Believe it or not, a long
time ago, Christian men and women used to literally wall themselves up, sealing
themselves into tiny cells attached
to churches. They were called Anchorites. They, and their
fellows, also lived in caves, next to sacred pools or streams, or in
chapels on islands where the whole idea was to live alone in prayer to
worship God unceasingly, and without distraction. Their level of
devotion made them holy in
their own right, and regular people looked to them for guidance,
counsel, and spiritual revelation.
As a group they were called Solitaries. By the middle-ages, the
pervasive and popular that special rites and blessings had evolved to
govern the life of the Solitary, which was regulated by the
Sometimes Solitaries were monks or nuns. Other times, Solitaries
just very devout princes, princesses, sailors, wanderers, widows,
reluctant brides, or
whomever was inspired to take up the solitary life.
At first all they needed was a patch of land, the starker (colder,
swampier, windier) the better, for endurance in the face of hardship
was a key component to their lifestyle. In choosing that land,
they had to be careful of the Danes, who could attack and steal their
only goat, or the local shepherds, who might get huffy and try to run
them off. In later times, Solitaries also needed permission from
the landholder and the church.
Kinds of Solitaries
By the middle ages, there
were two kinds of Solitaries: Hermits
Hermits were mostly men—though women were hermits, too—who went out
into the "desert or wilderness" (though some lived in towns) in
order to test their physical fortitude and pray without
They built simple shelters to live in, and simple chapels for worship,
carving them out of stone. They lived on cliffs, in caves, on
in swamps, along river shallows, under bridges, anywhere reasonably or
The distinction between who was a 'hermit' and who an 'anchorite' was
sometimes blurry. In some cases, especially in isolated areas,
anchorites were also called hermits. But, in general, an
anchorite was usually a person who was specifically walled into a small
cell which was attached, or 'anchored,' to a church or oratory.
Cell. Photo by Immanuel Giel, July 2007.]
A 'hermit' sought solitude and also lived in a small cell, but he/she
was generally free to come and go. A hermit could farm or hunt
for him or herself, while an anchorite was wholly dependent on others
to remember to feed them. Both hermits and anchorites were
usually sustained through gifts given to them by others (their
families, patrons, or passing pilgrims), by tithes from local churches
earmarked specifically for their use, or by rights granted to them by
the landowner for the use of certain natural resources. A yearly
scoop of salmon from the landowner's river, perhaps. Or a yearly
sack of grain from the village tithe barn.
Ironically, Solitaries usually weren't solitary.
Anchorites were Women.
Hermits and anchorites
attracted followers, pilgrims, and those who
needed good spiritual or oracular advice. People flocked to the
refuges of the Solitary, sometimes so much so that guest-houses had to
be built, farms had to be maintained, and penitents had to be
counseled. Too many visitors, however, could drive Solitaries
their cells in search of actual solitude, or force them to shut their
windows up and hide out in frustration. One solitary was dragged
weeping from his island by a group of his enthusiastic brethren who
wanted him to lead them. Yet at other times, Solitaries
and welcomed a steady stream of visitors and would-be associates.
History: the Eremetic movement of early Christians.
Early Christians flocked
to the Egyptian deserts where Copts had
already embraced the idea of a solitary, devout Christian life.
early Christians had themselves been inspired by the eremetic
traditions of the Hebrews. The idea for these early Christians
test your ability to deprive yourself—to do without a warm bed, good
food, and all the pleasures and comforts of life including
companionship. The 'purer' they were, so they believed, the
their chances for eternal life. So many early Christians wanted
imitate Christ's desert experiences and purification, that solitaries
attract great mobs of followers. So many followers could make a
cell crowded. To solve the problem, large or small groups
of solitaries banded together to create communities, each hermit with
their own cell, called Lauras,
in the desert. From this beginning, the monastic movement formed.
Mar Saba, near Bethlehem. Detroit Publishing Company.]
Many more women than men
became Anchorites, also called
Women may have been attracted to the life of an anchoress in part
because it was a devout and holy job within the church that was
actually open to her. Anchorites and Anchoresses literally lived in
rooms called cells built as attachments to a church.
Sometimes there was a small door to the cell,
often too heavy for the anchoress to move. Other times they were
completely walled in except for a window. Inside their cell, the
recluse devoted themselves to unceasing
An anchoress had a higher status than a nun, and
was often deferred to by Abbots. In addition to prayer, some
anchoresses earned renown as spiritual seers. Anchoresses also
embroidered stoles and altar cloths, which were seen as very valuable
because of the holy hands who worked it. It was mostly men who
worked as book illuminators, though women were known to do that as
Anchoresses had to deal
with issues of purity that a man did not.
were not subject to questions of their chastity to the extent that
women were (and maybe that was because the general population was
already inured to the
concept of the philandering monk). The immovable door and the
personal demeanor were important aspects of her life because they
prove her virtue. An anchoress could also take up her
vocation late in life, choose the solitary life as a widow, or, when
young, choose unceasing devotion to escape an unwanted marriage.
Hermits and Anchorites often served as Chaplains:
The earliest male hermits were no more than regular men who wanted to
chose a holy way of living. Some found a solitary place and
stayed put there. Others became wandering hermit-preachers.
In the early middle ages, these holy wanderers lived off the land as
they went from place to place. But the numbers (and messages) of
these independent holy men and women worried the church. Efforts
were made to institute some order. By the middle ages, preachers
and monks had to be sanctioned by the church. Many of the
'official' Solitaries were men, and of them, most were monks, and of
them, many were ordained priests. It was handy to have a Solitary
who was a monk and a priest because that Solitary, then, could say
Mass, and pray for the souls of brethren and benefactors, at the