this devil’s scorpion with its poisonous tail."[43] 

The sin of lust was believed to be an especially dangerous one for women, since they could incur guilt in two different ways:  first, by yielding to their own lustful desires, and second, by arousing such desires in the hearts of men, whether innocently or not – what Ancrene Wisse’s author refers to as “uncovering the pit” whereby a man might fall into sin.[44]  But the author’s primary intention seems to have been to protect the women from the harmful acts of others.  When he listed “some reasons why one ought to flee the world,” he wrote, ”The first is security.  If a mad lion was running through the street, would not a sensible woman shut herself in at once?”[45]  The anchoresses for whom he wrote were known for their chastity and virtue; it is likely that he was more concerned about the dangers of their being exposed to the unwanted and possibly dangerous attentions of men than that they would be carried away by their own uncontrollable lusts.

Uncontrollable lust was undoubtedly a greater problem for male contemplatives than for women, a fact which was recognized by authors of devotional texts.  Treatises directed at male recluses stressed bodily self control to at least as great an extent as Ancrene Wisse, a fact usually overlooked in feminist interpretations.  Robertson states: “Texts written for women therefore focus on training the willful body,” and further, “Women are taught to control their bodies.”[46]  Her statements are true, but misleading, in that they imply that only women were instructed to control their bodies.  Men received the same kinds of admonitions. 

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for example, entreated his young disciple: “For the love of God control your body . . . with great care,” and further instructed him: “Unless it is ruled by grace in the will, and controls its strong desires, [sensuality] will wallow, like some pig in the mire, so wretchedly . . . in the filth of the flesh, that the whole of its life will be animal and physical rather than human and spiritual.”[47]  Thomas à Kempis wrote, “I feel in my flesh the law of sin strongly fighting against the law of spirit . . . leading me like a slave to obey sensuality in many things . . . I cannot resist the passions of sensuality unless Your grace assists me.”[48]  Richard Rolle wrote treatises for men as well as for women.  In his best-known work, The Fire of Love, he elaborates so extensively on the theme of the dangers of male lust and lack of self-control that the reader can discern an autobiographical quality, reminiscent of Augustine, in his words:


He who looks at a woman with natural affection yet not with lustful desires finds he is unable to keep free from illicit urges or unclean thoughts. . . . Be wise, then, and flee from women.  Do not ever think about them, because even if a woman is good, the devil’s attack and his insinuations, the attraction of her beauty, and the weakness of your flesh can beguile your will beyond measure (emphasis added).[49]


Rolle is not suggesting any evil intent on the part of the woman, but rather he is emphasizing male lack of self-control. 

It is interesting to note that the author of Ancrene Wisse does imply evil intent on the part of men.  “Yes, my dear sisters, if anyone is eager to see you, never believe good of it, but trust it the less.”[50]  Especially were clerics to be distrusted, and the author reminded his charges, “’But defend yourselves and be wary,’ says our Lord, ‘for many come to you hidden in lamb’s fleece, and are mad wolves’ . . . trust secular priests little, religious still less.”[51]  These entreaties, much like those of Richard Rolle, seem to stress male incontinence and female vulnerability more than the insatiable carnal lust of women.

Interestingly, the author does not implore the women to rid themselves of fleshly desires and erotic feelings.  Instead, he redirects their tender feelings to a more appropriate recipient, Jesus.  The imagery of Jesus as Lover is woven throughout the entire text of Ancrene Wisse.  Within this framework, a comparison of two contemporary analyses is instructive.  Robertson’s feminist interpretation of the text finds that “the work defines a woman’s relationship to Christ in terms of her body,”  that the Wisse author emphasized his “assumption that his female audience cannot escape its essentially lustful nature,” and that through the text, “women are taught to control their bodies.”[52]   Bartlett, however, identifies a different focus.  She quotes from Ancrene Wisse: 


Stretch out your love to Jesus Christ.  You have won him!  Touch him with as much love as you sometimes feel for a man.  He is yours to do with all that you will. . . . So exceedingly does he love that he makes her his equal.  I dare to say even more  -- he makes her his sovereign and does all she commands, as if from necessity.[53]


Bartlett notes that this text provides an interesting reversal of the courtly love theme, in that it presents the female lover as the one with agency, rather than as a passive object, while Christ is portrayed as the “acquiescent partner.”  She argues: “This scenario fully legitimizes the physical desires of the female audiences, an extraordinary move in a gender system that routinely associates the feminine with the uncontrollable flesh and sexual excess.”[54]  The author of Ancrene Wisse may or may not have perceived the female nature as essentially and inescapably lustful, but it is fairly clear that he was quite comfortable with encouraging the anchoresses to think of themselves as the spouses of Christ, literally as well as figuratively.  It can further be argued that this represents a relationship with Christ to which only women had access, so that, far from stigmatizing women in a negative way, it actually enhanced their status.

