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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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Rules for Anchorites
So I have this obsession. It's been going on for awhile--since early graduate school, when instead of taking the easy route and getting the damn English Literature degree, my brain took a hard left at Medieval Studies. So it's been about 6 years now, (which seems obscene! It was yesterday I was that dewy just-married thing poking about in Old French books and cuddling up to a life of compromise and loneliness). It's an obsession that fueled the title of this blog, the icon to your left, and is but one of the reasons I own a pair of manacles.

I'm talking about anchorites, baby. Nuns. Supernuns.

People tend to get these perplexed looks on their faces when I light up and tell them I think of myself as a nun. I get so excited I can hardly explain it, and that seems strange of course, after all, I'm neither Catholic nor celibate, with no intention of becoming either. But it's like explaining to someone how you know what your totem is--impossible, but necessary for the understand of this driven, jittery girl. Allow me to explain.

An anchorite (or anchoress, take your pick--I prefer the non-gendered term) is a nun, but not really. A nun becomes a bride of Christ; she is married to God in her initiatory ritual, and lives her life in a commune, a cloister, intimately connected to her sisters and the world, for whom she works and toils.

And anchorite is straight up punk rock. Her initiatory ritual is a funeral. She dies to the world. She is closed up, alone, in a small cell attached to a church, called an anchorhold. Often she is initially buried there, and exhorted each day to dig up the soil of her grave with her fingernails. Sometimes she is manacled, bound to her duty. A priest tends to her, but more often, the folk of the village come to her, bringing bread, milk, honey, beer, fish, listening to her wisdom. She meditates, she fasts, she flagellates, she spends her life in contemplation and deprivation, and often, as in the case of Julian of Norwich, writing books. She is directly connected to God--her spirit goes into the ether, and brings back visions to her village. She is an oracle, an academic, a hermit in the midst of life.

Except there's this little document called Ancrene Wisse. Rules for Anchorites. On the theory that there wouldn't be rules about things that people weren't doing, the lives of anchorites seem to have been not entirely hair shirts and flagellation. You may not have overnight male guests (so they should definitely leave before midnight), large banquets, more than two handmaidens. It's not all merriness--there is a lot of talk about rotting in one's cell and how one should "love your windows as little as you can" and never let a man touch you through the window--unless he can provide excellent reason he should be allowed to. One must also pray less in order to read more, for "reading is good prayer." The Song of Solomon is used to illustrate how Christ feels about anchorites, and we all know how that little ditty goes.

The accompanying document to Ancrene Wisse is Hali Meidhad, A Letter to Maidens, which explains to three young girls that life in the medieval world plainly sucks, and to be married to a man who will make you clean and cook for him, fuck you until you bleed with no care for whether you enjoy it, only to die in childbirth, is pretty much a drag. Being an anchorite, on the other hand, is awesome. It was freedom. It was surcease.

I'm fascinated, always and utterly, by the idea of such a woman. Removed from the world yet deeply in it, privy to all the secrets of her town, cared for by folk while she reads and writes, while she watches wheels of fire spinning in the heavens. To be chained, to be disciplined to a lifelong task, to be a wild thing clapped up in darkness for such a purpose. You can see why this might appeal to someone like me. It brings strange tears to my eyes to read Ancrene Wisse, which is separated into the Inner Rule and the Outer Rule for governing one's life, and is obsessed with animal symbolism and endless classification, as I am, as I am.

And there were many of them, a network of women in holes, a network of light across wild fields and dark barns, women in ecstatic activity, touching the edges of the world.

Secretly, though I do not believe in a Christian God, this is what I want to be. I want to be a cyber-anchorite, chained to her computer, which is the church of the modern world, lifting her pelican-heart to heaven and bringing down such mad, beautiful, impossible books as live among the clouds. Manacled hands on a keyboard of light. A movable anchorhold, an izbushka. Tended to by a stern priestly-wicked thing who loves and fears and blesses. Receiving all who need her, trading words for bread. Conscious of death, racing against it. Closed up safe in her own little house, just big enough to contain her. I want, silly as it sounds, to sit at the edge of the internet, which is my village, and seethe as madwomen do, take a man's name, shed my clothes and utter terrible, marvelous verses. To be so full of purpose that I shine. I am at my best when I am an anchorite. I am at my worst when I have forgotten how to go to ground.

And to put out my hand through my beloved window, from time to time, to clasp another's skin and kiss their fingers.

The wilderness is the solitary life of the anchoress's dwelling, for just as in the wilderness there are all the wild beasts, and they will not endure men coming near but flee when they hear them, so should anchorites, above all other women, be wild in this way...

--Ancrene Wisse

One of my last papers for my MA was about Abelard and Heloise. I remember writing it with the perspective that she's all passionate and he's a cold fish but then when I absorbed more fully the way they were using the imagery it became apparent that he was giving her what she needed - encouragement to be an abbess and hold her own in her own place.

