An Anchorhold of Her Own: Female Anchoritic Literature in Thirteenth-Century England
Equally in God’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages (1990)
For all its extremes, anchoritism among medieval English women cannot be dismissed as an eccentric and inconsequential movement. In addition to its distinctive popularity, female anchoritism should be noted because it produced a significant and distinctive body of literature, written by men for these women in the thirteenth century, and written by a woman in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Julian of Norwich will not be discussed here. This essay focuses on the body of literature, written by men for women, known as the “AB” texts for the dialect they share, which includes the Ancrene Wisse, “Guide for Anchoresses”; and five texts known as the Katherine Group: Sawles Warde, “Soul’s Guardian”; three saints’ lives, of Katherine, Margaret and Juliana respectively; and a tract on virginity, Hali Meidenhad.
The texts are believed to have been written in 1215 in Herefordshire for three anchoresses living in an anchorhold in the Deerfold near Wigmore Abbey, although they quickly became popular among larger groups. From the perspective of literary history, it is significant that the needs and circumstance of a specialized group of women played a pivotal role in the development of vernacular literature.