Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B., Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Translated by Myra Heerspink Scholz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Recent scholarship on the eremitism of medieval Europe has shifted emphasis from institutional history and the passive role of women suggested by English anchoritic guides like Aelred of Rievaulx's and the Ancrene Wisse. New interest in continental eremitism and especially in the role of women religious is well represented by Mulder-Bakker's book.
Here is a fascinating account of five formal anchoresses of northern Europe who reshaped the image and potentiality of anchoritism and Christian spirituality. The women operated within the larger informal social world of what the author calls Christianitas, the larger cultural life of Christianity versus the strictly ecclesiastical sphere. Their lives posed significant challenges to the character of theology, the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, and the social role of women of their day.
The five women of this study are: the mother of abbot Guibert of Nogent, Yvette of Huy, Juliana of Cornillon, Eve of St. Martin, and Lame Margaret of Magdeburg. They are hardly household names. They were not canonized saints nor published writers of theology or devotion. The women resided in twelfth and thirteenth century northern Europe, at the confluence of France and Germany. The author presents each woman's biography, characteristics, and the written sources for their vitae, with detailed analyses of the theological, religious, and social contexts of their eremitical circumstances. The work begins and ends with useful and insightful overviews and interpretations.
The introduction addresses an essential historiographical question: Given that nineteenth-century men were the chief researchers and writers on this medieval period, how accurate were their depictions of the anchoresses?
For them, both nuns and anchoresses sublimated a conventional middle-class ideal onto the spiritual plane. They do not distinguish between anchoresses (often referred to as recluses) and female hermittesses in the forest. Nor do they describe the remarkable changes that took place in 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 ... apparently gave them no second thoughts.
In contrast, Mulder-Bakker follows recent European scholars of history, art, and anthropology, combining their methods with the more literary approaches of English scholars to thoroughly investigate the female anchoresses and to identify a special type of anchoritism in the "urban recluse." The urban recluse is defined as a "recluse who elected to live in a cell near the main church of a town or some other strategically located church or chapel." The recluse was removed from the confining bonds of society but not necessarily society as such. A key element was a religious and devotional purpose but "without a fixed rule and without an imposed form of life."
Urban life only flowered in the twelfth century and later, and the phenomenon of women urban reclusion only emerged then, too. In this period, there is a culmination of affective theology and the growth of a practical application of religion to daily life that clashed with the growing inadequacy of trained parish clergy and monastic aloofness.
A century later would come the proliferation of the beguines and their communities, another fascinating topic on its own. But in the twelfth century came the exploration of community options that included a new form, that of the anchoress. Unlike nuns, especially those in convents, urban recluses "did not cut all ties to society." They lived in anchorholds but were not penitents or nuns. The author describes them succinctly:
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, 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 actions against those who behaved immorally.
The first case is that of the mother of Guibert, the Benedictine abbot of Nogent (1055-1125). The information comes from Guibert himself, though he never names his mother. She gave birth to three sons and was widowed shortly after the birth of Guibert. Of the upper class, she capably managed her family's assets while vigorously pursuing religious devotions. She read the Bible and Church Fathers, sponsored chaplains and tutors, and wore a hair shirt. At forty, she decided to recluse into a cell at an abbey church (Guibert had turned twelve, then considered young adulthood) but brought her family, domestic staff, chaplains, and tutor with her. Guibert explains how his mother adopted the "severity of the older woman" in meager diet, plain clothes, and straw bed. She experienced visions, the gift of discretion, and prophecy. She devoted herself to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her spiritual model.
Guibert's mother enjoyed a reputation for piety and wisdom that spread through the community, so that all who knew her, including many from low-born to prelates living afar, regularly visited her for counsel and encouragement. This "public orality," as the author calls it, spanned some forty years from after her own fortieth year. Several years before her death, Guibert's mother persuaded the bishop to grant her the neglected rite of widow's blessing, followed by ordination as deaconess, the only and highest ecclesiastical orders granted to women.
Guibert's mother embraced the subtlety of the way of wisdom. Standard theology acknowledged the superiority of the way of learning -- the intellectual path of scholars and clergy -- but the way for the exemplary Christian must go further. Though these paths were not mutually exclusive, women only had the latter available to them. By presenting Mary as exemplar, and by extending the role of anchoress into a virtual office, the new vision of the female recluse was established.
The life of Yvette of Huy (1158-1228) was recorded by the Premonstratensian Hugh of Floreffe. Yvette entered an arranged marriage at thirteen and by eighteen was the mother of three children -- and a widow. Refusing to remarry, she took the vow of widowhood, and when her children were of age began work at a leprosarium. Remarkably, she remained healthy. The townsfolk of Meuse admired her work and helped her expand the hospital and build a convent and chapel, which formed the nucleus of a beguine community. At thirty-three years of age, Yvette became a recluse in that chapel.
Yvette was a mystic, experiencing ecstasies and speaking authoritatively of the knowledge revealed to her by Jesus and Mary. This knowledge and not future-telling is what properly constitutes prophecy in the Christian and apostolic tradition. At the same time, Yvette projected her household and administrative responsibilities onto a spiritual plane, and projected her life in the anchorhold onto the community. As the author explains, "The anchorholds in which recluses lived were not, as scholars often assume, hermetically closed cells."
