In the early 13th century, three sisters decided to each have themselves walled up inside a cell. They chose to live alone and devote themselves to a life of prayer and contemplation. These sisters were ‘anchoresses’ (‘anchorite’ is the male version of this term). Once inside their cells – or anchorholds – they had no way to get out. We know about these three sisters from an extraordinary text called the Ancrene Wisse.
‘Ancrene Wisse’, sometimes also given as the ‘Ancrene Riwle’, means a ‘guide for anchoresses’. It was written for these three sisters, at some point between 1225 and 1240. We do not know the identity of the author or who the three sisters were, but the language is a dialect of Middle English which comes from the West Midlands region. The text is an exceptional document – a work of startling literary merit, but also a fascinating insight into the enclosed way of life.
The final part of the text – Part 8 (from f. 191r – digitised images 5 and 6) – is full of rules for the proper conduct of the anchoress. There are interesting details: we learn that anchoresses were prohibited from eating meat and that they were not allowed any accessories or items of clothing that were decorative rather than practical; rings, brooches, patterned belts and gloves were not allowed. They were also forbidden from keeping pets, except cats.
Alongside these rules, there are also dark clues about the austere life of an anchoress. An anchoress’s cell was tiny – only about 12 feet square. It had a small window onto the outside world which was to be covered with a black curtain marked with a white cross, inside and out. The Ancrene Wisse tells its readers not to spend too much time near their windows – ‘þe leaste þet ȝe eauer maȝen Louieð oure þurles’ [do not be fond of windows] – and advises that the black cloth of the curtains has a symbolic meaning: ‘þe blake clað bi tacneð þet ȝe beoð blake & vnwurð towart þe world wiðuten’ [The black cloth shows that you yourselves are black and of no value in the eyes of the outside world] (f. 20r – digitised image 3).
As well as offering remarkable insights into the life of an anchoress, the text also has startling literary qualities. The Ancrene Wisse makes use of some surprising metaphors. In Part 7 (f. 181r – digitised image 4), the author uses the image of a lover-knight to describe Christ’s love for humankind:
A lefdi wes mid hire fan biset al abuten hire lond al to struet. & heo alpoure inwið an eorðene castel. Amichti kinges luue wes þach biturnd up on hire se vnimete þet he for wochlec sende hire his sonden an efter oðer. ofte somet monie. Sende hire beaubelez baðe feole & feire. Sucurs of liuenað. help of his heche hird to halden hire castel.
[A lady was completely surrounded by her enemies, her land laid waste and she was destitute, in a castle made of earth. But a powerful king had fallen in love with her so passionately that he sent his messengers to woo her, one after another, often many together. He sent her many spectacular gifts of jewellery, provisions to support her and help from his noble army to support her.]
In this image, the author uses a motif derived from texts about courtly love and redeploys it in a very different context. We can also see here that although the text is written in prose, the prose is ‘alliterative’, meaning that it has a kind of internal rhyme. This creates a rhythmical quality when it is read aloud (as the author probably intended it to be).
View a full set of images of this digitised manuscript.