What was an Anchoress?

The Anchoress

By Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress: a woman in religious seclusion; a female anchorite, or hermit; for the purpose of leading an intensely religious life of prayer and contemplation apart from the world.

Anchorite life became more common in the middle Medieval age and in England, both the time and setting for Cadwallader’s generally interesting and sometimes compelling novelistic exploration of the phenomena. However, the author focuses mostly on the temporal aspects of her anchorite, Sarah, and not nearly as much on the mystical quest of the one dead to the world seeking spiritual rebirth. In Sarah’s case, her motivations for the anchorite life seem skewed to bad experiences in her young life, more of a way to escape into the protective arms of Christ than a purely spiritual reawakening. For this reason, some may approach the novel expecting more than it delivers.

At seventeen, Sarah, who has lived the religious life for a time, enters her anchorhold. While she has her Rules (for more on their composition, see the Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses). She soon discovers that her seclusion is anything but, as the world, in the form of her maids, lord, priest, and villagers intrude upon her devotions. To intensify her experience, she engages in extreme forms of self-discipline, weakening herself and setting off a period of hallucinating. As her story progresses, we readers learn more about her motivations for seeking a secluded life. These make up the driving force of the plot and are best left for readers to discover on their own. Suffice it to say, these are all temporal.

Father Renaulf is her confessor. He’s none to pleased for the task. He is more interested in his work as a scribe and in building a first-class scriptorium at his monastery. Over time, though, he develops a relationship with Sarah based on respect for her while doing everything in his power to help her resolve issues tormenting her.

Cadwallader does a good job of recreating an era that will seem completely alien to the modern mind. Two things will strike readers immediately, these being the lowly state of women who find it almost impossible to control nearly any part of their lives and the power of feudal authority to direct every element of peasant existence, though these particular peasants appear to find a way to resist their odious overlord, the thoroughly unlikeable Sir Thomas, he being a fellow who could have benefited greatly from a modern course on cultivating his interpersonal skills.

In a novel of this sort, you might expect flowery, somewhat refined language and a bit of lost peasant vernacular, something more along the lines of what you’ll find in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, as in his terrific adventure, Ivanhoe (highly recommended). Alas, Cadwallader elects a simpler modern approach, so the dialogue sounds more like what you encounter in typical popular novels of today.

In sum, then, while an interesting subject, it could have been better, which is not to say that many will, nonetheless, enjoy it. w/c

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