And then the 13th century hit and they stopped allowing women to have their own monasteries without men being nearby. I'm sorry. I'm vague about it, but there were a lot of laws passed in the 13th century suggesting that women had become too powerful in the 12th and the church needed to curb that.

Oh, certainly. There is a great deal of concern in AW about anchorites getting too much power and influence in their village, having too much knowledge, "putting on airs." It's a position of incredible power without the obligation of a priest to also answer to a greater Church authority. Gotta put a stop to that!

Oh my great goodness, yes...

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I think, for many women like me, they provide a peculiarly powerful mode of being, even now, even without the religion that made them.

you are my homie.
one of many reasons.
happy to trade words for song-bread, my love.
*crazy frenetic hugs and snuggles and kisses through the window*

Anytime. Maybe someday we can trade a story of a gypsy for a song for an anchorite girl.

Wow - you made me scare myself with how appealing that sounded.

The advantage of the modern world is that you can take what you need from every tradition. No reason to exclude Christianity from that.

As wonderful as the idea sounds, there are certain things which a modern-day anchoress needs.

Like indoor reliable plumbing.

Or a small office attached to her house. Or just a small house. It's all in how you see things.

I had a plan, awhile back, to take my manacles and my laptop and write novels while chaining myself to church walls. (Stake in the ground, no damage done) I may still, one day.

that's definitely in the top five letters from the yuki attic. And probably my favorite.

you totally 5-starred this one!

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I secretly want a boy's name--a secret name, for when I am anchoriting, for only people who Understand to know. One of my flatmates in college called me Simon for no particular reason other than that she was wacky like that. But I'm obsessed with names, and the changing of them, private ones, between two or three people. I've had more than a handful. It's a Thing.

And of course Giota comes right from all of this.

Oh. God. YES.


I know about anchorites, but in the technical sense, the 'and some women, they were walled up in churches' sense, the college-medieval-studies-class sense. Not like this.

You just described a great, huge space inside my head, that I never had a name for before, and YES. That. What you said.

Thank you.

Oh gods, so much love. It's a little indecent to be feeling this much love while sitting in an office from which I can't quite see the sky.

Thank you.

How anchorholdy of you. ;)

Christ you bring out the geek inside


I'm pretty sure, but not positive, that this word means hand maiden or attendant rather than simply maiden. I believe its roots are with the hindi word Medha, meaning medicine hands, healing hands (related also to Mehndi). Which is the origin of the later name Medea, and the word seems to have followed with Rom movement form India toward Europe. Fascinating.

Re: Christ you bring out the geek inside

It may well, but in this context, in Middle English, it has the hard connotation of "virgin."

But I love that lineage. Hands are these huge symbols for anchorites, since they extend from the window and are the only ways for her to contact the world.

You have SUCH a way of describing and explaining it! I totally grok, and want something similar (and complementary).

(Also, wasn't Anchoress an amazing movie?)

It was--I linked to it up there.

The only thing was that that anchoress, awesome as she was, was illiterate--an embroiderer, that was her art. Julian of Norwich is more my girl, the cerebral writer. But damn, the ending of that movie!!

At the beginning of this post, I thought those ladies must have been crazy for walling themselves up in a church.

Oh, but then!

You've got an excellent point. I never saw it like that before. Thank you.

Ye, mine leove sustren, bute yef neod ow drive ant ower meistre hit reade, ne schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane. Ancre the haveth ahte thuncheth bet huse-wif, ase Marthe wes - ne lihtliche ne mei ha nawt beo Marie, Marthe suster, with grithfullnesse of heorte. For thenne mot ha thenchen of the kues foddre, of heorde-monne hure, olhnin the hei-ward, wearien hwen he punt hire, ant yelden thah the hearmes. (Ancrene Wisse ed. Hasenfratz 8.76-81, and I love that the TEAMS edition is on the Web but I really wish they kept the thorns and yoghs).

I always liked the part that explains how the anchorites must also separate themselves from the economic life of their village, because they are Mary rather than Martha, and the things they love are the sacred and the unworldly. They may keep cats, but not cows, because once they have to think about cows they have to think about the practical matters of feeding the cows and herding the cows, etc., and it distracts them from meditating on holy matters.

The original crazy cat ladies!

I have much the similar desire to be the village Wise Woman, the one you come to for tea, for charms, for babies (or the prevention of), and for general wisdom. I want to be that earthy woman with a wild, lovely garden full of herbs, vegetables, flowers and fruit growing in profuse, disorderly, fantastic ways who shares a small bit of it with the rest of the world. The cranky one who tells gasbags to fuck off and encourages scandal with the same aplomb as the application of common sense. I'll be the granny in purple leather, riding about on her motorcycle as those silly woodcut ladies did on brooms. No housebound husband but awesome companion for life who takes just as much joy in these things, a male Valerie to my female Miracle Max. :)

And now I have an image in my head of a conversation between an anchorite and a wise woman. That would be nifty.