Warren, Ann K. Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

With Warren's book we have an invaluable exploration of medieval English anchorites that follows up and extends the data of the 1914 classic "The Hermits and Anchorites of England" by Rotha Mary Clay. It is invaluable for its research as much as for the context it presents of anchorites and anchoritism.

The first part of of the book is a thorough overview of the anchorite and anchoritism: its origins, evolution, resources, physical procedures and practices, and its relation to society and ecclesiastical authority. Part Two addresses patrons and patronage, covering the sources of material support of anchorites, including royal, aristocratic, gentry, merchant, lay group and clerical supporters.

This latter section especially reflects the thorough scholarship of author Warren's investigation (which was in fact a doctoral dissertation). In this section, she marshals forth evidence from tax, census, and church records, deeds, alms distributions, testamentary gifts, maintenance grants, bequests, wills, ecclesiastical registers -- in short, an exhaustive mine of primary source data on the whole system of anchorite  patronage and physical support.

Additionally, the book breaks down anchorites by distribution, by sex, counties, century, and the location of anchorite cells by village, town, and city. The book is an excellent work of research -- if technical for those without an abiding interest in the topic. The first section, however, is eminently readable, informative, and enjoyable, approaching the model explanation of the anchorite phenomenon. Part Two holds its interest in the myriad anecdotal instances where anchorites intersect with society, proving that anchoritism had become a common if special vocation normal to the masses of medieval English society.

Anchorites and Anchoritism: Overview

Warren  makes several important points regarding the history of anchoritism in medieval England. These points are made throughout the first section but should be gathered together for emphasis because they are so insightful and have bearing on modern views of what hermits are.

  1. Anchoritism was not considered an ecclesiastical profession though it was a religious one. No orders or canon law treated of this unique state, such that practical aspects were handled locally by bishops and pastors, who frequently solicited the participation of lay people in monetary subsidy of anchorites.
  2. Anchorites were not hermits. Not all hermits were religious in inspiration but all anchorites were (presumably). Hermits were free to move about while anchorites "took vows of permanent stability." Although most scholars don't make a distinction between hermits and anchorites in this period the two are clearly distinct in medieval England.
  3. Anchoritic spirituality in medieval England reveals two distinct expressions. In earlier centuries, writers of eremitical guides emphasize practical spirituality and asceticism in the tradition of the desert hermits and the Rule of St. Benedict. But in the later centuries, specifically in England, the eremitical guides become more abstract and mystical in orientation, lending anchoritism a complex spirituality evolved from continental sources. In short, the shift is to mysticism.
  4. The anchorite exists in a social and economic context, wherein the residents of  the locale are acutely conscious of the anchorite and provide the material support and cultural context in which the anchorite happily dwells. The paradox of the anchorite is that of an independent, even anti-social figure who, even while renouncing society, is nevertheless acutely dependent on it. As Warren states:

I can think of no modern equivalent with which to compare such a long-term commitment by so many to satisfy the religious compulsion on one. That commitment implies a society covenanted both by the religious values of the undertaking and to the right of an individual to make such a demand on it.

A typical example is offered by Warren, the case of a 12th-century Gloucestershire hermit named in a royal document as "William, Solitary." He is declared to be responsible for a hermitage-chapel in a forest. From the profiled hermits understood in Clay's early work, we can surmise that William probably maintained roads and bridges, patrolled the forest against poaching, and performed miscellaneous tasks for sustenance. At an advancing age, William decides to become an anchorite. The local bishop advised him to petition the abbot of a nearby monastery, who in turn organizes several supportive lay persons to provide food and clothing in exchange for the new anchorite's prayers. "Here is a clear substitution [for the solitary] of spiritual work for manual work," notes Warren.

Such examples abound in medieval England, in an "environment in which individuals chose to become religious recluses in order to assure their own salvation and in which others within the community supported these recluses the better to assure their own."

Warren documents how women regularly outnumbered men as anchorites, as many as four to one in some centuries. Unlike Continental innovations in orders and movements, England remained relatively unaffected by religious movements, making anchoritism more attractive to aspirants of greater asceticism. Few in the anchorholds were professed religious. They represented an embrace of solitary life that bypassed the communal life of the monastery.

Historically, anchoritism preceded coenobitism, as Warren points out. The desert experience preceded the community. After all, the word "monk" originally meant "one who lives alone." Anchorite and hermit were synonymous in the early centuries of Christianity. Even as the monk became the denizen of the monastery, St. Benedict continued to envision the solitary life as the apex of asceticism.

