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The anchorhold as symbolic space in Ancrene Wisse.

Ancrene Wisse, a guide for anchoresses written in the early thirteenth century, (1) uses a number of provocative images to describe and theorize the small cell in which the anchoress was to enclose herself for life. In the course of Ancrene Wisse, the cell is described as a besieged castle, (2) a prison cell (56), the city of Jerusalem, a fox hole (67), a nest in a high tree (70), Mary's womb (as Christ's anchor cell, 193), a grave (88), the cross (88), among many others. Such images map different symbolic architectures over what was in reality a small room or set of rooms crowded under the eaves of a village church, creating an expansive theological, psychological, and finally an intensely symbolic space. Potentially, each of these metaphorical re-imaginings creates different psychological spaces that interact both with each other and with the actual or assumed architecture of the anchoresses' cells. This article will explore some of the implications of such symbolic spaces in Ancrene Wisse from an interdisciplinary point of view, drawing on recent work in urban studies, archaeology, and church architecture.

The dominant symbolic space of part 2 of Ancrene Wisse has arguably attracted the most critical attention. This section (on the dangers of the five senses) maps the human body (the female body in particular) with its various apertures (eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin) over the architecture of the anchorhold with its walls and windows. The apertures of the body are likened to the physical windows of the anchorhold, points of dangerous permeability. Far from being safely closed like a grave or a prison cell, the anchorhold, like the female body, is dangerously open and must be guarded, restricted, and controlled carefully. Following Carolyn Walker-Bynum, scholars such as Elizabeth Robertson have pointed out that in Ancrene Wisse, anchoresses (unlike men) are presumed to experience the divine mainly through their fallen and dangerous bodies. Robertson shows that contemporary views of women's ambiguous physicality, both medical and theological, underlie much of the advice of Ancrene Wisse. (3) In this sense, a number of studies have explored both the permeability and liminality of the anchorhold. (4) As a liminal space between the realms of body and spirit, the profane and the sacred, the devil and God, both the anchorhold and the female body it contains represent sites of danger.

Such work on the body and the anchorhold has illuminated the gendered nature of anchoritism as depicted in Ancrene Wisse in a ground-breaking way, and its stress on liminality suggests other fruitful lines of inquiry. The word liminal is derived of course from Latin limen "threshold," a liminal space existing on the border between two realms. A growing body of scholarship on the construction and production of spaces--social, political, and sacred--may have much to say not only about how the anchorhold was theorized and imagined, but about how and where anchorholds were constructed, and life in them lived. In this essay, after surveying some recent work on the production of space in the middle ages, I intend to place the anchorhold as described in Ancrene Wisse in the landscape of the parish church, a complex built space with a number of overlapping and conflicting zones, functions, and jurisdictions. Whereas previous work on anchoritic texts like Ancrene Wisse tends to begin from within the texts' own point of view, in this essay I will attempt to glimpse them from the outside by bringing to bear some insights from recent studies of medieval urban and sacred spaces.

By their very nature, anchoritic cells as structures of wood and stone restricted and controlled not only the movement of the anchorite's body but obstructed and channeled her bodily senses. Through the pioneering work of scholars like Henri Lefebvre, we have a much better understanding of how architectural space has the power to configure the body and its relations to the world. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre analyzes the way architecture, manufacturing, urban planning, economic systems, etc., create human spaces. (5) For Lefebvre, space does not merely reflect cultural practice, it is cultural practice, and the power of his model is that it recognizes several distinct, co-existing spaces: not only the orientation of objects on a Cartesian grid, but the hierarchical forces that produce them, the way they are placed into a symbolic landscape, their history, and how space can be used to control and eliminate resistance. Crucial to Lefebvre's theory of space, is the interrelation between the triad of perceived, conceived, and lived spaces. Perceived space or "spatial practice," is the internalized set of competencies and behaviors in each member of a society, which enables him or her to perform in a social and economic space (to know where to work, where to play, etc.). Conceived space, or "represented space," on the other hand, is a deeply ideological representation where those in power sculpt a consistent and coherent account of a space that is idealized, abstract, and powerful. In contrast to the ideological neatness of conceived space, lived spaces (or "representational spaces"), according to Lefebvre

need obey no rules of consistency or cohesiveness. Redolent with imaginary and symbolic elements, they have their source in history.... Representational space is alive: it speaks. It has an affective kernel or center: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or, square, church, graveyard, and thus immediately implies time. Consequently it may be qualified in various ways: it may be directional, situational or relational, because it is essentially qualitative, fluid and dynamic. (6)

Lefebvre insists that any analysis of a particular human space (a house, village, or city, for example) must take into account the relationship and interaction between these three kinds of space. In fact, one must

study not only the history of space, but also the history of representations, along with that of their relationships with each other, with practice, and with ideology. History would have to take in not only the genesis of these spaces [i.e. architectural history] but also, and especially, their interconnections, distortions, displacements, mutual interactions, and their links with the spatial practice of the particular society or mode of production under consideration. (7)

In studying the anchorhold as a space, then, we would gain only a partial view of it by attending to the ideological representations of it by ecclesiastical authorities (the theorizing of anchoritic space in the Ancrene Wisse, for example). The view gained would be that mainly of conceived space. Instead, it is important to take on board how the representation of the space interacted with or conflicted with the space as it was lived.

