Lives of the Anchoresses

In cities and towns across northern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a new type of religious woman took up authoritative though solitary positions in medieval society. Mulder-Bakker offers a new history of these women and their roles as counselors, theological innovators, and public recluses.

Lives of the Anchoresses
The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe

Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker. Translated by Myra Heerspink Scholz

2005 | 312 pages | Cloth $69.95
History / Women's Studies/Gender Studies / Religion
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Table of Contents

1. Bees Without a King
2. The Mother of Guibert of Nogent: The Age of Discretion
3. Yvette of Huy: The Metamorphoses of a Woman
4. Juliana of Cornillon: Church Reform and the Corpus Christi Feast
5. Eve of St. Martin: The Faithful of Liège and the Church
6. Lame Margaret of Magdeburg and Her Lessons
7. Living Saints
8. Epilogue

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Chapter 1
Bees Without a King

"For among bees there is a king," declared Bishop Robert of Thourotte in Liège in 1246, therefore holy women must live in communities under a leader.

At the Martini Church in Groningen, showpiece of a city still young in the thirteenth century, lived an anchoress. Enclosed in her cell, she was devoted to God in a highly conspicuous way. Directly on the Great Marketplace, visible and audible to those passing through the heart of the city, she lived the "life of angels" and functioned as a spiritual intermediary for the faithful of the town.

When a German merchant residing in Groningen once found himself in serious trouble, it was with her that he sought refuge. On one of his trips to the East he had managed to acquire a precious relic—the arm of John the Baptist, he claimed—and had it bricked into the masonry of his house. This made him feel invulnerable. When a large fire broke out in the city—probably the fire of the 1190s—and all the people made frantic attempts to rescue their possessions, he stayed defiantly in the tavern, sure that his house would be safe. This aroused the fury and suspicion of his fellow residents. Feeling that his life was in danger, he entrusted the arm to the recluse and fled from the town.

And so it happened, Caesarius of Heisterbach writes, that Groningen acquired its most precious relic, source of spiritual and material welfare of the city. Because the recluse "could not keep the secret to herself and told someone what had been entrusted to her, who in turn informed the citizenry, the latter immediately carried off the relic and brought it to the church." Subsequently the arm, displayed in a gilt reliquary and decorated with precious stones, attracted hundreds of pilgrims to the Martini Church. And the city owed all this to the anchoress who had proved herself a confidante to a merchant in need and an intermediary who brought blessings on the town. Although Caesarius's anecdote contains some gentle criticism of the recluse—typical that a woman couldn't keep her mouth shut—her fame as an anchoress forestalled any possible doubts about the authenticity of the relic.

For the rest, we know nothing about the recluse at the Martini Church. Caesarius remains the sole witness.

For modern readers an anecdote like this one raises many questions. How exactly should we picture a medieval anchoress of the kind we glimpse here, living in the shadow of a large city church? Was she an exceptional case or a phenomenon encountered more often? Was it only women who lived like this or men as well? What kind of lives did they lead, and what significance did they have for their surroundings? And why did certain believers opt for this form of life, which from our perspective seems rather bizarre? What could possibly have attracted people to the anchoritic life? Was it escapism, an attempt to flee from society? But the Groningen anchoress appears to have chosen the center of the town as the place to devote herself to God. She also seems to have played an active role in the community. A simple urge to escape is therefore out of the question. What was her motive, then? And why did she not choose to live in the forest or the mountains, like the hermits familiar to us from chivalric romances? Or was that option open only to men? Were there differences between men and women in this area? And if so, why?

Historians have raised these questions before, especially those about the relation between anchorites and their environment. Because the sources yield little in the way of answers-usually, as in the Groningen case, information is provided only indirectly—scholars generally do no more than repeat old answers, particularly those that emerged in the nineteenth century or even in the pious thought of the Counter Reformation. In the typical handbook or encyclopedia, often a collaborative product of theologians and church historians, we read that such women were deeply religious persons who abstained from marital life and motherhood for the sake of their spiritual bridegroom, Christ. They shared this ideal, we are told, with nuns and devout sisters who had also bid farewell to an ordinary life, but unlike them, anchoresses lived in total solitude. Isolated from the outside world, with the door of their cell bolted and the window covered with a black curtain, they lived as if at the gates of heaven, praying day and night in the seclusion of their cell. A Vita angelica it was called, a life of angels. Immersed in their meditation, anchoresses yearned for the moment when the bridegroom would take them by the hand and lead them into the heavenly bridal chamber.

The scholars who wrote these books, themselves without exception men formed by the nineteenth-century Victorian ideal of the good housewife who longs for her husband or father in the seclusion of her home, could not imagine anything different. For them, both nuns and anchoresses sublimated a conventional middle-class ideal onto the spiritual plane. They do not distinguish between enclosed anchoresses (often referred to as recluses) and female hermitesses in the forest. Nor do they describe the remarkable changes that took place in the course of the Middle Ages. The only real difference they see between nuns in a convent cell and recluses in an anchorhold is one of degree. Nuns pursued their ideal in the community of the cloister; recluses had to manage without that safety net. In total solitude, like bees without a king, they strove for perfect contemplation. The fact that the sparse information in the sources does not seem to support their ideas—witness our woman in Groningen, who was certainly not cut off from life in the city—apparently gave them no second thoughts.

