Inside Medieval Contemplative Life: The Anchoress

 Cadwallader

In a small English Village in 1255, 17 year-old Sarah willingly entered a small stone cell and allowed the stout wooden door to be nailed closed behind her. She spends the rest of her life shut-off from the outside world. Her new domain consists of a cold, damp stone cell with a squint focused on the parish church altar; a low shuttered window through which her food is passed, and a second curtained opening through which Sarah spoke to her confessor and female petitioners. 

Skipton Anchorite Cell. Photo by Immanuel Giel, July 2007.
Skipton Anchorite Cell. Photo by Immanuel Giel, July 2007.

 

Sarah has not been imprisoned due to any wrongdoing however, she pledges to undergo a harrowing life of sacrifice, prayer, and contemplation for the benefit of the members of her diocese.

Her life of stringent confinement was scrupulously maintained for two reasons. The sequestered life, and her book of rules, forces Sarah to spend her time in prayer for the benefit not only of the townspeople, but her wealthy patron. Secondly, her virginity, that commodity so highly prized by a number of faiths, is unassailable.

Anchorhold Depicted in Manuscript. Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings; University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN
Anchorhold Depicted in Manuscript. Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings; University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN

 

While much of the plot line follows Sarah, other characters and their stories overlap. I particularly enjoyed learning about medieval manuscripts, the only texts Sarah possessed. Sarah benefitted from the talents of Father Ranaulf, her confessor and local scribe, and illuminator Brother Cuthbert.

Although books were expensive to make, they were sometimes presented to members of the clergy for a variety of reasons, or commissioned by rich patrons. Preparing the parchment was a time-consuming process.

  

In spite of the care taken during production blemishes could appear on the finished parchments. When that happened, the scribes would sometimes use embroidery to embellish and repair the skin. 

 

Books repaired with silk thread. Uppsala, University Library, Shelfmark unknown (14th century)
Books repaired with silk thread. Uppsala, University Library, Shelfmark unknown (14th century)

 

While Sarah worked on altar clothes during her confinement, author Robyn Cadwallader doesn’t show her stitching on parchment. Sarah is still a young woman at the end of the novel though, so I like to image her working on a manuscript as she prays.

THE ANCHORESS

By Robyn Cadwallader

310 pp. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

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