Though Lefebvre is interested in medieval European space mainly for the way it prepares the ground for the emerging capitalist economy, his way of imagining space as a network of nodes or "affective kernels" has proved fruitful for other scholars, particularly Alain Gurreau, who has taken feudal space as his central object in "Quelques caracteres specifiques de l'espace feodal europeen." (8) Gurreau, perhaps under the spell of LeFebvre's description of lived or representational space stresses that feudal space is fragmented, heterogeneous:

Dans l'Europe feodale, l'espace n'etait pas concu comme continu et homogene, mais comme discontinu et heterogene, en ce sens qu'il etait a chaque endroit polarize (certains points etant valorizes, sacralises, par rapport a d'autres percus a partir des premiers et en relation avec eux comme negatifs). Une multitude de processus et de marquers sociaux etait a l'oeuvre pour singulariser chaque point et s'opposer a toute possibilite d'equivalence ou de permutation. (9)

Here, Gurreau focuses on valorized, sacralized nodes or points that make up the network of social space and act as social markers or boundaries defining the surrounding space. Unlike the post-Cartesian spatial sense of modern urban planners who tend to think in terms of blocks, grids, zones, and axes, where certain districts serve for work, others for play, and still others for shopping, Lefebvre and Gurreau characterize medieval space as disjointed, fragmented, and discontinuous. Gurreau sees in the parish church above all a complex and disjuncted set of spatial symbols:

Quatre objets sont ainsi reunis pour consituter un tout: un edifice du culte dominical (autel, reliques, eucharistie); des fonts baptismaux; un cimitere; des dimes. La complexite et l'intrication de cet ensemble sont difficiles a debrouiller. On trouve la les instruments rituels du debut et de la fin de la vie individuelle, qui sont en meme temps les moyens d'integration a une communaute etroite (paroisse) et englobante (Eglise); mais aussi la definition de l'espace sacre et de l'espace de production. (10)

There is something a bit vague in Gurreau's thinking here--to suggest that tithes are a spatial node and that they directly represent economic production (in Lefebvre's sense) seems problematic. Tithes are certainly not a place. On the other hand, his division of the parish church into the functional nodes of altar, font, and cemetery is suggestive and connects architecture to the human life cycle, rendering the parish church a richly symbolic landscape, with implied lines of force connecting them.

The kind of fragmentation that Gurreau argues for is a distinctive feature of feudal space has been recognized by other scholars working on medieval urban identity. Lorraine Attreed, for example, has recently surveyed emerging civic identifies in Exeter, Shrewsbury, Norwich, and York, finding that cities were carved up between competing institutions:

Every town possessed, and developed within concrete, geographical space, whether it was physically demarcated by walls or only judicially defined by charters and grants. But those spaces could also be shared and challenged by other corporate bodies, especially that of the Church. The resultant clash of claims engendered conditions under which the identities of both bodies underwent change and definition. (11)

Atreed proceeds in her analysis of Exeter to uncover a curiously disjointed landscape. The Bishop of Exeter held the so-called St. Stephen's fee, a set of privileges granted by the crown, exempting the diocese from all civic control and jurisdiction. The exempted spaces collectively were designated as a "liberty." Atreed observes,

The liberty had little physical integrity, being composed of the cathedral church and its churchyard lying in the eastern quadrant of the city, as well as individual tenements held by the bishop but widely scattered within city walls. The dispersed nature of the liberty struck city authorities as deeply threatening to their supremacy within the delimited urban space; in such a liberty, no matter how compact or dispersed the area, civic officials had no rights. (12)

Fugitives from civic justice had only to flee into one of the many pockets of ecclesiastical control to escape the authorities. Once within this space, suspects could not be arrested or detained. In making their cases either to retain or abolish these liberties, civic and religious authorities contributed to a complex, evolving sense of urban identity. The contesting of space was part of urban experience. In her study of private space, "Space, Property, and Propriety in Urban England," Vanessa Harding makes a similar point: "Contemporaries recognized the simultaneous existence of a plurality of interests in one space--some of them deferred, some contingent, and some barely enforceable. They accepted a legal framework that established and protected these interests, even if they were ready to contest the particular applications of the system in practice." (13) She goes on to examine cases of private homes and shops cemented into public space by various urban regulations.

The sense of space that has been emerging in this discussion is admittedly strange and, to this point at least, an abstract one. In general, Gurreau's observation that the feudal sense of space is fragmented and heterogeneous seems to be confirmed, while students of urban history see conflict and legal contest as a central device in defining spaces and their jurisdictions.

Turning to the space of the anchorhold, thanks to Rotha Mary Clay's monumental The Hermits and Anchorites of England (1914) and Anne K. Warren's Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (1985), (14) we know several things with which to begin our analysis of these structures. They were often placed on the north sides of parish churches (earlier in villages and later increasingly in urban centers), had two to three windows (one looking in toward the high altar, another for communicating with servants, and a possible third for consulting with outsiders), could vary in size and number of rooms, could have attached servants quarters, a garden or courtyard, probably had doors (with locks), cupboards, hearths, etc. Since Clay's pioneering study and Warren's re-examination of the evidence, though some more documentary sources have been unearthed, (15) surprisingly little new evidence has come to light. This despite Clay's 1914 plea: "There is abundant opportunity for research on this subject and it is much to be desired that architects should follow up the clues supplied by the records." (16) No one, for example, has yet published a systematic comparison of Clay's massive table of documented anchor cells with the results of more modern archaeological excavations or systematically examined the surviving churches and other sites for architectural clues. (17)

At first glance, these results are surprising. Why should archaeology have produced so few results? Part of the answer is that recent archaeologists see the anchorhold in a radically different light from that of literary and historical scholars, one which may provide us with some fresh insights. It is striking that most of the older work identifying anchorholds in parish churches and other sites belongs mainly to the first three decades of the twentieth century. (18) This vogue in itself might be suspicious. As Clay notes, the mere existence of a squint (i.e., a slit or small window) overlooking a high altar does not necessarily argue for the presence of an anchorhold, since chantry and guild chapels as well as vestries and sacristies also used squints to allow views of altars and side altars. In her study she is careful to corroborate architectural detail with documentary evidence. For example, she is willing to interpret a current vestry as a former anchorhold in St. John the Baptist, in Newcastle, not merely because it has a prominent squint (figure 1) but because an episcopal document from 1260 confirms that a certain Christiana Umfred had her place of enclosure (locum inclusionis) in St. John's churchyard, granted by the bishop of Carlisle and the mayor and burgesses of Newcastle (82).