Historical research of recent years has taken a different tack. Inspired by innovative studies such as Peter Brown's "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity," French and Italian scholars in particular have approached the role of recluses and anchorites from a historical-social perspective, placing it in the context of the times. Under the leadership of André Vauchez, director of the École française in Rome, and Sofia Boesch Gajano, founder and great inspirer of the Italian Gruppo di ricerca "Santi e culto dei santi," historians, art historians, and anthropologists have freed themselves from the framework of church history and dogma to begin studying the holy in all its facets from what we might label a profane perspective. Research into anchoritism has also found a place in their program. Sofia Boesch herself wrote a pioneering study of Chelidonia, the female successor of Benedict in the cave of Subiaco, showing especially how the bones and veneration were subjected to the manipulations of power politics. Anna Benvenuti Papi inventoried the many recluses in Florence and Tuscany who lived as in a grave, Velut in sepulchro, and Gabriella Zarri did groundbreaking research into a group of living saints and recluses, Sante Vive, who were held in high esteem at the humanist courts of Italy. These women, Zarri maintains, combined mystical ecstasy, gifts of prophecy, and telepathy with thaumaturgical powers and political influence. They had "a preference for the mixed life, held to be superior to the cloistered life if not the contemplative one," which included a "sense of having a social and ecclesiastical mission." This study shows Zarri to be inspired by issues and approaches from Anglo-American gender studies, a fruitful route.

In England there is a much longer tradition of a more historical and literary-historical approach to medieval anchorites. Rotha Mary Clay's 1914 book still provides the foundation for all historical studies of hermits and recluses. Ann Warren supplemented her inventory and devoted special study to the financial relations of anchorites with their-often noble-patrons. These historians, however, made no essential distinction between hermits in the forest and anchorites at a church or monastery, although the large majority of the ones they found were of the latter type. This led to the assumption—a misconception—that England was exceptionally rich in anchoresses. The Continent may have had its beguines and other devout women, but England had an almost exclusive claim to hundreds of recluses. More recently, English scholarship has concentrated mainly on the anchoritic spirituality of the Ancrene Wisse and devout literature. As a result, it is now largely the domain of literary historians.

A Special Type of Anchorite: The Urban Recluse

This book deals with the group of individual faithful who, like the woman in Groningen, chose to be bricked into a cell at a church or chapel, for a given period of time or for the rest of their lives, in order to devote themselves entirely to God. It zooms in on the women among them. In modern scholarship these people are commonly referred to as "recluses," a medieval term derived from the Latin verb recludere, to extricate oneself. The topic here is therefore urban recluses, not hermitesses living in the forest. A study of the latter type would not even be possible, since society at the time did not allow for solitary female hermits. Men withdrew into the woodlands and the mountains but also had themselves enclosed at a church or monastery. Both paths were open to them, while women could only become recluses. One of the intriguing questions that this book seeks to answer is how we should account for this difference in possibilities.

A clear distinction must be made between recluses and other types of female religious, especially beguines and members of closed orders, that is, nuns in contemplative cloisters. Beguines were devout women—"laypersons" in the terminology of the Church—who simply led a religious life in the town where they lived. They earned their living with weaving, teaching, or caring for the sick, just as other independent women did. Living either alone or in a small group in a convent or beguinage, they devoted themselves as much as possible to contemplation. Beguines thus led a mixed life, with a combination of active and contemplative elements. In the course of the thirteenth century their communities began to form legally recognized institutions, but the women themselves continued to live without a monastic rule and remained free of any official ties with religious orders. It was on these points that they differed from nuns who had taken a vow and obeyed a rule. Some of these nuns lived under clausura. Although the Latin recludere, like includere, is derived from claudere, to close, the three terms are charged with essentially different, highly contrastive meanings in both medieval and modern usage. Clausura denotes the secluded nature of a contemplative convent. A term used specifically for nuns, not for monks, it refers to a community of religious women who live isolated from the outside world, not to the enclosed life of the individual recluse. Ever since the time of the Migrations, Church authorities had considered it safer for nuns to live behind convent walls, in clausura. The word carries connotations of being (involuntarily) locked away; in common medieval usage it could mean "fence," "cattle park," or even "prison." Ducange gives the following definition: septum in quo animalia custodientur, "the enclosure in which animals are kept"—or nuns, we might add. From the thirteenth century onward, popes and prelates tried to make clausura mandatory for all nuns. Not until the Counter Reformation did they finally succeed.

Includere has the same root as claudere but in medieval usage was applied to cenobites, monks and nuns, who sought a kind of superasceticism outside their own monastery (see below); and especially for women who lived in inclusoria at an abbey, in the charge of an abbot, either alone or in small groups. Because there were so absurdly few women's abbeys, women opted for this informal monastic existence. Some inclusoria attracted so many religious women that they were able to establish independent abbeys of their own. Hildegard of Bingen, who was an incluse at Dissibodenberg and from there founded the women's abbey on the Rupertsberg, is the best-known example. Incluses were therefore religious who followed a rule, owed obedience to an abbot, and transferred whatever possessions they had to the monastery. Formally or otherwise, we have to consider them monastics. Unlike recluses, they could be found in the immediate vicinity of a large abbey or (closed) convent in the city, not at a large city church.

In contrast, recludere, also derived from claudere, denoted in classical Latin the opposite of "to lock away," namely "to un-close," "to disclose," or even "to reveal." Although in Late Latin it came to mean "to shut off" on analogy with claudere, it retained its active charge: a believer opted for seclusion, thus freeing himself or herself from a restrictive environment. Reclusio was the separateness and mental independence a person sought as the way to be open to God. Ducange: reclusio qua quis ad vacandum Deo in cella se includit, "the seclusion whereby someone encloses himself or herself in a cell in order to be free for God." Reduced to their etymological essence, recluses were therefore faithful who freed themselves from the confining bonds of society but did not necessarily remove themselves from society as such. They sought a spot where they could devote themselves completely to the love of God, without a fixed rule and without an imposed form of life. Like the Groningen anchoress, they typically chose to live in a cell near the main church of a town or some other strategically located church or chapel. This book is about these voluntary recluses. Anchoresses of this type gained unprecedented esteem and greatly influenced religious life in the later Middle Ages. Dozens, more likely hundreds, of devout women converted to this way of life. We almost have to assume that every small town had its own recluse. In the oral culture of medieval Christianity they fulfilled a role that for the most part eludes us, dependent as we are on written sources.