Male anchorites were often priests, permitted to continue scholarly or copyist work in their cells, while women seldom held significant class or professional distinctions as anchoresses. Some were nuns, a few widows. But anchoritism was also a social alternative for some women, as a bishop's correspondence to an abbot records, mulling over "suspending ... conjugal debts" for a woman applying to become

a servant of Christ in solitude and poverty under a vow of perpetual continence, habit, and changed life, separated from her husband, far from carnal embraces ... in a solitary place ... under closure, [where] she may serve God with a pure soul and a harsh life.

The bishop suspects that one motive for the woman's request, confirmed by several sources, is "incontinence on the part of the husband."

The book treats of the typical anchorhold, including the fact that cells often accommodated more than one occupant. In the twelfth century, the overwhelming majority of anchorite cells were in towns and villages, and this trend continued straight through the beginning of the Reformation. Considering that medieval English cities were themselves very small, the phenomenon may be attributed to the rural "surplus" of women contrasted with the city's forms of labor and housing opportunities. Additionally, cities offered more diverse religious expression, something especially evident on the Continent but not in England.

But by the fifteenth century, the rise of devotional and mystical religious ferment centered in urban areas made the city an increasingly popular setting for anchoritism.

Anchorites and Bishops

In considering potential anchorites, local bishops were responsible for the legal and financial arrangements. Their duties including five areas on concern:

  1. personal credentials of the applicant, with the bishop often receiving input from a committee, sometimes ordering a probationary period of enclosure;
  2. adequacy of financial support to sustain the anchorite for life;
  3. physical facilities, that is, funding and maintaining an appropriate cell or reclusorium;
  4. performance of the ritual for enclosure;
  5. ongoing oversight, involving rites, sacraments, conditions, visitors, gifts, etc.

As early as the sixth century, ecclesiastical rules and councils had establish authority of bishops and abbots regarding professed religious aspiring to the solitary life. Solitary life (for an already professed religious) could not be pursued without permission. Nor could it be pursued without a period of coenobitic testing. Once granted, a probationary period was to be in effect, usually three years, followed by another year returned to a communal setting as a further test. "Enclosure was inviolable," as Warren notes. Once undertaken, anchoritic enclosure could not be abandoned except in the gravest circumstances.

But monastic oversight presumes an aspirant already within the monastic vocation during these earliest centuries. No annals of early recorded anchorites mentions bishops. By the twelfth century in England, however, aspirants to anchoritic life were pious lay people. A bishop of Winchester describes two women pursuing solitude as characterized by "holy love, religious conversation, heavenly way of life and spiritual intention."

The first major anchoritic figure in England was St. Godric, who lived as a hermit at Finchale under the authority of the local bishop, who had even devised for him a liturgy for enclosure. Further demonstration of the informality of the system of reclusion developing at the time is the example of Wulfric of Haselbury, an anchorite in Somerset whose reclusion was -- as his contemporary biographer put it -- "without bishop or benediction ... under the authority of the Holy Spirit." Instead, Wulfric was sponsored by a local lord, and his relations with the local bishop remained entirely amicable.

Not until the thirteenth century did the bishop's authority over anchorites become regular in diocesan statutes. Even so, the authority was regulatory in trying to curb abuses, primarily in those who came in contact with the anchorite. Thus a regulation of the thirteenth-century bishop of Chichester:

We order anchorites not to receive or have any person in their houses concerning whom sinister suspicion may arise. Also, they shall have windows that are narrow and true. We permit them to have private conversations with only such persons as whose gravity and honesty admit of no suspicion.

Most episcopal regulation addressed the same concerns as the authors of guides to anchorites such as the Ancrene Wisse: too much familiarity of an anchoress with a priest-confessor, too chatty a maid-servant bringing local gossip into the cell, too worldly the visitors bring news and gifts to the window. A bishop's oversight could alleviate a situation which the anchorite could not remedy alone.

By the fifteenth century, the bishop's authority was so firmly established that some of this responsibility over anchorites could be delegated to a monastery abbot. Thus the bishop of Lincoln asked an Augustinian house abbot to examine a Benedictine nun on her request for enclosure. The abbot is asked to consider that:

  1. the desire is serious;
  2. the suggested reclusorium, in this case a small house attached to a church, is adequate;
  3. the community is welcoming and supportive, and that
  4. the abbot perform the enclosure rites if all the conditions are acceptable.