Surviving anchorholds may be simply very difficult to identify, or may owe their continued existence to unusual placement above the ground level, as in Letherhead, Surrey, or conversion to other uses, as in the case of Chester-le-Street, where a two story anchorhold was converted into an almshouse. It might be good to remind ourselves that precious few anchor cells survive in any form from the middle ages: after the death of the last anchorite, they may have been either demolished, converted to other uses (as vestries, sacristies, or chapels), or obscured by further construction (such as additions of north aisles for chantry and guild chapels. In Chester-le-Street, near Durham, a surviving late medieval anchorhold for a male anchorite consists of two large rooms, one on top of each other, built into the north west side of the church. The upper room has a squint offering the anchorite a view of the side altar that was reserved for public use. Even in the case of Chester-le-Street, however, the surviving cell has been altered considerably (having been converted into an almshouse after the middle ages by the addition of two rooms), and part of what was the anchorite's lower room now houses the boiler for the church.

The typical placement of anchorholds under the eaves of the church may have made them particularly difficult to identify. In The Archaeology of the English Church, Warwick Rodwell, notes that

Excavation around the bases of walls of a church is a delicate matter, for it is here that traces of builders' levels, scaffold pole settings, buried ground surfaces, paths, and the like will be found. In most cases there will be numerous graves cut through these layers, particularly against the south and east sides of the church, but nevertheless even small areas of surviving stratification can, under skillful excavation, yield important evidence for the constructional history of the building. (19)

He notes that many Victorian renovators dug up and carted away this crucial evidence. Until the archaeology of the churchyard becomes a matter for serious research, we will be forced to extrapolate from the few comprehensive excavations that have so far been carried out.

Clearly, anchoritic cells have not been the object of serious archaeological study. The archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist in her study of the gendered architecture of nunneries, Gender and Material Culture, has recently written that "Anchorages have not been subject to modern archaeological excavation; as a result the standards maintained for anchorages are not yet clear, in particular whether servants' accommodation was expected, and whether cooking and privy facilities were usual. The cell's basic requirement was a window or squint from which to observe the mass, and a grilled or shuttered window through which the confessor communicated." (20) For reasons that will become clearer in a moment, we cannot extrapolate much about the interior arrangements of anchor cells from archaeological evidence alone, though we do know a fair amount about their placement and orientation from documentary sources.

Thus far, most of the research into the nature and archaeology of anchor cells sees the structure generally in isolation, with little sense of how it fits into the surrounding space of the parish church. How can we begin to place anchor cells and the lives of anchorites within a more dynamic, lived space? Gilchrist has a partial answer. She suggests that the placement of anchorholds may have itself played into the dynamic of gender and space, with women's cells tending to push to the western end of the church, away from the sacred space of the choir or chancel. This placement is crucial and can be observed symbolically in a twelfth-century enclosure ceremony, where male clerical postulants to enclosure prayed face down in the mid choir, unordained men at the entrance to the choir, and women at the west end of the church in the public, unconsecrated space of the nave. Gilchrist cites a line of Latin graffiti in the chancel near the entrance to an anchorhold in Lindsell, Essex which commands laypeople to leave the choir. The tendency to place anchoresses to the west, according to Gilchrist, represents a gendered use of space, but one which also situated anchoresses in the public sphere of the nave and churchyard, increasingly secularized spaces. Clearly, anchorholds and the parish churches they occupied existed as much in symbolic as physical space, where cultural practices created not only architectural structures but also established the flow of energies between these structures.

These observations suggest an intriguing possibility. Could we reinterpret the positioning of anchoritic spaces? Clay suspects that the usual siting of anchorholds on the north side of the church represents an ascetic impulse: "From the numerous examples it seems that the ascetic would deliberately forego the sunshine with the rest of Nature's gifts." (21) For the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, we know that the north side of village churchyards was generally reserved for public use. The Companion to the English Parish Church observes that "The churchyard was often the venue for village festivities and social gatherings, for dancing, games, and commercial transactions: much to the consternation of the ecclesiastical establishment. In many parishes, the unconsecrated north side of the churchyard was effectively the village recreation field [or, plaistow]." (22) Besides sports like wrestling, markets and fairs could be held in the churchyards, particularly of urban parishes. Another reason that anchorholds may have gathered around the north wall is that the southern churchyard was generally thick with graves, often crowding right up to the south and east walls of the nave and chancel. (The most valued position was that closest to the high altar at the eastern end.) In addition, when pews were installed in the fifteenth century, women were almost always seated in the northern section of the nave. (23)

From the archaeological point of view, anchorholds as cells appended to the church fabric belong to the churchyard. In a recent volume entitled Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future, Gervase Rosser has written that "Anchorage cells attached to the church, which became especially common in the urban parishes of late medieval England, must ... be fitted into the complex micro-landscape [of the churchyard]." (24) The wider study of churchyards, once focusing almost exclusively on the complex pattern of burials, is a developing field in recent church archaeology. As Warwick Rodwell writes in the conclusion to the Research Directions volume, "As well as for interment, medieval churchyards were used for a variety of functions of which little trace has survived. In addition to crosses, there were often priests' houses, charnel houses, chantry chapels, anchorages, church houses, guildhalls, and ground-level belfries. Boundary walls and banks, gateways, paths, open spaces, wells and many other features can all be studied archaeologically. Churchyard morphology is highly variable, and the evolution of the enclosed area ... is an almost unstudied subject." (25) We have then much to learn about the functions and development of the parish churchyard and how anchorholds would have fit it into its social landscape and the way in which architecture created symbolic boundaries at junctions where social forces were channeled and policed.