It should be noted that no matter how clear the conceptual distinctions introduced here may seem in the abstract, medieval authors often failed to discriminate between them in concrete usage. Or they lumped all devout women together under the rubric mulieres religiosae. We then have to investigate each case individually to find out which of the categories described above the writer had in mind. An additional problem is that in English usage "ancren" and "anchorite," both apparently derived from anachoreta, the believer who retreats far into the desert, seem to have been used indiscriminately for all forms of solitary seclusion.

Research Questions

Four complexes of questions suggested by this etymological skeleton will be fleshed out in this study. First, what sort of phenomenon was this free reclusive life? When did it emerge, what were its characteristics, and what motivated women to seek out this seclusion in the middle of the community? Why were there no women in the forest while they were standing in line for a reclusorium in the city—and precisely at a time when men were losing interest in both forms of solitude? This leads to the next complex of questions, those concerning the relation of recluses with the world around them. What exactly did these women hope to achieve with this form of life? How did they view their existence? Did they make any statements justifying their choice? The third complex revolves around the question of gender. While the Church preferred to have devout women enter a convent, a substantial number of them continued to seek a God-centered life in the city. Why did so many refuse the seclusion of the convent, from humanistic Italy to urban Brabant and Liège? Was life in an anchorhold a shortcut for women who were otherwise doomed to powerlessness? Did their choice, in other words, have something to do with the power structures in the Church—and with the ambitions of religious women? Descriptions of the anchoritic life by church historians or literary studies of recluse spirituality do not yield the analytical models needed to answer these questions. Like Gabriella Zarri, I agree with Joan Wallach Scott that gender is "a useful category of historical analysis" and offers the research tools needed. Only when we inquire into prescribed role patterns and actual behavior, into the differences between what was expected of men and of women, will we gain a glimpse into what may have inspired and motivated these anchoresses. Then we will also discover the impact these women had on the "histoire vécue du peuple chrétien" or "lived Christianitas," as a programmatic French study phrased it, the "religion vécue" or "lived religion" as distinct from the institutional Church. Finally, there remains the intriguing question of why historians have paid so little attention to this phenomenon. If it was as widespread as I suggest here, why was it never a likely object of study by church historians or religious scholars?

I intend to give a face and a story to the many anonymous recluses by presenting five examples of anchoresses about whom we happen to have a more or less detailed life account. All five of them lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the lowlands of northwest Europe, in the cultural region, that is, between the Seine and the Elbe. I chose this period and this region because the new type of the free urban anchoress was emerging there at the time and because the lives of these few women illustrate the historical significance of their ideal. Let me introduce them.

Five Exemplary Women

The mother of Guibert of Nogent (d. after 1104) is my first witness. Portrayed by her son as an energetic and self-confident, even dominating woman, she withdrew as a widow into an anchorhold at what seems to have been a family monastery. She took half of her family and household with her: two sons, both of her chaplains, her resident tutor, and other household staff were urged to enter the contemplative life in the nearby abbey itself. Clearly, this was not an attempt to find total solitude. Nor was she ever, as far as we know, formally enclosed. In her cell she was visited by men and women from her previous circle, the higher nobility of northern France, who now came to speak with her about matters of faith. "Restrained and at the same time eloquent" as she was, it seemed to the visitors that they heard the bishop himself speaking.

Yvette of Huy (1158-1228), a member of the social upper crust of this old trading town on the Meuse, also a widow and mother of two sons, initially tried to live a religious life from her own house. When this proved impossible, she withdrew to a leper colony on the river and ten years later had herself enclosed at the chapel there. The abbot of Orval conducted the ceremony. From her anchorhold she offered guidance to pious visitors from the city and directed a group of devout men and women who together formed one of the earliest beguine communities. She summoned priests and even the dean of the main church to her presence and confronted them about their behavior. She read the minds of these faithful, imagined what they had done, and sensed what would happen in the future. In the uncertain period of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when the Christian faith actually began to penetrate everyday life, she served as a moral beacon for the faithful in the town. People recognized her as a prophetess. When Yvette died in the middle of a cold winter, the little birds at her window sang a summer song. They realized that in her cell paradise had been regained.

Juliana of Cornillon (1192-1258) and Eve of St. Martin in Liège (d. after 1264), my third and fourth witnesses respectively, formed a teacher-pupil team that had a far-reaching influence on the universal Church. Originator of the Feast of Corpus Christi, Juliana, who was prioress of a lepers' convent near Liège (she too), composed with the assistance of a young clerk a Latin office for the feast and its octave. Together with Eve she campaigned vigorously for its introduction. Both showed themselves to be theologians of stature who could hold their own in discussions with the great Church reformers. Around 1248, when Juliana's attempts to force the young sisters to adopt her own ascetic way of life set her at odds with her convent, she gave up her campaign for a new feast and withdrew into the reclusive life. She was not officially enclosed, however.

Eve, in contrast, who already as a young woman had been ritually enclosed at the chapter church of St. Martin, continued the struggle and, in 1264, a few years after Juliana's death, saw her efforts rewarded with the universal introduction of the feast day by the pope. This was Urban IV, who in his younger years had been archdeacon in Liège and apparently a personal friend of Juliana and Eve. The pope honored the old recluse by personally sending her a solemn papal bull informing her of the institution of the new feast—an exceptional mark of honor for an individual believer and a woman.

