Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > The Anchoress

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
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bookshelves: australian-womens-writers-challenge, librarybooks

‘This was to be my home – no, my grave – for the rest of my life.’

In the English Midlands in the middle of the 13th century, Sarah, the daughter of a cloth merchant, chooses to become an anchoress at the church of St Juliana in the village of Hartham. This choice requires Sarah to be walled up in a cell – nine paces by seven paces – adjoining the church. The cell, known as an anchorhold, has a window, an aperture which allows Sarah to see the altar – only – of the church. The cell door is nailed shut. If Sarah were to leave, the bishop has told her, ‘it would be a grievous sin against our lord, and grievous sin against the church.’

Sarah is the third anchoress to occupy this particular anchorhold. The first occupant, Agnes, has been buried beneath it. It’s less clear what happened to Isabella, the second occupant. In the cell, with her needs attended by two maids, Sarah gives her life to contemplation and prayer.

‘This is an anchorhold, Anna. Do you understand that I vowed to die to the
world? That this is a living death, here, in this cell?’

But why has Sarah chosen this life? What were the alternatives available to her? Why choose an anchorhold instead of a convent? Is Sarah’s choice motivated by religious belief, or by avoidance of other possibilities, such as marriage and childbirth?

From my reading, Sarah’s choice is a retreat from the world, from the usual choices of mediaeval women. She has seen her sister Emma and her mother die, in or after childbirth. Her father, after losing a valuable cargo at sea, wants Sarah to marry. A local lord is interested.

In her anchorhold, the only man Sarah speaks with is her confessor. The only news of the world outside Sarah receives is from her maids and from some of the village women. But even in an anchorhold, the world cannot be kept totally at bay. As Ranaulf (her confessor) tells her:

‘Don’t come to God and ask to be safe, Sister.’

I found Ms Cadwallader’s portrayal of Sarah’s choices interesting, and her description of the medieval world in which Sarah lived thought-provoking. Ms Cadwallader provides quite a detailed description of how an anchoress lived and was supported by the community and the church. We see, too, a broader depiction of the role of women through the events recounted by the village women, through the views of Ranaulf and the actions of the local lord.

Well worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Reading Progress

February 19, 2015 – Started Reading
February 21, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 25, 2015 – Shelved
February 25, 2015 – Shelved as: australian-womens-writers-challenge
February 25, 2015 – Shelved as: librarybooks

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto I've never heard of an anchoress. Was a church with one thought to be more blessed, do you know?


Jennifer (JC-S) Good question, Jonathan. I imagine that the parishioners thought so. There's some interesting information on Wikipedia about anchorites and anchoresses.


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