Anchorites are proving to be a tough subject to analysis. Medievalists consider them to be an unimportant, colourful footnote while feminists dismiss them as a patriarchal obscenity without merit. Most source material not in Old English are about one hundred years old and purely descriptive. Still progress has been achieved. I think that a clue to the function of anchoresses lies in the economic burden which they inflict on the local community and the church. No anchoress was immured without the guaranty of lifelong support of the church and most villages had at least one. Julian of Norwich also had two hand servants who had to be perpetually supported. The support of the church was supplemented by alms from the local village. What was the payback for this extensive cost? For the villagers it was independent access to God outside of the church. The anchoresses were considered living saints who could directly intercede with God on the behalf of the local supplicants and give advice on domestic issues as well as the general condition of the church.
The value to the church was a purported independent validation of their ministry. The main moral and spiritual authority in the Middle Ages was the church and it had lost its legitimacy through its doctrine that good works would lead to salvation. The official church stance on the Black Death that killed about a third of the population was it was the consequence of individual sin but folks noticed that good people died while evil ones would live. This problem in theodicy combined with the Papal schism which broke the unity of the church caused the population to reject the authority of the church. The first use of the word nihilist was used to label those during this period who rejected the church. Each anchorhold or reclusorium had three windows - one for the locals to converse with the anchorite, one for the hand servants to place food and remove the waste bucket, and one (the squint or pericope) which faced the altar for the anchoress to receive the host during communion.
There is no official record but I suspect that the church authorities would give “guidance” to the anchoress through the squint along with admonitions and spiritual support. Thus there would be a purported independent support to their agenda. This is not unlike the current situation in the states where the moral authority of those in governance has been lost to the general population and these authorities supplement their public utterances with support from “independent” think tanks, experts and the mass media. The anchoresses had complete freedom of thought and utterance within their physical constraints unlike the orders like the Benedictines who had a code. The consequence was that their utterances did not always follow the expectations of the church as we shall see.
The greatest danger to Anchoresses was not external but internal in her thoughts.
In an essay by Alexander Gabrovsky:
“In Ancrene Wisse (AW), an anonymous early thirteenth century guidebook for female anchorites in the West Midlands of England, a spiritual battle ensues when the anchoress falls asleep with the devil tempting her by her bedside. When the seat of awareness (sensus communis) shuts down, sleep weakens or even disables the power of the will…No matter how pious or chaste, the anchoress is still a descendent of Eve, which keeps her soul perilously chained to the body during sleep…Within the boundary between wakefulness and sleep is a window open for the devil’s entrance, where the anchorite momentarily loses self-control in her passive state.
The devil recalls to her memory a conversation on ‘flesches galnesse.’ She ingests the devil’s words, which already existed in her memoria. Her encounter with the person from the outside world, who spoke to her about the lusts of the flesh, is used as the devil’s manipulative weapon, a kind of Trojan horse: she is impregnated with sinful words during the day, which give birth to sin and lust at night, when the devil ‘sið slepi ure skile.’ Although the anchoress should mimic the ‘niht beoð fleonninde, ant sechinde ower sawle heouenliche fode,’ the food that churns in her stomach is the speech (spec) on ‘flesches galnesse.’ In fact, Aristotle states maldigestion of food as a common reason for dreams. One critic draws attention to how “the recluse herself ingests ‘tales’ with which she is ‘fulfilled’, while the food […] becomes the currency of a debased exchange with the world.”
To protect the anchoresses’ virginity “the anchorites slept fully clothed, girded with cords, following St. Benedict’s rule for the monks of Montecassino, written about 700 years earlier” and use a bible as a pillow which acts as a holy prophylactic preventing spiritual impregnation through a form of textual osmosis. During the middle ages, the church had an Aristotelian view on human procreation. Aristotle believed that women were incomplete men due to their deficiency with respect to the inability to produce semen. A male is male in virtue of a particular ability, and a female in virtue of a particular inability’ (Generation of Animals, I, 82f). Women supplied the nourishment and locality in the so called Flower pot theory of human generation (Caroline Whitbeck) where the men provided the seed which incorporated all aspects required for human reproduction thus the devil’s ectoplasmic seed could sexual transgress the anchoress in her reclusorium.