Lame Margaret of Magdeburg (ca. 1210-50) is my last example. Enclosed as a girl of twelve quasi in platea, "in the street," as it were, she saw it as her first task to counsel visitors. Her confessor, John, a Dominican, was highly critical of this, if only because the girl let herself be tempted into making less than orthodox statements. He therefore removed her from her cell with the permission of the bishop and placed her in the seclusion of a Dominican convent. Margaret kept protesting against this confinement until she again obtained a cell that gave her contact with visitors. There she "summoned notorious sinners to her presence and worked tirelessly for them." She comforted them, interceded for them with Christ and his Mother, and taught them the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Her critics sneered that she merely gathered scraps of second-hand information from here and there and presented them as her own wisdom. This was probably not far from the truth. Margaret very likely pondered in her heart the things she had heard and allowed them free play in her mind during meditation. These images then returned later in dreams and visionary conversations with Christ as "inspirations" or "insights." Her Latin vita is indeed full of formulas and short lists of memorabilia that believers could learn by heart. I infer from this that Margaret, having learned these things herself from the Dominicans and other learned visitors, taught them in turn to the faithful in the town. She was the religious instructor, the catechist for the people of Magdeburg. Margaret herself believed that she had received her knowledge from Mary.

A New Ideal

In the New Cities

These five women were deeply rooted in the religious culture of the later Middle Ages. In this period, during the first flowering of what is now called Western civilization, women in the economic centers of northwest Europe seized the opportunity to shape their faith more in keeping with their own insights. The free anchoritic life was one of the remarkable results of this development.

In the new cities of Italy and especially in the lowlands of northern Europe, ordinary city dwellers who had achieved material comfort and social esteem through personal initiative and an enterprising spirit developed new and appealing forms of religious practice. Uninspired by the older, existing forms, they were open to new ideals and demanded personal involvement. Their faith acquired an ethical and moral dimension. Women, who in the old family structures had always been in charge of religious duties, eagerly seized their chance. For the first time in Western history large groups of women made religion the focus of their lives. They followed itinerant preachers, lived together in convents-some of which sought affiliation with the new monastic orders-and from the thirteenth century onward went by the hundreds to live in beguine convents and beguinages. There were also women who went from door to door praying and begging, who cared for the sick and the lepers, and who met to discuss the Bible and the basic tenets of the Christian faith. A sizable number had themselves enclosed as anchoresses near a parish church or city chapel.

Until recently historians, including historians of culture and religion, showed little interest in this lay movement as an independent development. They simply followed the lead of church historians, who reasoned back from modern dogmas and were interested mainly in the evolution of their own order or confession. And traditions of nineteenth-century historical scholarship, in which the development of political (that is, public) institutions was the measure of all things, continued to set the tone. Attention was therefore focused mainly on new institutions and new dogmas hammered out within the ecclesiastical apparatus. To the extent that the cities did enter the picture, the new forms of life and new devotions emerging there were viewed as having trickled down from initiatives at the top. Consequently those earlier scholars interpreted something like the vita apostolica, the widespread ideal of the "apostolic way of life," in a monastic sense: as a life in poverty and community in imitation of the apostles in Acts 2. They failed to discover what the lay faithful meant by this, namely a life of preaching and apostleship for themselves. The innovations were viewed as part of a comprehensive master plan known as the Gregorian Reform, a blueprint developed by the pope and the curia and imposed from above whenever the opportunity presented itself—by Gregory VII himself, of course (1067-85), by the synods of the twelfth century, and by Innocent III (1198-1215) with his Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. No mention was made of any grass-roots impetus. The idea that the innovations resulted from a process of ferment at all levels hardly came up for consideration.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, were primarily a time of inner christianization among ordinary believers, a period in which the personal experience of the Christian faith first penetrated everyday life. The institution of the Church, with its new pretensions of priestly authority and the ministry of sacraments, had to claim a place for itself in this process as much as the new forms of religious experience. Respect for the priesthood and the papacy could not be taken for granted, especially considering that many priests hardly deserved (moral) authority. The sacraments of the Church began to acquire their crucial significance as means of grace necessary for salvation only after the Lateran Council. And only then did the fear of hell and damnation become widespread. Because the Church did not yet have sanctions to force the faithful into obedience, it was dependent on the persuasive powers of its servants. In a climate of this kind, charismatically inclined believers, especially women, had as much of a chance to profile themselves as the often poorly qualified priests. Church reformers also relied on their support.

The new devout of this time experienced their faith in the parish church, the heart of the community and focal point of their new identity. They did not seek out the seclusion of a monastery or the interiority of personal devotion: the "art of devotion" was a product of the late Middle Ages. For believers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries faith was a communal affair, experienced in the framework of the parish, neighborhood, or town. Within that communal setting, attempts were made to mold religious practice along more personal lines, with an increasing emphasis on issues of morality and ethics. Talented and ambitious women were in the forefront of these developments. Recluses living in the heart of the community, whose identity all but merged with that of the parish church, were the trendsetters. We can hardly overestimate the importance of these innovations. Arnold Angenendt speaks of a watershed in the history of Christianity.