Feminist scholars have been bitterly critical of some of the admonitions directed at the recipients of the Ancrene Wisse;  one writer refers to the "singularly tactless regulations" imposed on the women by the author,  and another describes the work as "obsessed with the body, and especially with marking its boundaries through prohibitory practices."[55]  Beckwith argued that this obsessive focus on the body effectively negates the medieval idea that the body itself is without value, and not worthy of notice.  Certainly this observation is valid, but from a gender-specific perspective, it is doubtful that women were as heavily invested in anti-body rhetoric as men.  Writings by women from this period and from earlier periods in the history of the Church suggest that women were mildly amused by men’s obsession with physicality, and ignored many of their anti-body exhortations.[56]  Medieval women were much more matter-of-fact about their bodies than were men.  The reality of their selves as physical bodies was, for women, simply accepted as fact.

It can further be argued that such criticisms fail to accurately assess Ancrene Wisse within its cultural and historical context.  Certainly the text is "obsessed with the body," but nearly all religious literature (and a great deal of secular literature) of the Middle Ages was similarly obsessed.  It was not only female literature that emphasized the body; Caroline Bynum observes: “Indeed, wherever we turn in the later Middle Ages we seem to find the theme of the body – and of the body in all its aspects, pleasure as well as pain.”[57]  Medieval Christianity emphasized the physicality of Christ as a flesh and blood human being, and women religious were even more attracted to body symbolism than men.  Women’s lived experience as physical bodies made them more open to considerations of Christ as a physical body; as Bynum notes, “The humanity of Christ, understood as including his full participation in bodiliness, was a central and characteristic theme in the religiosity of late medieval women.”[58]  She continues: “To women, the notion of the female as flesh became an argument for women’s imitatio Christi through physicality.  Subsuming the male/female dichotomy into the more cosmic dichotomy divine/human, women saw themselves as the symbol for all humanity.”[59] 

While it is generally accepted that many medieval clerics were obsessed with what they believed to be women's insatiable sexual appetites, evidence exists which indicates that women were not. Chastity was viewed very differently by women and men.  Many women did not seem to experience sexual abstinence as deprivation, unlike men, who identified celibacy with sacrifice.[60]  It is therefore reasonable to assume that medieval women would not have responded to chastity-related directives with the same sense of  feminist outrage as a twentieth-century reader.

The oft-repeated admonitions in Ancrene Wisse about guarding one's virtue, to the extent that the women were told not to talk with any men other than priests, not to look out the cell window at a man lest the sight of her tempt him, not to permit any male to even touch her hand -- these must be considered in the appropriate context.  Did the author belabor this point because he doubted the virtue of these women, or because he knew men's proclivities, feared for the safety of the anchoresses, and was simply advising them to keep themselves out of harm's way?  As mentioned, these women were renowned for their holiness and virtue, and the AW author mentions that several times. His concern for them, their health, spiritual and emotional well-being, and peace of mind, are apparent throughout the text, and suggest that he was at least as concerned about  their welfare as he was with controlling their behavior.

A comparison of Ancrene Wisse with texts which were ostensibly written for a male audience reveals that nearly all of the prohibitions and cautions which were directed at women were also directed at men.  Even the admonitions against too much talking are mirrored in other texts.  Robertson observes, “The idea of a female audience guides the author’s choice of structure, theme, and imagery.  [Women] are to be silent.  The cackling Eve must be transformed into the passive, silent Mary.”[61]  Again the implication is that only women were so instructed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Many devotional texts emphasized the importance of silence for contemplatives, male or female.  The Rule of St. Benedict devotes an entire chapter to the subject.[62]  Benedict directed, “On account of the great value of silence (propter taciturnitatus grauitatem), let leave to speak be seldom granted to observant disciples.”[63]  Bynum notes that nearly all monastic authors stressed the importance of silence, as a way to avoid sin and as an enhancement to meditation.[64]

 It would be difficult to identify an exhortation in Ancrene Wisse which is not echoed in a work intended for men.  It is difficult to construct an argument for male bias against women based on devotional texts alone.  While the misogyny of the Middle Ages is well-documented, and these devotional texts are not by any means free of misogynist statements and erroneous presumptions about women, it must be stated that the feminist criticisms most often leveled at works like Ancrene Wisse tend to mistakenly focus on parts of the texts which are not really gender-inflected.

