The anchorhold : sovereignty in solidarity.

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Letters


The dissertation, in two parts, addresses the unique role of the anchorite in medieval society and the curious imbalance of gender representation in Europe's anchorholds. While over 600 anchorites lived during the Middle Ages, approximately 80% of them were women. This significant inequity must be attributed to more than religion, demographics, or economics. With a focus on two primary sources, this study contends that gendered circumstances added to this feminine preponderance as much as these other elements previously theorized by anchoritic scholars. The "Letter of Inquiry for Becoming an Anchoress," a 1329 church document existing in Shere, Surrey, England, provides insight into the process an individual would have taken to become an anchoress, including the vetting she endured by the bishop or his suffragan. His investigation included the determination that the woman be "not feignedly but in truth" requesting a more saintly life in the anchorhold. This wording exposes the Church's concern that a number of women affected a pious mien in order to gain entrance to the secluded residence. The Ancrene Wisse, or Guide for Anchoresses, indicates the rules the mediatrix must follow once sequestered in the hermitage. The very existence of this document reveals that some women were not ascetically inclined. They had untoward relationships, owned and held property, kept pets and livestock, taught school, gossiped, and enjoyed full social lives and an elevated communal status from within their anchorholds. The critical portion of the dissertation asserts that some used the anchorage as a secular refuge. Although their place in time precludes their being labeled feminists, these women, by extreme means, sought sovereignty in a patriarchal culture and, therefore, can be conceived as proto-feminists. This theory is the impetus for the creative portion of the dissertation, a historical novel entitled Squint. Christiana, a young girl whose limited life choices make the austere anchorhold seem a viable option, petitions the bishop for enclosure and uses her wiles to conceal a secret from her family and friends, her clergy, and the villagers she counsels.