The most remarkable of these innovations was the free reclusive form of life for women. Living as ascetics in the world but not of the world, they totally surrendered themselves to the love of God without submitting to a fixed rule or an imposed form of life. This freedom meant that they could choose a residence outside the confines of this world, at a place where heaven and earth intersected in the sacred space of the church, a small corner of paradise on earth where even nature had regained its original freedom. About Christina the Astonishing, an anchoress at the beginning of the thirteenth century, a Middle Dutch poet wrote:

Where God's Spirit is, one can be free.
That is why she flew effortlessly
With her body straight through the air,
Just like a bird that had no fear.
Living in their anchorholds in the midst of their fellow citizens, anchoresses did not lead the isolated existence that Roman Catholic theologians and church historians imagined. They were not penitents who spent their days in total solitude, wallowing in extreme forms of self-castigation. Nor were they loners primarily concerned with their own sanctity, a wishful image of Church reformers. They were neither an "overflow" from convents nor an adjunct of monastic reforms. Instead, they were strong, self-assured believers who chose to live at the heart of the community and to serve God in a way that included service to their fellow human beings. Often members of the upper social classes and blessed with a seemingly innate spirit of independence, they dedicated themselves to God without turning away from the world. Unburdened by social obligations, they were free to act as the spirit, the Spirit, moved them. This meant listening to people; instructing them if they lacked knowledge; hearing their confessions; helping them find answers to questions of life and death. But it also meant taking authoritative action against those who behaved immorally.

Although male believers could also pursue this ideal, and a few actually did so, it was mainly a women's affair. And it was an urban phenomenon. Persons who sought physical quiet and contemplation entered a monastery in the countryside; recluses remained in the town. Men could build a hermitage in the forest, a possibility unimaginable for women. Male believers with a penchant for contemplation were attracted to the new eremitic orders like Camaldoli or the Carthusians. If they felt called to a God-centered life in the service of the community, they opted for the priesthood or the new mendicant orders. Women with a calling of this kind had no choice other than the reclusive life.

Unlike nuns, especially those in the new orders, recluses did not cut all their ties to society. The pressure to enter the cloistered life, to which nuns yielded, they kept resisting—some of them, like Lame Margaret, with great stubbornness. As part of the social upper crust, they certainly could have entered a convent, but they chose not to do so. A protected life on the grounds of an abbey was not enough for them, not even for the widows among them such as the mother of Guibert and Yvette. In contrast to secular canonesses, these women did opt for strict asceticism. Even though recluses are often mentioned in the same breath with beguines, their life was dedicated to God in a much more drastic and demanding way. Their stance toward the world—forsaking but not avoiding it—was an essential distinguishing feature. It is worth noting here that in beguine circles enclosure as an anchoress was at times considered the ultimate ideal. In the beguinage of 's-Hertogenbosch it was the "task" of one of the beguines to be enclosed in the community's own cell.

The anchoritic existence actually approached that of a parish priest. Like priests, recluses distinguished themselves from ordinary believers by a recognizable way of life, in the one case marked by celibacy and a cassock and in the other by a cell and a gray habit. For both of them, dedicating themselves to God included serving their fellow human beings. Both underwent a solemn ritual that confirmed their choice of life. The ordination of the priest into the Church, it is true, was defined in canon law in fundamentally different terms from that of the benediction of a recluse. But unlike the priest, the father (pater) of the community of believers, who was present in the church only when the services required him to be, the anchoress (mater) actually lived in the church. Present day and night, she was like a mother, always at home.

No Nuns, No Rule, No Status

This free anchoritic life of laypersons should not be confused with what I call the "honors class" of monks and nuns. In the early Middle Ages the reclusive life was viewed mainly as a stricter form of asceticism for members of established orders. In organizational terms, it was a monastic affair, that belonged in a rural society. The abbot granted permission for reclusion and conducted the enclosure ceremony. The monk or nun continued to follow the familiar rule in the cell. The rare laypersons who had themselves enclosed at an abbey were automatically adopted into the monastic family.

With the religious renewal in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, city dwellers also felt attracted to the anchoritic lifestyle; they had themselves enclosed at parish churches and chapels in the city, thus fundamentally changing the nature of the institution. These were not monks and nuns who wanted to avoid all contact with their fellow human beings but ordinary townspeople who wished to dedicate themselves to God in their own surroundings. These believers sought to free themselves from the entanglements of family and society as Jesus did, but not to turn their backs on society as such. For these new recluses the traditional rules were clearly no longer suitable. They had neither a monastic rule by which to live nor an abbot to give them pastoral guidance. Nor did they want such things. We now see an appeal being made to the bishop, as head of the secular community of believers, to take these recluses under his wing. In 1202 the diocesan synod in Liège adopted a canon introduced by the papal legate Guido of Preneste, stating that a postulant could be enclosed only after receiving permission of the bishop. Toward the middle of the century the bishop of Liège even appointed a special visitator for beguines, beghards, and recluses, the renowned Renier of Tongeren, great admirer of female spirituality and promoter of women's religious interests.

Since existing monastic rules and vows did not as a matter of course apply to urban recluses, they were not required to give up their possessions. Many lived on their own income or property, others were supported by the local parish, and some, as we know from English anchorites, received bequests and possibly gifts in kind from the faithful. Under the supervision of bishops, the life of recluses, like that of beguines, became increasingly regulated as an institution in its own right.

It was not self-evident that the new recluses had to follow a rule. In view of the prominent place now occupied by Ancrene Wisse in English literary history, this requires some explanation. Before the end of the Middle Ages, when the anchoritic life was actually institutionalized, we find little that resembles a rule in the strict sense of a regimen for daily life. Recluses were simply free religious, unbound by rules. They no doubt drew inspiration from general tracts for the spiritual life, such as the famous Golden Letter by William of St. Thierry. Juliana of Cornillon and Eve of St. Martin, for example, appear to have been familiar with this work. The English Ancrene Wisse also bears more resemblance to a spiritual guide than to a rule. And the actual readers it had in mind were members of a small community, not individually enclosed anchoresses.