Some of the author's instructions seem tactless to a twentieth-century mind, but  the women themselves had requested his direction, probably enumerating specific problems that they had encountered, and the author apparently attempted to address them in a helpful way, as gently, lovingly, and imaginatively as he could.  In the manner of all medieval ascetics, he spent an inordinate amount of time on overcoming the "filthy burden" of the body, and like most writers of this period, stressed the evils of the flesh far more than sins like envy and lack of charity--sins which would find little outlet in the anchorhold.  Emphasis on the physicality of sin was a commonplace in medieval religious writings.

 But he also addresses the women frequently as "dear sisters," repeatedly praises their virtue, humbly asks for their prayers, and admonishes them to set prayer and fasting aside and take care of themselves when they are ill or fatigued.  At one point he instructs them to eat twice a day and mentions that it seems to him that they are not eating enough.    It is evident that the author held these women in high regard.  His  warnings about guarding against too much socializing at the cell window may have been  intended to protect the women from missing too sharply what they had given up -- home, family, the company of others.  It is important to remember that enclosure was a choice freely made, and one that resulted in the anchoresses becoming objects of tremendous respect, even reverence.

This circumstance presents some interesting questions regarding medieval women religious.  It is easy to conclude, from a reading of early medieval theology (much of which is, admittedly, virulently misogynist) that women religious were less valued than their monastic brothers.  Such a conclusion, however, is not supported by the evidence.  Because of the theological premise that women were more lustful, more susceptible to many types of temptation, it was thought to be much more difficult for women to embrace a life of asceticism.  Women who did so were actually seen as holier than religious men, because it was presumed to be harder for them -- they had many more obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of holiness.[65]  The higher path to  mystical union with Christ, the embracing of Christ as the beloved, the experience of physically and emotionally sharing in Christ's Passion, thought to represent  the pinnacle of the religious life -- these experiences were not denied to women and were not felt to be impossible for them to attain.  By the thirteenth century, role models for women religious included not only Mary and the female saints but also Christ himself. 

In order to experience the passion of Christ,  a passion which consisted of bitter physical suffering, it was necessary for the Bride of Christ to mortify her flesh as much as possible, not because the flesh was inherently bad, but because Christ had experienced pain and suffering in his physical body.  The passion of Christ was primarily an embodied, physical experience.   How could a religious relate to physical suffering unless she actually suffered physically?  Mortification of the flesh was thus an important element of the imitatio Christi, so integral to the medieval religious life, so important to medieval women who found a path to union with Christ through identification with His broken body.[66]





The idea that one had to suffer physically to be truly holy was a popular one in the Middle Ages, and one that women, comfortably grounded in their bodies, seemed to embrace whole-heartedly.  Christina of Markyate, an early twelfth-century anchoress, certainly had her share of physical suffering. The autobiographical account she left of her life detailed the beatings and torture she endured at the hands of her mother because she refused to yield her virginity to her husband, whom she married under her mother's coercion.  At one point she spent four years in hiding, shut up in a space so small that there was not even sufficient room for her to wear warm clothes in the winter. The space was in the cell of Roger, a holy hermit who was willing to hide her from her mother and her husband.  Her recollection of this episode is quite dreadful:


And so . . . the handmaid of Christ sat on a hard stone . . . four years and more . . .O what trials she had to bear of cold and heat,  hunger and thirst, daily fasting!  The confined space would not allow her to wear even the necessary clothing when she was cold. The airless little enclosure became stifling when she was hot.  Through long fasting, her bowels became contracted and dried up.             There was a time when her burning thirst caused little clots of blood to bubble up         from her nostrils.  But what was more unbearable than all this was that she could not go out until the evening to satisfy the demands of nature. . . . She would rather die in the cell than make her presence known to anyone . . .