Yvette occupied a top floor in the leprosarium, where three other recluses and a nurse resided. Contemporary anchoresses are recorded as entertaining pious guests and were not sealed or windowless in their dwellings. "The anchorhold was considered a sacred spot," writes Mulder-Bakker, "a little corner of heaven on earth."
Juliana of Cornillon is associated with her popularization of the feast of Corpus Christi, but she was an unlikely promoter,
a bookish sort of person. She could usually be found in a quiet corner, devoting herself to study and contemplation. ... She was always meditating. As a child she had her own little oratory where she could find solitude. As an adult she lived separately from her fellow sisters, and her last years were spent in an anchorhold.
Juliana's reflections derived from ecstasies, but her theological knowledge was based on years of formal study in Liege. Like Yvette of Huy, Juliana redefined prophecy in the apostolic sense of insight into divine knowledge and not future-telling. The living example of the anchorhold offered validation of authenticity to both ecclesiastical authorities and to the common people.
Juliana's devoted her life to a single community project, attempting to institute the feast of Corpus Christi. Her text for a Corpus Christi feast is now lost but it undoubtedly affected the scholastic version , including the theology of Thomas Aquinas. But while both versions were orthodox, Juliana emphasizes the communitarian aspect of the Eucharist, while Aquinas stresses the sacerdotal. The difference emerges from the different religious cultures -- not just the feminine spirituality of Juliana but also the context of the lay person as spiritual being with potential for divine knowledge. Thus, Juliana's version is a heartfelt experienced insight of the anchorhold and of the community. The feast was institute in 1264.
Mulder-Bakker dubs Juliana the "spiritual mother" of Eve of St. Martin, a "protégé" who continued the popularizing effort behind the Corpus Christi feast while Juliana faded into a quiet oblivion in history. Eve compiled Juliana's papers and presented them to the ecclesiastical authorities promulgating the feast.
Eve became an anchoress at about twenty, following Juliana's inspiration, and remained enclosed for forty years. Her anchorhold in the Liege church of St. Martin was central to her aspiration of being of service to beguines, devout women, prelates, and theologians, the latter two dealing with her as Juliana's mediator and as a female authority deriving legitimacy from her public popularity and her reclusion.
The reputation of recluses was beyond question. It was no problem for the canons of St.. Martin to accept Eve as their guide, and she was even recognized by the pope. ... An anchorhold offered the loftiness and sacredness associated with the reclusive life. The words of an anchoress by definition carried prophetic power.
The vita of Lame Margaret of Magdeburg (1210-1250) was written by a Dominican priest known only as John (hence, Johannes Dominicanus). Born handicapped in urban and commercial Magdeburg to a well-to-do family, Margaret became an anchoress at twelve, in part seeking self-effacement because of her condition, not from an example of charisma or mysticism.
She felt herself a non-person and was oppressed by a sense of worthlessness. ... The remorse she felt brought no comfort, only a growing sense of despair. She was unable to love God. ... Loneliness and a feeling of total abandonment filled her days. She was a prisoner of despondency. In few other vitae of anchoresses does the despair, the utter loneliness and helplessness, speak so clearly as in this biographical sketch.
In subsequent years, however, Margaret learned theology and the virtues directly from Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She impressed the Dominican John with the compelling logic of her untutored reflections on the Trinity, her theology of suffering, and her Mariology. At thirty, Margaret was willingly transferred to a cell in a Dominican church in Magdeburg.
Mulder-Bakker concludes the book with two informative chapters on other twelfth- and thirteenth-century religious women living as anchoresses yet active in society and the community as deaconesses, vowesses, and prophets. The women identified with Mary but also with the apocryphal Mary Magdalene, who journeyed to southern France after the Gospel events and became a hermit.
All of these women conceived of their authority as divine knowledge and inspiration not subordinate to academic theology. Prophecy was a legitimizing vehicle for their teaching and counseling function in their towns and communities. Inevitably, as Mulder-Bakker explains,
Hermits and anchorites had for centuries functioned in the oral world of lived Christianitas. They were not part of the institutional structure of the Church and had no status in Church law. Their life was not governed by ecclesiastical laws and regulations. But with the advancing bureaucratization of the Church and the reforming zeal of some of its leaders in the thirteenth century it became clear that they could not escape some form of institutionalization.
This was first evidenced in the authorities' intervention over the Corpus Christi feast. Ultimately came the abolishing of the various rites permitted to devout women, the enforcement of the physical isolation of anchoresses (the image we have today), and the effort to break up and regularize the beguine communities in the years after the anchoresses here profiled.
Author Mulder-Bakker has presented an interesting and detailed study contributing greatly to our knowledge of eremitism and anchoritism. Nearly a third of the book consists of bibliographical references, so that the scholarly nature of the work is obvious. Sometimes the themes and treatments of topics are interposed or not in expected sequence, but the effort to pursue the author's detailed observations is always well rewarded. The lives of these anchoresses represent not only objects of reflection and curiosity but offer a potential model of living that is significant not only for history but for modern times and interests as well.