By no means did all anchoresses have themselves formally enclosed. Frequently a believer would reside in a cell during a specific phase of her life, in some cases at the beginning of an ecclesiastical career, evidently to gain recognition, but more often as its culmination, as in the case of Yvette of Huy. After some time such a person could request official permission from the bishop and undergo a ritual enclosure. This was a separate step that a good many anchoresses never took. Official enclosure did not in any case mean that the anchoress received holy orders or a monastic status; it was not some sort of ordination. Yet, once enclosed, anchoresses were held in high esteem. In contrast to beguines and free-roaming religious women, they in fact gave little cause for suspicion and distrust. The whole parish could keep an eye on a recluse, situated as she was in the heart of the community, visible to all. No one but a saint could persevere in that life of strict asceticism.

Free recluses were rooted in incarnation theology, a faith based on the incarnation of God and on his intervention in human history. With its focus on God the Son granting eternal life to believers, it was a strongly future-oriented faith. Because Mary was the one who had made the incarnation possible, she was as much a mediator as God-Christ himself and would retain that function until the end of time. Mary was therefore the focus of their devotion. Through the incarnation of his wisdom in Christ, God had revealed himself directly to individual believers. They were consequently able to enter an intimate relationship with the divine, independent of priestly mediation. Again, Mary served as a go-between, and her maidservants on earth, the anchoresses, followed in her footsteps. Like Mary, the recluse was viewed as a mater, a spiritual mother.

The recluses therefore responded to the growing desire among city dwellers for a more personal faith, for an individual bond with Christ and his Mother. Regularly anchoresses functioned as go-betweens for the common faithful and the Church authorities. With in many cases a solid education behind them and nurtured by divine visions and inspirations, they could articulate the feelings and needs of the community of believers and enter into discussion with Church leaders on an equal footing. Some of them, like Juliana and Eve, were able to come up with theological ideas of their own. They were "practical theologians" and bridge builders. I have therefore chosen to call them "common theologians," and I distinguish them from the learned Latin theologians of their day. Common theology stands in the same relation to learned theology as common law to learned (Roman) law. And just as common law was often not written down but did have general validity, common theology was not always written but could be generally accepted as well in their day. The domain in which common theology operated was that of the lived Christianitas ("religion vécue") and the "public orality."

In the Footsteps of the Deo Sacratae

Among the new believers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the women especially found informal ways of life more appealing than monastic institutions. Models and prototypes are therefore more likely to be found among the unaffiliated God-consecrated women from earlier periods than in established forms of eremitism or monasticism. Recluses drew their inspiration from traditions such as those of vowesses and the female diaconate.

From the first centuries of Christendom, women, both rich matrons and widows, had been active in organizing and disseminating the faith. They received fellow believers into their homes, broke bread with them, and discussed the faith. Widows among them spoke out in public. In the New Testament the old widow and prophetess Anna witnessed the circumcision of Christ and "spoke of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2: 38). Paul confirmed the special position of such women (Titus 2: 2-5). In his Epistle to the Romans he mentioned Phoebe, "a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea," a suburb of Corinth. "A servant" he called her, the Greek word is diakonos, the deaconess. The Vulgate renders this as quae est in ministerio ecclesiae. A thousand years later, Thomas of Cantimpré, a friend of recluses and pious women, would use the same term for the public function, the ministerium, of the anchoress Christina the Astonishing.

In subsequent centuries the diaconal function evolved into an official Church office. It eventually eclipsed other forms of women's service, such as that of virgins, widows, and prophetesses. The fourth-century Constitutiones Apostolorum even ascribed to deaconesses a rank in the Church order equal to that of male deacons, including a liturgical ordination. The liturgy included the following prayer by the priest: "Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman, Thou who filled Miriam with the Holy Spirit, and Deborah, Anna, and Hulda, Thou who didst not consider it unworthy for thy only begotten Son to be born of a woman ... bestow on this woman now the Holy Spirit." The names of these Old Testament foremothers of the deaconess and of Mary, the prophetess of the New Testament, would be used in the West to define the medieval prophetess—as would the close tie with the Holy Spirit. In the Constitutiones the deaconess was viewed as the earthly representative of the Holy Spirit, without whose instruction no one could come to believe in Christ. The deaconess functioned as an intermediary between female believers and the male clergy. I wish to argue that the medieval prophetess, especially in the person of the urban recluse, took on this role of diaconal mediator, that she followed in her footsteps, even though she had to do without the official liturgical confirmation.

The position of women in the early Church can be summarized in the words of Jo Ann McNamara: "The church offered aristocratic women opportunities for influence, intellectual engagement, social service, and experiments in lifestyle as episcopal partisans. Extrasacramental liturgies and devotions attracted their attention.... This type of public display gave them a quasi-clerical place in the church order." For reasons to be discussed later, however, there was no future for deaconesses in the Latin Church. In the new kingdoms of the Goths, Franks, and Saxons, developments took a different turn. Priests and priestesses traditionally had their own tasks in the heathen cults, priestesses in predicting the future, for example, and assisting with cultic activities. After the conversion to Christianity, Christian princesses and aristocratic women, active as they were in the organization of the Church, took over some of these old tasks. Most of those who did so were virgins or widows. They functioned as ministrae who fulfilled important functions alongside the male priest in both religious services and the pastorate. Some even played a quasi-priestly role. In rare cases, like those of the Merovingian queen and aspiring saint Radegunde and the daughter of Bishop Remigius of Reims, they were rewarded for this with ordination as deaconess. Most, however, tried to achieve the same result by other means, such as the ceremonial bestowal of a virgin's or widow's veil, sealed with the blessing of the bishop.