She bore all these daily anxieties and troubles with the calm sweetness of divine love . . . finding great joy in Christ.[67]


Christina had several visions while in the hermit's cell, although it is difficult not to interpret them as hallucinations brought on by extreme physical and sensory deprivation.  Her husband finally gave up and released her from  the marriage.  Roger the hermit went back to wandering, and Christina became the sole occupant of his cell, where she remained as a recluse for several years.  She later founded a priory and became its abbess.

One of the best known of the English anchoresses, Julian of Norwich, actually prayed for physical affliction, and eventually got it.  It was immediately after a near-fatal illness that she wrote her book of visions or "showings," a work which survives as Revelations of Divine Love.    Julian described her desire for suffering in this way: 


These revelations were shown to a simple and uneducated creature on the eighth of May 1373.  Some time earlier she had asked three gifts from God: (i) to understand his passion; (ii) to suffer physically while still a young woman of thirty; (iii) to have as God's gift three wounds. . . . I quite sincerely wanted to be ill to the point of dying . . .  I wanted his pain to be my pain . . . I was not wanting a physical vision or revelation of God, but such compassion as a soul would naturally have for our Lord Jesus . . .  Therefore I desired to suffer with him.[68]  


Julian went on to describe at length her visions, ostensibly brought about by her prayers  and the illness she had longed for, and also her interpretations of them, both at the time and several years later.

The Introduction to Julian's Revelations states, "It can be assumed that [Julian] would know the Ancrene Riwle   . . . for this guide book was almost de rigueur for the medieval solitary."   Julian’s familiarity with Ancrene Wisse may offer an explanation for her prayers for illness.  Part IV elaborates at length on the benefits of sickness:


Sickness that God sends . . . does these six things: 1)washes the sins that have already been committed, 2)protects one against those that were threatening, 3)tries patience, 4) keeps one humble, 5)increases one’s reward, 6)makes the patient person equal to a martyr.  In this way sickness is the soul’s health . . . . Sickness makes a person to understand what they are, to know themselves . . . . Sickness is your goldsmith, who, in the joy of heaven, gilds your crown.[69]


It is easier to understand her longing for God-sent illness in light of such potential benefit.   In the process of interpreting her revelations, the products of her illness, Julian devised a sophisticated theological paradigm in which Christ is portrayed as a nurturing mother.  This concept was certainly not new;  such noteworthies as Aelred of Rievaulx, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Marguerite of Oingt had written extensively on this theme.[70]  But Julian, unlike those mentioned, developed her entire theology around the idea of God's motherhood, and it was the major emphasis of her writing.  Bynum notes, "The theme of God's motherhood is a minor one in all writers of the high Middle Ages except Julian of Norwich.”[71] 

Interestingly, a connection can be identified between the imagery employed by the author of Ancrene Wisse and Julian's concept of God as nurturing mother. If Julian was indeed familiar with Ancrene Wisse, then Bynum's assertion, "It is important to note that later authors who were influenced by the Ancrene Riwle were especially attracted by its maternal imagery,"  takes on a new significance.[72]





Images of God as mother are sprinkled throughout Ancrene Wisse.  For example:   "Our Lord, when he allows us to be tempted, is playing with us as the mother with her young darling."[73]    Even  more intriguing than these, however, are the images of Christ as lover.  For all of the author's apparent disdain for sex, for the body, and for carnality, he weaves a rather erotic web in describing the "lover and Beloved" relationship between the anchoress and Jesus.  "You should beseech me for kisses within your heart’s bower, as my lover, who says to me in the book of love, ‘Osculetur me osculo oris sui,’ that is, Let my lover kiss me with the kiss of his mouth, the sweetest of mouths.”  And Jesus is a jealous lover: “Our Lord kisses no soul with this kiss who loves anything but him.”[74]

These two images -- Christ as mother and Christ as lover -- are intertwined throughout the text, and it is precisely because of this imagery of shared, reciprocated ardor and devotion  that Ancrene  Wisse, for all its shortcomings, succeeded.  By encouraging the anchoress to use her own experience of human emotion and frailty to develop her relationship with Christ, the author fostered the growth of an independent female self, possessing agency and the ability to make intelligent and well-thought-out distinctions.[75]  The symbolism of Ancrene Wisse is, as Robertson noted, attached to the physical and to things of the world, things that were familiar to women, rather than to the mystical and otherworldly, as in, for instance, The Cloud of Unknowing, a text aimed at a male audience.  The text is full of homey images, of farm animals and cooking utensils and all of the miscellaneous items that were part of life.  But the author of Ancrene Wisse recognized that the anchoress, for all her seclusion, lived in the world and could not wholly escape its influence.  His words provided a practical guide for the recluse as she sought to know God from within the confines of the anchorhold, in terms and language that a woman without a sophisticated convent education could understand