The parish church to which most anchor cells was attached was not a simple, undivided sacred space: (26) it had, like medieval cities, fragmented zones and jurisdictions, the churchyard being only one. Archaeologists, architectural and church historians have studied for some time the division of rights, responsibilities and patronage between the nave (the large structure at the western end) and chancel (the relatively smaller eastern section containing the high altar) of the medieval parish church. (27) From the early twelfth century on, parishioners became responsible (in canon law) for the upkeep of the fabric of the nave and churchyard, provision of furniture, the chalice and other equipment, while the vicar or rector had the responsibility for the repair and upkeep of the chancel. In his study Church and Society in England, 1000-1500, Andrew Brown gives a useful overview of this development:

From the 1220s, the upkeep of the nave became the duty of the laity--thus making the development of communal funds all the more necessary. The division was not absolute: there are some later disputes over the exact point where responsibility ended. In some smaller chapels, the laity can be found (willingly, it seems) maintaining the chancel too. Even so, in the later Middle Ages, it is no accident that the architectural history of chancel and nave tends to diverge. After 1350, eastward extensions to the chancel came to an end for the most part; rebuilding centred chiefly on the nave. Churchwardens' accounts frequently reveal a corporate will in the effort to rebuild. (38)

Thus, not only did nave and chancel develop as separate spheres of funding and jurisdiction, they became in some parish churches, something like two separate buildings with different architectural histories.

Beginning in the thirteenth century, the division between chancel and nave was marked increasingly by a new feature, the choir or rood screen. This structure, a permeable barrier between nave and chancel, generally had a lockable door but provided a view into the chancel (and the elevation of the host) via apertures in the tracery. The construction of these screens coincides with Roman reforms intended to heighten the sacral nature of the eucharist, and was a European-wide phenomenon. Recently scholars like Jaqueline Jung have been reevaluating the once accepted dictum that choir screens functioned as barriers, shutting out the laity from the chancel:

far from acting only as social and spatial dividers (both of which they were in a literal sense), choir screens fulfilled a wide variety of incorporative functions. Through internal structural elements such as doors and platforms, they united the discrete spaces of choir and nave while simultaneously asserting the integrity of each spatial unit.... The screens as architectural structures, I argue, are fundamentally complex things fraught with paradox, markers of a highly charged site of transition and passage. (29)

Jung examines the different "visual vocabulary" on each side of these screens, arguing that each appealed to different audiences. The nave side of most choir screens was equipped with one or more altars (for public masses), a pulpit, images of saints (attracting lay offerings of candles by parishioners of middling status), and in some cases images or armorial bearings of powerful lay benefactors. She goes on to show that the screen was ultimately "permeable by laypeople" both visually and physically. (30) In England, the design, building, and decoration of rood screens was organized and funded enthusiastically by lay parishioners and contributed to local identity, sometimes sparking regional rivalries, as Katherine French's work on the late medieval parish has shown. (31)

As a border or marker of a liminal space, the rood screen bore tremendous symbolic weight, and it is tempting to see it in its paradoxical function as both barrier and portal an analogy to the anchor cell, whose walls were also permeable barriers. They kept out prying eyes but their windows invited lay people to approach for spiritual advice and friendship, and the anchoress to look out on secular life. Using evidence from wills and other sources, Jonathan Hughes has studied extensively the rich and complex patterns of lay patronage in late medieval York, finding that extended families and networks of friends often formed close relationships with local recluses, as evidenced by bequests. (32) Though there are scattered records of royal grants for the repair and expansion of anchorholds, (33) it seems likely that routine upkeep and maintenance of any anchorholds attached to the nave, like that of the rood screens, would have fallen to the lay parish community.

The division between nave and chancel, lay and clerical, was sometimes the occasion for conflict. An anecdote recounted by Charles Drew in his history of early parochial organization in England illustrates this division nicely. In 1308 a theft in the parish church at Esher caused a dispute between the rector and his parishioners about who was to pay to replace the stolen goods. The bishop intervened, instructing the parishioners to provide a chest at their own expense to store books, vestments, the chalice, etc., the chest to be kept in the house of a reliable parishioner living near the church. The parishioners were liable for these goods until they were handed over to chaplain or clerk, when they became his responsibility until returned to the chest. (34) The Exeter Statues of 1287 provided that when church goods were stolen the rector would be responsible if a defect in the chancel facilitated the theft, the parishioners if the defect was in the nave. (35) In 1396 at Roseland in Cornwall, parishioners arguing with their rector refused to allow him to leave the church by the nave, because that "belonged to them," forcing him to climb out a window in the chancel during a service at Epiphany.

Since the parish was responsible for the nave, it could become a quasi-public space, where business could be transacted, goods sold, and meetings held. Rosser goes so far as to say that it is reasonable to envisage laypeople as "the collaborative architects of the churchyard space as much as of the nave interior." (36) Given the division of holy from public spaces within a single parish church, it is likely that anchorites would appear to laypeople of a parish in a quite different light from that in which they were viewed by the parish and diocesan officials (confessors, priest, and bishop). If an anchorhold was placed in the secular sphere of the nave and churchyard would laypeople have seen it and its inhabitant as their own? To which space would it belong, nave or chancel? How would the anchoress view herself, as a special lay member of the parish or as an outpost and representative of the chancel?

I believe that some signs of the contesting of spaces between churchyard, nave, and chancel I have been sketching out here can be traced in the Ancrene Wisse. As a liminal space (in both a literal and symbolic sense), the anchoress's cell in Ancrene Wisse faces different spaces through different windows, and each line of sight has the potential to place the anchoress under the rules, rights, and obligations of the spaces she chooses to view. We can get a sense of these three windows and their orientations in a passage from part two that concerns the dangers of the five bodily senses, and at this point the dangers of speech in particular: (37)

Ut purh pe chirche-burl ne halde ye tale wid na mon, ah beored per-to wurdmunt for pe hali sacrement pet ye seod per-purh, ant neomed oder-hwile to ower wummen pe huses purl, to opre pe parlur. Speoken ne ahe ye bute ed tes twa purles. (37)

(Out through the church window [lit., hole] do not hold tales with any anyone, but show honor to it for the holy sacrament that you see through it, and reserve for your women the house window, and for others the parlor. You ought not to speak except at these [last] two windows.)

