Have y’all heard of anchorites and anchoresses? Neither had I until Paddy and Plunkett took a tour of Norwich back in July! The lads introduced me to this super interesting topic and to Julian of Norwich–prime material for some semi-obscure herstory, methinks.
Their title derived from the Ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to retire’ or ‘withdraw’, medieval anchorites were kind of like hermits. But instead of retreating to a hobbit hole in some peaceful hamlet for a bit, anchorites withdrew from society permanently in dreadful little cells annexed onto churches. After being given their last rites, anchorites were walled up in their reclusories kinda like Fortunato in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’!
Unlike unfortunate Fortunato, however, anchorites’ enclosures were usually generously equipped with at least two windows: one tiny window (called a squint) looking into the church with a view of the altar and a second window looking onto the outside world. As Paddy and Plunkett learned, anchorites would receive the public via this second window, dispensing spiritual advice and council to the common man. I suppose it was also through this opening that they collected their food and passed their waste. Multipurpose orifice!
But hold up! Why do I keep referring to ‘anchorites’ when this role was primarily taken on by women known as anchoresses??? Yep, that’s right! Career opportunities were seriouslllllllllllllllly limited for women in the Middle Ages, especially those who were unwed/not nuns. If you failed to get thee to a nunnery or find a husband, your options were pretty much witch or anchoress. Both jobs appeal to me, if I’m honest… but frequent painful death by hanging or burning as a witch makes me feel like maybe anchoress was the way to go? Bring on the bricks!
Besides the obvious benefit of having stone walls separating you from other horrible humans ensuring that you never having to make up an excuse for why you can’t attend a social event, the other excellent thing about being a medieval anchoress was not having to (literally) rub shoulders with all the disgusting plague-ridden villagers. Sign me up.
This brings me to celebrity anchoress and original crazy cat lady, Julian of Norwich. We don’t know a whole heap about her–including her name (as ‘Julian’ was the name of the church in Norwich where she was enclosed)–but what we do know is pretty fascinating.
There are no records of Julian’s life prior to her enclosure, but it has been surmised that she was born in 1342 and spent most of her life holed up in this church in Norwich. There is evidence to suggest that she lived at least into her 70s, no doubt well-surpassing the average lifespan of her fellow poxy, plague-tokened Norwichians.
In 1373 at the age of 30, Julian fell gravely ill. Whilst in the throes of this illness, Christ came to Julian in a number of a visions. Julian managed to pull through, and out of these visions, she penned a book called Revelations of Divine Love. Julian’s bestseller is thought to be the first (existing) book to be written in English by a woman!!! Furthermore, Revelations represents a feminised vision of God, referring to Jesus as a ‘mother’ figure.
If all this wasn’t cool enough, Julian also appears to be strongly associated with cats… though I suspect that this is something we have imposed upon her, rather than actual fact. In my image search, I noticed that Julian is often depicted holding a cat. Looking further into this (for obvious reasons), I only see a few crummy sources without references that seem to be feeding off each other (like, using the exact same words to state the exact same ‘facts’)–talking about Julian and her beloved feline companion who lived with her in the cell. I don’t doubt that Julian probably had a few kitty visitors in her 70 years, but she’s not actually the ‘Patron Saint of Cats’ (as touted on Pinterest and Etsy), and I don’t believe she had one single beloved 50 year-old cat companion. In the seemingly age-old inseparability of single (‘insane’ and ‘witchy’) women and cats, I think that artists have mythologised her into a cat lady.
These look to me like fake-medieval paintings–what do y’all think? Especially since people used to paint cats (and babies) like this:
But my favourite rendering is this one possibly made using clip art/Microsoft Paint and featuring Julian holding a bonbon with Jane and a bongo drum in the background:
However, this cat thing–if true–really drives home Julian’s idyllic circumstances. She’s almost as enviable as Eleanor of Brittany! Alas, I can only dream about a life where I don’t have to ride a bus and four trains per day and work in an office with deplorables–a life where I ne’er have to leave four walls and cat cuddles… and I could write a novel about the visions that would inevitably come to me from lack of sunlight and exercise. Of course, I’d be in a constant state of constipation, too embarrassed to deliver my poo out the window to a servant. But that seems like a small price to pay for the freedom of being closed off from all the wide world.
It’s been awhile since we’ve had a Weekes Word, especially since B neglected to provide one as requested on the St Michaelmas post (he’s not welcome in my enclosure!). This word seems to be most frequently linked with tarot cards these days (and specifically refers to a priest/religious leader from the Eleusinian cult in Ancient Greece), but it can be used in a more generalised sense as below.
Hierophant: a person who interprets sacred mysteries or esoteric principles. Ex: Despite not necessarily being in possession of the skills of a hierophant, Weekes felt that she would be an ideal candidate for Local Anchoress, and she updated her CV accordingly.
xWG // @dazeandweekes // @weekes
“About Anchorites.” Hermits & Anchorites : About Anchorites, hermits.ex.ac.uk/index/anchorites.
“About Julian of Norwich.” About Julian of Norwich | The Julian Centre, juliancentre.org/about/about-julian-of-norwich.html.
*From Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol. 72r. By permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College Cambridge.