Ancrene Wisse  encouraged a tender, loving relationship between a solitary woman and her God, a love like that of a child for a gentle, nurturing mother, a breathless anticipation like that of a virgin for her bridegroom.  It was this  relationship of mutual love, high regard, and tenderness that the author wished to foster in the hearts of the anchoresses, and the instructions he provided were designed to make that relationship relatively simple to attain, and as satisfying as possible. 

Robertson’s criticism that the author of Wisse denied women a voice in their own spiritual development would probably surprise a woman like Julian of Norwich, who ultimately found her voice as a woman and a theologian through solitary contemplation and physical illness, both of which were encouraged by Ancrene Wisse.[76]   The author did not  advocate the denial or annihilation of the self, but rather self-discovery and self-actualization through prayer and contemplation, and an austere lifestyle.  The evidence indicates that a number of anchoresses achieved those goals.

And besides, as the author of Hali Meidenhad, another text from the Katherine Group, pointed out, a spiritual marriage to a virile and loving Christ was likely to be far more satisfying than the endless drudgery of a real marriage to an earthly husband, with his incessant demands.[77]  In the final analysis, that may have been the chief attraction of the anchorhold for medieval Englishwomen.  For some women, the attainment of a deeper spirituality and a reputation for holiness may have simply been an added bonus.








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[1]  For exact numbers of anchoresses in England at various times, including their names, locations, and tenure of individuals in the anchorholds, see Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1914), Appendix C, 203-263.


[2] Penelope D. Johnson, “Mulier et Monialis: The Medieval Nun’s Self-Image,” Thought 64: 254 (September 1989), 243.


[3] Lina Eckenstein, Women Under Monasticism (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1963), 68.  Eckenstein mistakenly identifies recluses as nuns; not all were.  Anchoresses came from all walks of life, and many were laywomen. See Ann Warren, Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 25.


[4]  Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, eds., Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 101.


[5] Sharon K. Elkins, Holy Women of Twelfth Century England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 20.


[6] Elizabeth Alvida Petroff, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 1986), 302.  Of Kempe, Petroff writes, “The extent of Margery’s martyrdom can be measured by the number of times she reports being told to shut up.” Ibid.


[7] Nicholas Watson, “The Methods and Objectives of Thirteenth-Century Anchoritic Devotion,” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987), 135-136.


[8] Warren, 19-20. Warren includes a table comparing the numbers of male and female anchorites in England over a period of five centuries.  At the close of the twelfth century, there were 48 women and 30 men.  By the end of the thirteenth century, there were 123 women, compared to only 27 men.  See p. 20-21.


[9] Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984), 57-58, 61, 66, 149-151, 154, 163-164.  See also Marc A. Meyer, “Land Charters and the Legal Position of Anglo-Saxon Women,” in Barbara Kanner, ed., The Women of England (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979), 63-64,  Kathleen Casey, “Women in Norman and Plantagenet England,” in Kanner, 83, 98-99, Ruth Kittel, “Women and the Law in Medieval England, 1066-1485,” in Kanner, 129-131, Elizabeth Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 13-30, Doris Mary Stenton, The English Woman in History (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957), 23, 26, 29-30.  Stenton sums up in her “Epilogue”:  “The evidence which has survived from Anglo-Saxon England indicates that women were then more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers than at any other period before the modern age. . .  . this rough and ready partnership was ended by the Norman Conquest,“ 348.   See also Frederick Pollock and Frederick W. Maitland, The History of English Law, vol. 2 (London: Cambridge UP, 1911), 364-369. 


[10] Fell,  149-151.


[11] Casey, 102-104.


[12] Robertson,  18-19.  See also Fell, 149.