Assuming a north-west placement for the cell, the arrangement of chambers and windows might have looked something like that in figure 2.

The church window faced the high altar and thus could project the anchoress into the sacred space of the chancel, while the so-called house window must have faced inside into the private domestic space of the anchorhold (consistently called ancre-hus or "anchor house" in Ancrene Wisse). Finally, the parlor window, whether it faced out into a separate room called a parlor (38) or exclusively to the churchyard, would project the anchoress into a public, secular space. Though church-side windows survive, such as the one in Newcastle (see figure 1), we know as of yet very little about the placement and numbers of windows in other anchor cells. Though Ancrene Wisse assumes three windows, arrangements may have varied significantly. In this reconstruction, the parlor window faces toward the churchyard, though it may very well have opened into the nave or a small room accessible from the nave. (39)

First of all, we should note that the author expects reverence for the sacred space of the chancel to preclude dealings with the laity, even though the church window in all probability opened immediately into the nave itself. The anchoress was to look through and past the nave. Through the church window, the anchoress could become an outpost of the chancel (perhaps something like the Bishop's tenements in Exeter) though located in the territory of the nave. The instructions from part one (on the anchoress's prayers) have this to say about her connection to the liturgy taking place in the chancel: "Toward te preostes tiden hercnid se ford as ye mahen, ah wid him ne schule ye nowder verseilin ne singen pet he hit mahi i-heren" (27). (To [lit., towards] the priest's hours listen as far as you can, but with him you shall neither versify or sing so that he can hear it.)

The church window is clearly a conduit to the sacred space of the chancel and altar, but the sacred flows in a unidirectional way, into the potentially secular space of the cell. The parlor window, by contrast, is the site of utmost danger from the Ancrene Wisse author's point of view. It is equipped with a thick curtain, and the anchoress is advised to keep the curtain down and the window to the world blocked as often as humanly possible:

For-pi mine leoue sustren, pe leaste pet ye eauer mahen luuied ower purles. Alle beon ha lutle, pe parlurs least ant nearewest.... Lokid pet te parlures clad beo on eauer euch half feaste ant wel i-tachet, ant wited per ower ehnen leaste pe heorte edfleo ant wende ut (30).

(Therefore my dear sisters, love your windows as little as ever you can. Let all of them be small, [but] let the parlor's be the smallest and narrowest.... See to it that the parlor curtain is well secured on either side and guard your eyes lest the heart escape and go out [through the window].)

The direction of flow in the parlor window is dangerously bi-directional. The anchoress's maiden helps to guard this window, acting as something like a modern personal assistant, screening potential visitors, and warning the anchoress about problematic applicants (35).

At first it seems unclear why there is a need for a parlor window, given the dangers it poses. In fact, Ancrene Wisse consistently sees it almost exclusively as an entry point for sin via sexual temptation--even same-sex temptation:

To wummon pe wilned hit, openid ow, o Godes half. yef ha ne speked nawt prof, leoted swa i-wurden, bute yef ye dreden pet heo prefter beo i-scandlet. Of hire ahne suster haued sum i-beon i-temptet. In toward ower weoued ne beode ye na mon for te bihalden, ah yef his deuotiun bit hit ant haued grant, drahed ow wel inward ant te ueil adun toward ower breoste, ant sone dod pe clad ayein ant fesmid hete-ueste, yef he loked toward bed oder easked hwer ye ligged, ondsweried lihtliche, "Sire, per-of wel mei duhen," ant halded ow stille. (34)

(To a woman that desires it, open up, for God's sake. If she does not mention it, let it be, unless you fear that she would afterwards be offended. Some have been tempted by their own sisters. Do not bid any man to look in towards your altar, unless his devotion asks it and receives permission. Draw yourself well inward and draw your veil down over your breast and fasten the curtain again quickly. If he looks toward your bed or asks where you sleep, answer lightly, "Sir, about that everything is well taken care of," and keep yourself still.)

This passage is subtly drawn. It implies that women in particular might be offended if the anchoress does not lift the curtain when she speaks with them. The subject here has turned to the dangers of sight, and part two opens with an analysis of Eve's fall, the first step of which was her delighted glance at the apple. Though not prohibited, this sight proved a disastrous opening to sin. Thus, face to face consultations with women with the curtain up are allowed, but no sight according to Ancrene Wisse can be completely innocent. Men's gaze, though perhaps a sign of devotion, is particularly dangerous.

This intriguingly paranoid passage occludes the reason for the existence of the parlor window in the first place. It is the parlor window and is there to allow talk (French parler). We know from a variety of sources that anchorites, both male and female, were not merely cloistered away like monks or nuns, but that they interacted dynamically with their local communities. Henry Mayr-Harting's "Functions of a Twelfth-Century Recluse" remains the classic account, demonstrating from a contemporary biography how Wulfric of Haselbury acted not only as spiritual advisor to lay parishioners, but as an arbitrator in local property disputes (armed with the powerful weapon of local gossip), a medical practitioner, a banker (with one of the few fortified, continually watched spaces available to the community), a local artisan (he was a craftsman in textiles), and mediator of Norman high culture. In fact, from the clerical point of view these "functions" were often problematic, many having been condemned by churchmen like Peter the Venerable. Mayr-Harting concludes that "Wulfric was the textbook example of a bad recluse. He could fit absolutely every observation in the abbot's [i.e., Peter the Venerable's] letter" but Mayr-Harting views these social roles, despite clerical objections to them, as part of the anchorite's "normal place in the local community." (40) Ancrene Wisse chooses by and large to ignore this aspect of an anchoress's life.