The sources make it clear that consecrated women like these, Deo sacratae, were active everywhere, either individually or in small home conventicles. Western Europe had a Famula Dei, comparable to Peter Brown's "Holy Man" in the East. In Anglo-Saxon England there was the professed widow known as a nunne, a derivative of the Latin nonna, or grandmother, the female counterpart of the secular priest. In the liturgical formulation of her function we again find an allusion to the prophetess Anna. The Continent had its consecrated virgins, such as Genoveva of Paris, and a whole series of widows-deaconesses. In the ninth century, with the increasing penetration of the lay world into Church law, the liturgy for the ordination of deaconesses was once again included in the handbooks. An intriguing point here is that a deaconess could not be ordained before her fortieth year. The age of forty seems to have been a generally recognized caesura. It very likely had this marker function for recluses as well: only at a ripe age was it acceptable for these women to play a role in society—witness the mother of Guibert, Yvette of Huy, and even Juliana of Cornillon. From glosses added to the ninth-century canons, ordination as a deaconess appears to have been a matter of great esteem and was also used for purposes other than the classical diaconate. At the Council of Paris (829) the bishops noted: "Certain women, under the pretext of taking the veil, without the consent of bishops, are veiling themselves so that they can become the female guardians, excubatrices, and female managers, administratrices, of churches." Other deaconesses took possession of a convent as lay abbesses. The ordination as vowess or deaconess evidently sanctioned the near-clerical, even quasi-priestly function, which some prominent women actually fulfilled. The mother of Guibert would fall back on this tradition. After the Gregorian Reform, however, the ordination of deaconesses could no longer be defended. New roles and functions then had to be invented that were less obviously at odds with the new Church law.

Historians, accustomed as they are to clearly defined institutions and the study of legal documentation, have until recently shown little interest in women of this kind. To them they seem a group of disparate individuals, truly "bees without a king." But scholarship of recent years has yielded some groundbreaking studies on which this book builds. The question raised here is whether, and in what way, aristocratic women of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were inspired by images and forms from preceding centuries. A related question is whether and how Church leaders used these traditions from the past to determine the position of such women. We shall discover that the charisma of the prophetess came to eclipse the office of deaconess. Anna remained the prototype of the vowess and prophetess; Old Testament prophetesses and Mary from the New Testament also retained their legitimizing character. Allusions were made to an ongoing prophetic succession. From the safety of their anchorhold, women of a ripe age assumed a function in the community of the faithful that included elements of the office of deaconess. The enclosure ritual of the anchoress thus took the place of the abrogated deaconess ordination, a change that entailed the loss of an official liturgy but at the same time the gain of a new dimension.

A History from Below

In the period following the Gregorian Reform, prelates interested in further reforming the Church became progressively less willing to accept a lay apostolate and noninstitutionalized forms of religious life. By defining their own "corps ecclésiastique" as a separate entity, the sacerdotium, with its own rights and its own restrictions such as celibacy, and with monopolistic claims to preaching, pastoral care, and confession, they denied the faithful the right to exercise sacerdotal functions. Only an ordained priest would be allowed to administer the sacraments, to preach, or to hear confession; only he was considered an intermediary between God and man. An unordained and therefore "lay" person, no matter how divinely gifted, had to abstain from such activities. In the thinking of Church reformers, there had to be a strict separation between ministers of salvation, the ordained clergy, on the one hand and recipients of that salvation, the simple faithful, on the other. If ordinary believers wanted to devote themselves fulltime to religion, they were supposed to withdraw into the contemplative life and commit themselves, for example, to seven-year periods of fasting and prayer.

The first preference of the Church was to have women enter one of the monastic orders. These had, in a sense, been specially created for the purpose and offered an organizational framework that could easily be controlled by the clergy. Many women did, in fact, follow this advice, including some prominent mulieres religiosae from Brabant and Liège, who entered Cistercian and Premonstratensian convents. "Many a bold leap toward heaven ended behind the walls of a convent," Arno Borst notes with an undertone of sarcasm. But there remained a substantial group unwilling to take this step.

These ideals of the Gregorian Reform were claims formulated by an ecclesiastical vanguard and propagated by Church reformers, papal legates in particular. They were not necessarily, and certainly not from the outset, shared by the entire clergy, nor taken for granted by the ordinary community of the faithful. One problem was that everyone, including the Church reformers and the theologians, believed that God's spirit blew where it wished, even upon charismatic laypersons. "Inspired" individuals of this kind could proclaim salvation to their fellow believers by appealing to the Holy Spirit. There remained, in short, a free zone, a certain leeway for interaction on the "shop floor." Moreover, the ordinary clergy was by no means equal to its newly assigned task—a situation that encouraged laypersons to step in and fill the lacunae. A seminal study by John Van Engen postulates that the local parishes played a pivotal role in shaping the Church. What took place there, to quote John Skinner, was "a constant and lively interplay of devotional ideas and practices between clergy and laity, high and low." Parishes formed the arena where Church reformers and religious laypersons, theologians and "common theologians," interacted. They were the laboratory for experiments in lay leadership. The anchoritic culture of the Middle Ages, I intend to show, was both a result of that parochial interaction and a form in which it flourished.