[13] Elkins, 1.  Elkins explains that the Normans founded a number of monastic communities after their arrival, and by the mid-twelfth century, women had many more options.  She states, “By 1200, the religious houses of England could accommodate more than three thousand women . . . After 1200, the expansion ended as abruptly as it had begun.” Intro., xiv.  Elkins does not comment on the chronological  juxtaposition of the end of female monastic expansion with the signing of  Magna Carta in 1215, which significantly improved the legal rights of married women and widows, but it seems likely that the two events were at least indirectly related.


[14] Robertson,  15.


[15]  Elkins, Intro., i. After the Conquest, the endowment of a nunnery became a popular way for a landed family to provide security for an unmarried daughter. See Sally Thompson, Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries After the Norman Conquest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 177-181.


[16] Elizabeth Alvida Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism (New York: Oxford UP, 1994), 68.  Petroff provides an interesting account of the development of the Poor Clares, the women’s group founded by Clare of Assisi.  Clare was not pleased that women followers of Francis were not permitted to live as mendicants, but she eventually agreed to enclosure.  See Petroff, 66-79.


[17] Elkins, Intro., xix-xx.


[18] Elkins, Intro., xx.


[19] The demanding life of the monastery impacted men as much as women, but men had other options.  Among numerous other choices, men of a contemplative bent  could still be wandering hermits or pursue a mendicant lifestyle.  For women it was marriage or the convent, and either choice entailed sacrifice.


[20] Clay, Intro., vi-vii.


[21] Feminist theorists and historians have written at length on the male use of violence or the threat of violence as a way of controlling women.  While life in the twelfth century posed dangers for men as well as women, the fear of rape served to sharply curtail women’s freedom, much as it does today, and probably presented an especially horrible possibility for women vowed to chastity.  It would be difficult (although not impossible) to argue that there was some sinister male intent behind that circumstance, but the net effect was the same: control of women’s movement.  See Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 11-112.  For a thought-provoking  and more recent discussion of male control of women through sexual violence, see Robin Morgan, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality  of Terrorism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989). 


[22] Clay,  90-92.


[23]  Warren, 73-74, 127-128.


[24]  Ibid., 94,96. See Appendix A, which contains the complete text of the Servitium Includendorum  (The Office for the Enclosing of Anchorites) from the York Manual, 193-198. See also Francis D. S. Darwin, The English Mediaeval Recluse (Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions. 1974), 71-78. The giving of Extreme Unction to the anchoress upon her enclosure probably had a practical purpose as well as a symbolic one.  If the isolated recluse, alone in her cell, were to sicken and die, it was possible that no one would be available to give her the Last Rites on her deathbed. 


[25]  Ibid., 96.


[26]  Savage and Watson, Ancrene Wisse, 66-67.


[27]  Elkins, 46-47.   It is interesting that twenty-five new monasteries for women were established during the chaotic reign of Stephen, primarily as a result of financial support from the laity.  Elkins observes, “Since . . . this expansion was during the years of King Stephen’s reign, in what is sometimes called a period of anarchy, the political situation may have had a role in the increased participation of lay people.  Certainly, the lack of strong royal control permitted women and men to experiment and to devise new institutional forms. “ 61.


[28] Thompson,  16, 161.


[29]  Clay, 79.


[30] Warren, 26.


[31] Ibid., 47.


[32] Ibid., 50.


[33] Darwin, 21.


[34] See Savage and Watson,  Anchoritic Spirituality, also Aelred of Rievaulx, “A Rule of Life for a Recluse,” in Treatises: The Pastoral Prayer, The Works of Aelred of Rievaulx, vol. I (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1971), Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, trans. (New York:  Paulist Press, 1991), Richard Rolle, “The Form of Living,” in The English Writings, Rosamund Allen, trans. (New York: Paulist Press, 1988).


[35] The  works which make up the Katherine Group are Ancrene Wisse, Vitae of Saints Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana, Hali Meiphad  ( Holy Maidenhood),  Sawles Ward  (The Soul's Keeping), and The Wooing of Our Lord.  All of these texts were apparently written for the edification of anchoresses.  See Savage and Watson, Introduction, 1-15, for a discussion of these manuscripts.


[36] E. J. Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), Bella Millett, “The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions,” Medium Aevum 61:2 (Fall 1992), 208. 


[37] Aelred of Rievaulx, 43-102.  Aelred got many of his ideas from the Benedictine Rule and from Bernard of Clairvaux.


[38] Savage and Watson, Ancrene Wisse, 149.