In fact, Ancrene Wisse has a similar tendency to see the anchoress in almost complete isolation from the lay community. Her functions as spiritual friend and advisor (especially to women) are never mentioned directly, and in fact, Ancrene Wisse argues against much speech at all, preferring a kind of quasi-monastic silence, (41) and stigmatizing consultations with the local lay community as potentially dangerous gossip:

"From mulne ant from chepinge, from smidde ant from ancre-hus me tidinge bringed." Wat Crist, pis is a sari sahe, pet ancre-hus, pet schulde beon anlukest stude of alle, schal beon i-feiet to pe ilke preo studen, pet meast is in of chaffle. (74)

("From the mill and from the market, from the smithy and from the anchor-house news is brought." Christ knows, this is a sorry saying, that the anchor-house, that should be the most solitary place of all, shall be connected to these three places, in which is the greatest amount of chatter.")

Anchorites could clearly act as something like human notice boards since they were always resident in a public space. They could pass along news of war, succession, and local events, perhaps shaping the narrative for personal and political purposes like Mayr-Harting's Wulfric.

Though it is difficult to know if an anchoress had a clear view of the churchyard from the parlor window or any other window, the secular and dangerous atmosphere of the churchyard is often depicted in Ancrene Wisse. The most prominent mention occurs in part 5, on confession, where the Ancrene Wisse author addresses a wider audience than anchoresses alone, urging them to confess sins that take place in particular places:

Alswa of pe Stude, "Sire, pus ich pleide oder spec i chirche, eede o ring i chirch-hard, biheold hit oper wreastlunge, ant odre fol gomenes, spec pus oder pleide biuoren wortliche men, biuoren recluse in ancre-hus ed oper purl pen ich schulde, neh hali ping. Ich custe him per, hondlede him i swuch stude, oder me seoluen. I chirche ich pohte pus: biheold him ed te weouede." (162)

(Also [speak] of the place, "Sir, thus I played or spoke in church, danced in a ring in the churchyard, beheld it or wrestling, and other foul games, spoke thus or played before worldly men, before the recluse in the anchorhouse at another window than I ought, near a holy thing. I kissed him there, touched him in such a place, or myself. In church I thought thus: looked at him near the altar.")

The ventriloquized voice here appears to be that of a young girl or perhaps even the anchoress's maiden. This passage not only describes the public and secular activities taking place right outside the anchorhold in the churchyard (carols, wrestling matches, and other sports), (42) but aligns the anchorhold itself with the altar as a sacred place that should not be violated by worldly behavior. The speaker confesses to playing near the sacralized church window or in the direct presence of the anchoress. The mere glancing at a man in the chancel is a fault worthy of confession, since it violates the sense of sacred space and disrupts the one-way flow of sacred energy from the chancel.

A cluster of passages in part 8, concerning the outer rule of the body (as opposed to the inner rule of the spirit), alludes directly to the activities of the nave and churchyard, and represents Ancrene Wisse's most sustained meditation on the relationship between parish and anchoress. In the first of these, the anchoress is warned not to involve herself in the life of the manor or parish by owning livestock, with the charming advice to stick to cats:

He, mine leoue sustren, bute yef neod ow driue ant ower meistre hit reade, ne schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane. Ancre pe haued ahte punched bet huse-wif.... For penne mot ha penchen of pe kues foddre, of heorde-monne hure, olhnin pe heiward, wearien hwen he punt hire, ant helden pah pe hearmes. Ladlich ping is hit, wat Crist, hwen me maked i tune man of ancre ahte.... Ancre ne ah to habben na ping pet utward drahe hire heorte. (213)

(Indeed, my dear sisters, unless necessity drive you to it and your master advises it, you should have no animal except a cat alone. An anchoress who has possessions seems better a housewife.... For then she must think about the cow's fodder, the wages of the herdsman, must flatter the hay-warden, curse when he impounds them, and pay nevertheless for the damages. It is a hateful thing, Christ knows, when there is complaint in town about an anchoress's property. An anchoress should not have any thing that draws her heart outward.)

Again, Ancrene Wisse attempts to configure the direction in which energies flow. Livestock and property, like the window, may tempt first the senses and then the heart to flee the enclosure of the cell, and though this prohibition takes us beyond the confines of the churchyard into the public and private grazing lands, it is another instance in which the Ancrene Wisse author wants anchoresses to extract themselves as fully as possible from the life world of the parish, and not subject themselves to the jurisdiction of manor courts (of which the haywarden was an officer), which were often held in the naves of churches. In an important study, Warren Ault shows how parish priests almost as a matter of course mixed themselves as farmers into local economies and politics in much the way the anchoress is advised not to, which often resulted in litigation with the village communities the parish served. (43)

Since commerce (in the form of markets tied to feast days) could take place in the churchyard and nave, the advice that an anchoress should not run a shop, again suggests that the anchoress withdraw herself from activities going on presumably all around her:

Na chaffere ne dilue he. Ancre pet is chepilt--pet is, bud for-te sullen efter bihete--ha cheped hire sawle pe chap-mon of helle. Ding pah pet ha wurched ha mei, purh hire meistres read, for hire neode sullen. (213)

(Drive no deals. An anchoress who is a businesswoman--that is, buys in order to sell for profit--she sells her soul to the merchant of hell. The things that she makes she may, by her master's advice, sell for her needs.)

The ban on commerce, however, is not complete: the anchoress may still sell items of handicraft, though not for profit, implying that she might need to supplement the endowment from patrons or to make up for shortfalls or arrearages. Wulfric had pursued a much more vigorous form of commerce in selling his textiles, but Ancrene Wisse constantly suggests that the anchorite view the cell not as a secular space, a market stall, but to think of it as a fragment of the chancel, a fragile bubble of the sacred, that could be burst at the slightest touch. Though literally in the confines of the churchyard and nave, the anchor cell was to be above it (or perhaps even beneath it, as a place dead to the world.)

