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An Anchoress Burned at the Stake

By Lucie Laumonier

Catherine Sauve’s time as an anchoress in Montpellier was brief, but it ended with her execution. Why was she burned at the stake?

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, European cities and towns were home to anchorites and anchoresses. These recluses were usually lay men and women who, upon taking a religious vow, spent the rest of their lives in a small cell – an anchorhold – and sat in prayer for the community.

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This kind of seclusion was a legacy of the Desert Fathers, the first hermits of Christianity. But hermits dwelled in isolated places, while anchorholds were situated in populated areas. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, anchorites and anchoresses had become fairly common figures across Europe. They enjoyed great popularity and received the quotidian visits of individuals seeking their prayers and advice.

The esteem with which they were regarded makes it all the more striking that, in the early fifteenth century, one of Montpellier’s anchoresses was burned at the stake for heresy. This is her fascinating story.

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Montpellier, one of the largest cities of Mediterranean France, counted three to four anchoress cells during the Late Middle Ages. Although few in number compared to other Mediterranean cities (especially in Italy), the Montpellier anchoresses were important to the population. These guardians of the city walls were well known to locals and played a vital role in praying for the inhabitants’ souls and for the community’s collective salvation. Between c.1250 and the Black Death in 1348, nearly 25% of the city’s testators bequeathed money to the anchoresses. Urban authorities were also involved in the anchoresses’ maintenance. Sources show that they regularly gave them alms, and the city council even managed one of the anchorholds located in the southeast quadrant of the city suburbs.

Catherine Sauve: The Anchoress of the Chemin de Lattes

The Montpellier medieval chronicle, called the Thalamus Parvus, recounts
the dramatic fate of Catherine Sauve. Little is known of her early life, other than that she might have come from the north of France. In early November of 1416, Catherine met with the city councilmen, known as the consuls. She wanted to become an anchoress and seclude herself in the vacant anchorhold of Lattes, located on the Road of Lattes, connecting Montpellier to the port of the same name.

The anchorhold was close to the city’s walls. It was near the Dominican fence and a public fountain situated at a busy crossroads. The Road of Lattes saw a lot of traffic going to and from the port a dozen kilometers away. A wide range of sources mentioned the anchorhold as a geographical indicator. It was attested in local sources as early as the thirteenth century and had become a local landmark by the time of the story.

An anchorite in their cell – Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 079 fol. 96r

Four of the consuls’ administrators, called the “sea consuls,” also attended the meeting. These men oversaw matters concerning the city’s access to the Mediterranean and had jurisdiction over the Road of Lattes, anchorhold included. Both the Montpellier consuls and their sea consuls approved Catherine’s request that same day.

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On November 15th, the consuls organized a general procession to celebrate Catherine’s seclusion and accompanied her from the city center to her anchorhold. According to the chronicle, more than 1,500 people gathered to celebrate the anchoress. The procession began after a mass at the parish church of St. Firmin. The consuls opened the march, followed by the sea consuls, a number of other officials, and the people of the city. It was a joyful event; the chronicler called Catherine a “novia,” a vernacular term translating to “bride.” A bride of Christ she was, having just taken a vow of religious seclusion in the service of Christ.

Once at the door of the anchorhold, the procession stopped. Catherine entered her cell. The sea consuls locked the door and kept the keys – in theory, forever. The crowd sang an unknown section of the Gospel of St. John before moving back to the city center. There, at St. Firmin, “everyone parted ways,” the chronicle concludes.

Nothing is known about the day-to-day life of Catherine or the layout of
her cell. In the late fourteenth century, the anchoress of Lattes was once mentioned alongside her “servant,” who might have taken care of meal preparation, fetching water, and other necessities of life. In the early fifteenth century, Catherine would still have needed help to survive her seclusion. She received testamentary bequests and alms that, assumedly, could have sometimes taken the form of food.

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A view of Montpellier from the 16th century – Georg Braun; Frans Hogenberg: Civitates Orbis Terrarum

The Condemnation

On October 2, 1417, some eleven months after entering the anchorhold, Catherine was condemned for heresy by Raymond Cabassa, a master in theology and vicar of the Inquisitor of Carcassonne. Sources are silent about the trial that unfolded in Montpellier. The city’s chronicle only says that Catherine was declared a heretic, before carefully listing the eight topics on which she had expressed dissident views.

The anchoress had allegedly contended that sacraments performed by “bad” clerics had no effect as these men were not holy. She held that there was no true pope or cardinal since the election of the pope had been contested (referring here to the then ongoing Western Schism). She had stated that baptized children who died before being able to believe in God on their own were not saved; they were damned. She had asserted that purgatory did not exist. Finally, the chronicle states that she had said that married husbands and wives committed a sin when having intercourse and should repent on every such occasion.

Catherine’s views on sacraments, on the clergy, and on Church doctrine represent a mixture of common themes found in medieval heresies. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians who looked at her story alternatively wrote that she was a late Cathar or that she was an early Reformation proponent. What is certain is that Catherine lived during a troubled time in Church history. The Western Schism, during which the Church was divided between two popes – at one point three – was still underway. The conflict within the Church had created great anxiety among believers and had fueled distrust towards clergymen.

Depiction of a woman being burned on the stake, by Rudolf Cronau. (1919). – Wikimedia Commons

The Execution

On that day of October 2, standing on a stool in the main square near Notre-Dame Church, Catherine received her sentence under the gaze of a massive crowd, reads the Montpellier chronicle. All religious and secular powers were present, including the Bishop of Maguelone, who had been absent from the ceremony marking Catherine’s entry into the anchorhold. That same day, after lunch, Catherine was burned at the stake outside of the northeastern wall of the city. She may have been the first heretic ever condemned in Montpellier.

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Catherine’s death created an enormous stir. The chronicle states that immediately after the sentence was executed, rumors began to spread in the city. People said that their beloved anchoress had been unjustly condemned. To stop the rumors from taking hold, Raymond Cabassa preached for over a week in the various churches of the city. Each day the vicar of the inquisitor spoke of Catherine’s “errors” (her heretical views), striving to convince those “whispering about the unfair execution” that her death was fully justified.

Anchoresses were popular figures who played an important role in supporting local devotional practices. They were at once accessible and, due to their radical engagement, extraordinary. Their community saw them as inspiring religious models. Catherine’s “errors” into heresy during her time in the Lattes anchorhold seem connected to the then ongoing crisis of the Western Church, the “murmurs” opposed to her execution echoing Catherine’s criticisms and defiance of the clergy. Not only that, but the inquisitor who condemned her was a foreigner to the community, possibly seen as meddling in local affairs. The rumors also testified to the attachment and affection of the community towards the familiar figure that was the anchoress of Lattes.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

Further Reading:

Laumonier, Lucie, “Les recluses de Montpellier du XIIIe au XVe siècle, une institution urbaine”, Revue Mabillon, Nouvelle série 26 (tome 87) (2015), pp. 179–204.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, editor. Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe. The Boydell Press, 2010.

Gunn, C. and Liz Herbert McAvoy, editors. Medieval Anchorites in Their Communities. Boydell & Brewer, 2017.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Photo by Annie Roi / Flickr

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