Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Perceval meets with his aunt, a recluse or anchoress
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this image the hero Perceval stops during his adventures to speak with his aunt, formerly a queen, who has fled to the wilderness for a life of religious devotion. This is part of the story recounted in the manuscript, The Quest for the Holy Grail by Walter Map. The image depicts the aunt within the walls of her anchorhold or cell. Though dedicated to prayer, she also instructs people like Perceval who come seeking a greater understanding of Christ.

    The vocation of an anchoress was a very particular form of religious practice. In the medieval period, anchoresses were considered legally dead, and were not allowed to conduct business. They are often compared with recluses, and there is a modern-day assumption that medieval anchoresses lived in complete solitude. However, this is not the case, and many anchoresses had servants or lived with other anchoresses, and some even had a guest room. These anchorholds were often attached to cathedrals, but were sometimes located in other places, like parish churches, depending on the spiritual center of the community. Under ecclesiastical rules, anchoresses were not supposed to keep animals besides cats to catch mice. The act of taking care of any other animal was considered too similar to the worldly duties of a housewife. Unlike their male counterparts, who were very often priests or monks and gained religious status by becoming anchorites, anchoresses were very often laywomen before taking on their new vocation.

    Perhaps the most famous anchoress from the medieval period was Julian of Norwich. She was a fourteenth-century visionary who had revelations about God’s maternal nature. Religious women were highly valued, especially if they were gifted with visions. Julian’s work is considered one of the most important theological works originally written in English. Scholars are unsure how Julian lived before taking up the role of anchoress. In her adult years, Julian fell ill, coming near to death, and had a series of visions on her sickbed which inspired her writings. Texts also survive from the medieval period giving advice to anchoresses on the way to live their lives, both in terms of spiritual development and practical day-to-day details. Their presence within the sealed anchorhold did not interfere with the ability of anchoresses to have a larger impact in the world. Juliana of Cornillon and Eve of St. Martin introduced the Feast of Corpus Christi to the Church. Yvette of Huy, from a cell next to a leper hospital, called the rich and powerful face to face to account for their corruption.

    Despite living lives set apart from the everyday, anchoresses were seen as important members of their communities. Their contributions can be identified in several different categories. Socially speaking, an anchoress and her anchorhold brought status to a parish. Local aristocrats would often donate money to anchoresses and their associated churches in exchange for prayers. On the practical side, anchoresses provided advice and guidance to all who were in need, often listening with a more sympathetic ear than that of the parish priest. Additionally, anchoresses were attractions for pilgrims and so provided their local communities with supplemental income from visitors. Most notable of all, anchoresses were dedicated to a life of prayer and contemplation. Their devotion to God made them intermediaries for their community with the divine.

  • Source: Manuscript Miniatures (http://manuscriptminiatures.com/)
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Anchoresses Devotional Literature Prayer Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1380-1385
  • Related Work: Other images of anchoresses include:
    Anchoress being formally enclosed in her cell by a bishop, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol. 72r.
    Perceval encounters a female recluse, Tristan en prose, circa 1450, Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, ms. 527, fol. 84r.
    St Wilborada, an anchoress, watches the celebration of the mass from her cell, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, Codex 602.
    Anchorhold attached to the church of All Saints in King's Lynn, England.
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 343, fol. 21v
  • Original Location: Pavia or Milan
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Tempera;
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  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
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  • Related Resources: Ancrene Wisse / Guide for Anchoresses: A Translation. Translated with commentary by Bella Millett. Liverpool University Press, 2009;
    A Companion to Ancrene Wisse. Edited by Yoko Wada. D. S. Brewer, 2003;
    Julian of Norwich. Showings: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Translated by Denise Nowakowski Baker. Norton, 2005;
    McAvoy, Liz Herbert. Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life. D. S. Brewer, 2011;
    Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005;
    Riehle, Wolfgang. The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England. Cornell University Press, 2014;
    Ropa, Anastasija. "Female Authority during the Knights’ Quest? Recluses in the Queste del Saint Graal." Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre (BUCEMA) 20, 1 (2016): online;
    Sauer, Michelle M. "Extra-Temporal Place Attachment and Adaptive Reuse: The Afterlives of Medieval English Anchorholds." Studies in Medievalism 25 (2016): 173-195.