The prohibition against keeping valuables in the anchorhold is particularly interesting in light of the divisions between responsibilities for the nave and chancel at Esher, sketched out above. The Ancrene Wisse author assumes that parishioners were very likely to ask anchoresses to store not only valuables but items related to the lay upkeep and furnishing of the nave:

Nawt, deore dehtren, ne wite he in ower hus of oder monne pinges, ne ahte ne clades, ne boistes, ne chartres, scoren ne cyrograffes, ne pe chirch uestemenz, ne pe calices, bute neode oder strengde hit makie oder muchel eie. (213-14)

(Do not, dear daughters, protect in your house another man's things, neither property or clothes, chests nor charters, tallysficks, nor documents, nor the church vestments, nor the chalices, unless need or force make it necessary, or much fear.)

If the anchorhold functioned like the parish chest at Esher, the anchoress would be firmly situated on the side of the nave and practically a functioning representative of the lay parishioners in her safeguarding documents, valuables, vestments, and church furniture. Mayr-Harting saw such safekeeping as a normal social function of the village recluse, but here the text wishes to extract the anchoress from the geography in which she lived. The sacred was to flow in from the church window but not allowed to escape out of the parlor.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Ancrene Wisse author wishes to see and define the anchoress almost exclusively from the point of view of the chancel. Her life and functions appear in this text mainly as quasimonastic: she withdraws from the world, speaks as little as possible, performs the liturgy within her cell, and her spiritual journey towards the divine love of part 7 is mainly a deeply inward and private one. Ancrene Wisse speaks very sparingly and almost inadvertently about anchorites as seen from point of view of the nave and churchyard: about their important roles as spiritual and political advisors, intercessors, and spiritual friends. These functions, directed very much toward the community, are generally stigmatized by Ancrene Wisse. We know from the work of Tanner on Norwich and Hughes on York, that lay patrons had intimate spiritual friendships with anchorites, male and female, reflected in wills and bequests. Of course, male anchorites, especially those ordained as priests, could act as licensed confessors, and could have a much more openly pastoral role. In Ancrene Wisse, the male author is afraid that talk at the parlor window may turn into gossip. Even the entertaining of dear friend at a meal takes place in silence, following monastic tradition (37).

I do not wish to imply anything dishonest or necessarily aggressive in Ancrene Wisse's stance; however, it is useful to see that this pivotal text was written from a partial and particular point of view (in fact from a space with particular orientations, interests, and obligations), that of the chancel and the diocese. Ancrene Wisse constructs a conceptualized and abstract place that regulates and channels otherwise dangerous human contact. The lived space of the anchorhold from what we can gather must have been far less tidy and much more multi-directional. There may be a pictorial way of understanding these two different concepts of anchoritic space. Visual depictions of anchorholds are rare, but at least two appear in late medieval pontificals, containing the texts of rites and ceremonies to be performed by bishops. Figures 3 and 4 show details from two such pontificals: anchorites depicted during the rite of enclosure performed by the bishop. Clearly, it was not the intent of the artists to represent the actual architectural space of the anchorholds, but instead to show them as symbolic spaces. They appear in these illustrations in pure isolation from their architectural host building (be it urban or country church, friary, or monastery), and impossibly small and tomb-like.

Iconography predominates over description in these illustrations. The Lansdowne Pontifical (figure 4) depicts the anchorite's cell almost like a reliquary, with the window acting as the monstrance or portal through which a saint's relic could be viewed, while the anchorite appears entering the cell, turning his her back on the world. In many ways, Ancrene Wisse views its anchoritic readers as these pontificals do--they are quasi-monastic holy women, dead to the world and cut off from the community of the parish. They belong to the official and consecrated ground of the chancel. Like the figure in the Lansdowne Pontifical, she has put on a sacral vestment and turned her back to the world, though the grill in the wall and the window in Pontifical of Richard Clifford hint at the possibility of permeability.

Figure 5, however superficially, may give at least some sense of a lay view of the anchorhold space. It appears in an illustrated copy of the Roman du Saint Grail, and shows Perceval coming to pay a visit to his aunt, a recluse. Though Percival eventually proves too holy to exist in the world, he begins life in the world. This is how the anchor cell appears in the illustration, from the outside of the enclosed yard, with the church itself incorporated into a larger landscape, and pushed into the background.

Trees as well as a wall indicate the enclosure of the churchyard. The anchorhold is arguably not visible behind the door but part of a larger complex of structures and spaces, but unlike the images from the pontifical, this one implies an accessibility to the anchoress via a door with a knocker. Neither view on its own is complete or accurate but shows the interests of two different orientations in lived space. From these different points of view, it is possible to see the anchoress's cell as a contested space, poised between the two realms of the sacred and the secular. Like the body, the female body in particular (in the eyes of medieval theorists), the cell could never become a closed, finished structure, but remained a provisional and dangerous territory. (44)

University of Connecticut


(1) Composed either by an Augustinian canon or, more likely, a Dominican friar. See Bella Millett, "The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions," Medium AEvum 61 (1992): 206-28. All quotations from Ancrene Wisse come from Tolkien's EETS edition (The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Ancrene Wisse, Edited from MS. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 402, edited by J. R. R. Tolkien. EETS, O.S. 249 [Oxford U. Press, 1962 for 1960]) and occasionally to my own TEAMS edition (Ancrene Wisse, ed. Robert Hasenfratz. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. [Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 2001]). All translations are mine. Dobson's edition of the Cleopatra MS. (The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from B.M. Cotton MS Cleopatra, ed. E.J. Dobson. EETS, O.S. 267 [Oxford U. Press]) is cited where several leaves are missing from the Corpus text.

(2) Dobson, Cleopatra MS, 41.

(3) See in particular, Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience (U. of Tennessee Press, 1989), chapter four, as well as "The Rule of the Body: The Feminine Spirituality of the Ancrene Wisse," in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (U. of Tennessee Press, 1989), 109-34. For an argument for the positive construction of the body, see Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, "Chaste Bodies: Frames and Experiences," in Framing Medieval Bodies, ed. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester U. Press, 1994), 24-42.