[39] Robertson,  47-50,  Sarah Beckwith, “Passionate Regulation: Enclosure, Ascesis, and the Feminist Imaginary,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 93:4 (Fall 1994), 813-815, Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 27-30.  The misogyny of medieval clerics is one of the main themes of these works.  Beckwith and Clark both attempt a Foucauldian interpretation of the medieval notion of “self” as represented in Ancrene Wisse  However, it is difficult to reconcile postmodern  notions of the “protean self” with the medieval idea of unification and annihilation of self as presented in Ancrene Wisse and other medieval texts.  See Beckwith, 814, Clark, 32. 


[40] Savage and Watson, 199.


[41] Ibid, 99-101.  Many of these characterizations appear to have come directly from the pages of medieval bestiaries.  The pelican is representative:  “The pelican is excessively devoted to its children.  But when they have been born and begin to grow up, they flap their parents in the face with their wings, and the parents, striking back, kill them.  Three days after ward the mother pierces her breast, opens her side, and lays herself across her young, pouring out her blood over the dead bodies.  This brings them to life again.” T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1960), 132.  See also the discussion of animal symbolism in other sources, Morton W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (Detroit: Michigan State College Press, 1952), 124-201.  Bloomfield discusses Ancrene Wisse, and notes that several other texts  “borrowed” from AW in their animal identifications of the seven cardinal sins. 148-151.


[42] Lucinda Rumsey, “The Scorpion of Lechery and Ancrene Wisse,” Medium Aevum 60:2 (April 1990), 48-58.


[43] Savage and Watson, 123-124.  For the bestiary description of each animal listed, see White, 7, 186-190, 21-21, 45-47, 53-54, 76, and 192, respectively.


[44] Ibid., 69.


[45] Ibid., 109.


[46] Robertson, 9, 74.


[47] Clifton Wolters, trans., The Cloud of Unknowing (London: Penguin Books, 1978), 109, 140.


[48] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 189.


[49] Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 136. 


[50] Savage and Watson, 69.


[51] Ibid., 73.


[52] Robertson, 73-74.


[53] Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 69.  Bartlett is quoting from MS Corpus Christi College 402, The Ancrene Riwle, trans. M.B. Salu (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 180. 


[54] Bartlett, 69.


[55] Darwin, 82,  Beckwith,  813.


[56]  Turid Karlsen Sein, “Ascetic Autonomy: New Perspectives on Single Women in the Early Church,” Studia Theologica 43 (1989), 125-140, Virginia Burns, “Word and Flesh: The Bodies and Sexuality of Ascetic Women in Christian Antiquity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 10 (1994), 27-51


[57] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 253.


[58] Ibid., 246.


[59] Ibid., 263.


[60] For a more in-depth treatment of gender-specific differences in views of sexual abstinence, see Joyce Salisbury, Church Fathers, Independent Virgins (New York: Verso, 1991) 115-125,  Jo Ann McNamara, A New Song: Celibate Women in the First Three Christian Centuries (New York: The Haworth Press, 1983), 112-119.


[61] Robertson, 74.


[62] Saint Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict (Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), Cardinal Gasquet, trans., 25-27.


[63] Ambrose G. Wathen, Silence: The Meaning of Silence in the Rule of St. Benedict (Washington, DC: Cistercian Publications, 1973), 29.  Wathen provides a fascinating discussion of the significance of silence for Benedictines.


[64] Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 43-45.


[65] Johnson, 245. 


[66] Bynum, Holy Feast, 114, 246, 256.


[67] C. H. Talbot, trans., The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959),                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          103-105.  See also “Christina of Markyate, Of S. Theodora, a Virgin, Who is Also Called Christina,” C.H. Talbot, trans., in Elizabeth Alvida Petroff, ed.,  Medieval Women's Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.)148-149. 


[68] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Clifton Wolters, trans. (London: Penguin Books: 1966), 63-64.


[69] Savage and Watson, 115-116.


[70] Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 113-124.  Bynum quotes from Anselm, Bernard, Aelred, and several others, including Julian.


[71] Ibid., 168. 


[72] Ibid., 151.


[73] Savage and Watson, 132.


[74] Ibid., 86.


[75] Linda Georgianna, The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981), 65-71.


[76] Robertson, 74.


[77] Hali Meidenhad, in Savage and Watson, 234-237.