Here the bishop has delegated an assignment to a virtual subordinate, a clear shift from just a few centuries earlier.

Still, there is plenty of evidence that "internal" anchorites -- monks and nuns already residing in communal settings but desiring solitude -- were approved and remained on the grounds of their monastery or convent without input from the local bishop. Some of the priests among the anchorites pursued scholarly or copyist work, as mentioned earlier, or were even assigned work outside the anchorhold as confessors, with the apparent approval of the bishop.

Anchorites and Bishops: Financial Status

Financial stability meant that many aspirants to the anchorhold must enter with a clear source of income. Bishops were reluctant to fund anchorites whose resources changed, hence the financial status was as necessary a criterion for enclosure as spiritual readiness.

Although alms and indulgences might be used to help support an anchorite, those cases where a bishop funded the anchorite directly were conscious decisions made at the beginning of the process. Special circumstances like war or crop failure or other compromises to an original endowment nevertheless was routinely addressed in a positive and caring manner by bishops, as recorded in royal grants, wills, and diocesan statutes.

A fifteenth century gloss or commentary on the thirteenth-century "constitutiones" of Edmund, archbishop of Canterbury, reveals the ecclesiastical thinking on the whole subject on anchorites. The Provinciale of the writer William Lynewood confirms the authority of bishops over abbots, even when professed monks were involved. Lynewood confirms, too, the items to address concerning the mores of the candidate, and addresses the issue of sustenari or material material support for the potential anchorite. Here is Warren's summary.:

Anchorites might be enclosed, [Lynewood] explained, if they had their own resources, because, like hermits, they were allowed to have possessions. Lynewood recommended that others, without such sufficiency, ought not to be enclosed unless they shared certain goods in common, as for example, a monk shared in the goods of the monastery which would perhaps support him in reclusion. Mendicants, Lynewood noted, have special problems with the idea of guaranteed support. ... Lynewood urged that clerics, already subject to episcopal obedience, not be allowed to be enclosed without their own property or the promise of some community to support them. ... Mendacity of clerics is the ignominy of bishops.


The last chapter of this section discusses enclosure and rule. Enclosure rites were based on the symbolism of imprisonment. The anchorite's cell was not a place for contemplation but a prison. "The emphasis on punishment as opposed to glorification of the rewards of reclusive life is a mark of the Western tradition of Christianity with its strong Celtic influences," states Warren.

Not until fourteenth-century interest in mysticism did a more positive view of the cell emerge. The early anchoritic model denying individuality, rank, money, speech, will, and personal relations, was a significant psychological challenge. While the seasoned monk and nun may have welcomed mortification and its psychological and spiritual rewards, the style of living was a significant change for the unprofessed. As anchoritism evolved, oversight of bishops emerged as a check on the mental stability of potential anchorites.

The psychology of the anchorite differs from that of the monk. No "institutionally imposed restraints" or rules prompted the anchorite's sense of devotion or initiative. Written guides were admonitions or recommendation, versus the tone of manuals and rules in monastic and ecclesiastical circles. The anchorite is considered an ascetic by the guides, later still (in the fourteenth century) as seekers of mystical union with God.

The concept of the anchorite as contemplative and not just ascetic occurs in this later period. Hence the more florid description of the potential anchorite in this 1403 writing does not allude to penitence and punishment. The anchorite is a woman "desiring to lead the contemplative life of an anchorite." She is

... desiring to [cast off] secular pomp and illicit worldly life in order to earn the riches of eternal wealth. She chooses a spiritual mansion by being enclosed in an anchorite's cell perpetually, scorning worldly pleasures, the more freely to contemplate her Creator.


Part Two addresses the patrons of anchorites, about 150 pages of fascinating anecdotal evidence too detailed to pursue here. This section offers a comprehensive survey of that grand paradox for anchorites, withdrawing from the world but needing it nevertheless.

The book offers an excellent summary conclusion of the historical evolution of anchoritism in medieval England, tracing motifs, activities, and relations of cell and society. Warren judges the culture on the basis of its treatment of the exceptional in society, on how it accommodates their values, specifically that of the anchorite. She concludes:

In medieval England society fulfilled an unspoken but implicit promise to those who, nurtured in a religious system that sanctified solitude, accepted its challenge. Medieval England met the test of an honorable and healthy civilization. English anchoritism died by fiat and not for lack of the faithful.