(4) See Jocelyn Price [Wogan-Browne], "'Inner' and 'Outer': Conceptualizing the Body in Ancrene Wisse and Aelred's De Institutione Inclusarum," in Medieval English Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G. H. Russell, ed. Gregory Kratzmann and James Simpson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1986), 192-208, Wogan-Browne, "Chaste Bodies," Gayle Margherita, "Desiring Narrative: Ideology and the Semiotics of the Gaze in the Middle EnglishJuliana," Exemplaria 2 (1990): 355-74, and Karma Lochrie, "The Language of Transgression: Body, Flesh, and Word in Mystical Discourse," in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen. SUNY Series in Medieval Studies. (State U. of New York Press, 1991), 115-40.

(5) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholshin-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.)

(6) Lefebvre, Production of Space, 42.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Alain Gurreau, "Quelques caracteres specifiques de l'espace feodal europeen," in L'Etat ou le Roi: Les Foundations de la Modernite monarchique en France (xive-xviie siecles), ed. Neithard Bulst, Robert Descimon, and Alain Gurreau (Paris, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1996), 85-101.

(9) Gurreau, "l'espace feodal," 88-89.

(10) Gurreau, "Tespace feodal," 90.

(11) Lorraine Atreed, "Urban Identity in Medieval English Towns," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.4 (2002): 571-92 [572].

(12) Atreed, "Urban Identity," 574.

(13) Vanessa Harding, "Space, Property, and Propriety in Urban England," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.4 (2002): 547-69 [558].

(14) Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London: Methuen, 1914) and Anne K. Warren, Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (U. of California Press, 1985).

(15) See for example E. A. Jones, "The Hermits and Anchorites of Oxfordshire," Oxoniensa 63 (1999): 51-77.

(16) Clay, Hermits and Anchorites, 84.

(17) Michelle M. Sauer is currently photographing and cataloging the visible remains of anchorholds of England. Her preliminary conclusions suggest Clay's assumption of northerly placement of most women's cells will need revising.

(18) See as emblematic examples, Walter H. Godfrey, "Church of St. Anne, Lewes: An Anchorite's Cell and Other Discoveries," Sussex Archaeological Collections 69 (1930): 159-69 and Phillip Mainwaring Johnston, "An Anchorite's Cell at Letherhead," Surrey Archaeological Collections 20 (1907): 223-28.

(19) Warwick Rodwell, The Archaeology of the English Church (London: B.T. Batsford, 1981), 136.

(20) Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (London: Routeledge, 1994), 178.

(21) Clay, Hermits and Anchorites, 81.

(22) A Companion to the English Parish Church, ed. Stephen Friar (Stroud, Gloucs: Allan Sutton, 1996). For a description and analysis of churchyard sport see John Marshall Carter, Medieval Games: Sports and Recreations in Feudal Society (New York: Greenwood, 1992) and Gregory Semenza, Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance (U. of Deleware Press, 2003).

(23) Katherine L. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Laie Medieval English Diocese (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 162-70.

(24) Gervase Rosser, "Religious Practice on the Margin" in Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future, ed. John Blair and Carol Pyrah (Walmgate, Yorkshire: Council for British Archaeology, 1996), 75-84 [80].

(25) Warwick Rodwell, "Conclusion," in Church Archaeology: Research Directrions for the Future, ed. John Blair and Carol Pyrah (Walmgate, Yorkshire: Council for British Archaeology, 1996), 199.

(26) For the purposes of the current argument, I omit from consideration cells attached to monasteries and convents.

(27) The division was known throughout northern Europe: see Anna Nilsen and Martin Naylor, Focal Point of the Sacred Space: The Boundary between the Chancel and the Nave in Swedish Rural Churches, from Romanesque to Gothic (Uppsala U. Press, 2003).

(28) Andrew Brown, Church and Society in England, 1000-1500, Social History in Perspective, general ed. Jeremy Black (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003), 94.

(29) Jaqueline E. Jung, "Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches," Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 622-57 [625].

(30) Jung, "Role of the Choir Screen," 627.

(31) French, People of the Parish, 154-62.

(32) Johnathan Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries: Religion and Secular Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1988), 64-78.

(33) Warren, Anchorites and their Patrons, 78, 99.

(34) Charles Drew, Early Parochial Organization in England: The Origins of the Office of Churchwarden, St. Anthony Hall's Publications, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, no. 7 (London: St Anthony's Press, 1954), 10.

(35) Ibid.

(36) Rosser, "Religious Practices," 80.

(37) Part two is organized not so much by the five physical senses as by the parts of the body associated with them. Thus, the ear becomes a dangerous portal for receiving wicked speech and the mouth (originally the location of taste) can send out wicked speech. See Alexandra Barratt, "The Five Wits and their Structural Significance in Part II of Ancrene Wisse," Medium Aevum 56 (1987): 12-24.

(38) See Hasenfratz, Ancrene Wisse, 5-7 "The Architecture of Anchorholds" in the introduction to the TEAMS edition (see note 1 above).

(39) The fact that Ancrene Wisse uses "chirche-purl" for the window facing the high altar implies that the parlor window does not open directly into the church.

(40) H. Mayr-Harting, "Functions of a Twelfth-Century Recluse," History 60 (1975): 337-52 [348].

(41) See in particular the discussion of Mary's habitual silence (41).

(42) Churchyard activities frequently resurface in allegorical form in Ancrene Wisse, so that we hear of Christ and the Devil as wrestlers (114, 143), talkative anchorites as loud soap-peddlers (35), etc.

(43) Warren O. Ault, "The Village Church and the Village Community in Medieval England," Speculum 45.2 (1970): 197-215.

(44) I am grateful to Frederick Biggs, Jerry Phillips, and Gregory Colon Semenza for reading this essay in draft and making a number of insightful suggestions.





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