The Research

In order to gain insight into the expansion of anchoritism in my period of research, I have collected as much testimony as possible relating to recluses and anchorites. Whereas in the early Middle Ages, beginning in Merovingian and Carolingian times, believers showed a preference for a hermitage in the wilderness, in the twelfth century the balance swung in favor of the reclusorium. This shift was caused by the unprecedented popularity of the reclusive life among women and the simultaneous decline in enthusiasm among men. For the period 1100 to 1300 I have the names of more than two hundred recluses. Only five of these were men-and they, in my view, were stragglers from the preceding monastic period. Until the thirteenth century recluses almost without exception lived south of the rivers Rhine and Meuse. In succeeding centuries the phenomenon also penetrated the diocese of Utrecht and northern Germany on a large scale but did not undergo any substantial changes. These two hundred recluses make up the background choir for my soloists, the mother of Guibert of Nogent, Yvette of Huy, Juliana and Eve of Liège, and Lame Margaret of Magdeburg.

The Lowlands Between the Seine and the Elbe in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

As noted above, institutional Christendom, and especially the role of the priesthood in the Church, had not yet fully crystallized in the years following the Gregorian Reform and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Sacerdotium and laicatus, the priestly and the lay state, were still open to interpretation; negotiation was possible. One of the important points of negotiation, in my view, was the anchoritic state. While this may not have been true for the entire Church, it did apply to the self-assured lay world of the cities of northwestern Europe. This calls for a demarcation of the religious and cultural region and of the period in which these negotiations took place. Around 1250 the "foreigner" Lamprecht von Regensburg wrote:

That art [of Love and Contemplating God] has in our day
Arisen among women
In Brabant and Bavarian lands.
Lord God, what art is this
That an old woman understands
Better than a clever man?
Brabant and Liège, the heart of the new women's devotion, will therefore form the core of this study. But how should the area be further defined? Another contemporary, Hadewych, who lived at the center of the new piety, left us an account of the religious movement of her day and its most prominent figures. She drew up a list of "perfect" persons, one hundred thirty-eight men and women whom she considered models of the perfect love of God. An analysis of this list shows that most of Hadewych's examples are drawn from the area between Paris (she knew a young anchorite living there) and Saxony (home of the anchoress Mina). This provides the perfect demarcation for my research area: geographically, from Paris to Magdeburg in Saxony; and thematically, individual faithful who sought the seclusion of an anchorhold.

This religiously defined area coincides with the region that began acquiring political and cultural cohesion in Carolingian times. Around the home territory of the Carolingian dynasty near Liège, the tribal lands of the Franks (the Carolingians themselves) and the subjugated Frisians and Saxons grew together into a recognizable cultural-religious region, with a political center in Lower Lotharingia. Its southern border ran north of Paris, where Flanders was kept at bay by the French king, and along the southern edge of the prince-bishopric of Liège; in the east its outer limit was marked by the Elbe, the dividing line between the Germanic and Slavonic peoples; and in the north and west it bordered on the sea. The aristocracy in this region was predominantly oriented toward the Holy Roman Empire. Despite close ties with the Church, it maintained a large degree of independence. "C'est plus qu'ailleurs, un monde unique où dominent l'esprit de parenté, le privilège de caste, le sens de la hiérarchie, de l'honneur, du lignage."

In contrast to southern Europe, individual family members in this area, particularly the male head of the household and his wife, played a relatively independent role. Matrons and widows here also appear to have had more control over their own affairs and greater freedom of movement than elsewhere. Unmarried sisters and other female family members of the emperor, who formed a kind of "celestial court" in imperial monasteries, were even sent on diplomatic missions. Their intellectual level was in some cases surprisingly high. Peter Biller points out "that ordinary women in parts of northwestern Europe were to quite a large degree excluded from literacy, but that this 'degree' was significantly milder than the brutal extensiveness of the exclusion in southern Europe."

From a religious perspective this area is a case apart. It showed a disproportionate number of new initiatives in religious communities. Some of the new religious orders germinated here. It was the venue of the Eucharist controversy, which will come up for detailed discussion in the chapter on Juliana of Cornillon, and the cradle of Trinity veneration and Eucharist devotion. It also formed the heartland of the peculiar form of lay piety that prized visual representations, images, and holy places. And last but not least, it was home to the lay movements-the spontaneous hermits and Wanderprediger with their followings, the beguines and beghards, and in the late Middle Ages the men and women of the Modern Devotion.

The temporal scope of this study falls naturally between 1100, when the budding of the new culture and economy and the accompanying religious awareness were first becoming visible, and 1311, when ecclesiastical policies adopted at the Council of Vienne created a completely new framework. The main focus is the thirteenth century, the period in which the new achievements acquired a permanent form.

The Plan of This Book

In each of the biographical chapters I devote special attention to broader issues that arise in connection with the life and work of that recluse. The first of these appears in Chapter 2, on the mother of Guibert of Nogent. It concerns the role of recluses in the oral circuit of the Middle Ages and the contribution of wise old women to the transmission of knowledge and religious instruction in the community of believers. Chapter 3, on Yvette of Huy, discusses the possibilities for growth and change open to women in various stages of their lives. Questions regarding the contributions of religious women to theological discussions and their significance for the Church and its liturgy provide the backdrop for Chapters 4 and 5, on Juliana of Cornillon and Eve of St. Martin respectively. And Chapter 6, a portrayal of Margaret the Lame of Magdeburg, explores the anchoress's role as religious instructor of the faithful.

In the extensive concluding chapter, "Living saints," I draw some general conclusions about the public role and significance of anchoritism in the lowlands of northwest Europe. The free reclusive life is given a place in the general history of eremitism. The focal point here is the Mother of God, Maria Doctrix, source of wisdom and mother of prophetesses. In an Epilogue I draw a few connecting lines to the institutionalized anchoritism of the late Middle Ages. The closing section is devoted to Sister Bertke (d. 1514), the most famous of all anchoresses from the Netherlands. She is living proof that the old ideals of a life devoted to both God and humanity were still very much alive on the eve of the Reformation.