A Sisterhood of Seclusion. Medieval Women's Writing

Seminar Paper 2012 75 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Content

A Sisterhood of Seclusion: The Impact of Women’s Writing on a Women’s Audience from Anchoritic to Present

Identifying the importance of anchoritic women’s literature and lives

From proto-feminism to modern feminism: Wollstonecraft and the Enlightenment

Victorian Feminism and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The emergence of freedom and choice, and plans for the future: Simone de Beauvoir

The Feminist Movement: A Timeline (Conclusion)

Works Cited

A Sisterhood of Seclusion: The Impact of Women’s Writing on a Women’s Audience from Anchoritic to Present

It is currently accepted within Women’s Studies and other gender-related studies that feminism is divided into three distinct waves. These waves are divided according to their respective time periods, shifts in ideologies, and sociopolitical change. First-wave feminism, infamous for the battle for women’s suffrage and changes to marriage laws, was followed in the 1960s by the second-wave: a period dedicated to political activism, and a period that spawned the emergence of Marxist feminism, liberal feminism, and socialist feminism. The third wave was a realization and embracement of different cultures and classes of women, and resulted in the expansion of the definition of feminism.

While the method of dividing the periods of feminism into waves is effective, it is also restrictive when taking into consideration the catalyst (or catalysts) for modern feminism. Scholars embarking on their journey in Women’s Studies or other related courses are readily introduced to the most graphic images of feminism: pioneers for women’s suffrage being hauled off to prison, radical feminists yelling during the most extreme of riots, and visibly distressed and conflicted career women. Students simultaneously become well versed with a unique feminist lexicon, a vocabulary full of caustic words such as “castration,” “gender discrimination,” and “pornography.” In addition to the infamous images and feminist terminology, scholars are also introduced to some highly palatable literature. English classes focusing on women’s literature familiarize students with a variety of late Victorian classics, such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, before cautiously entering the increasingly complex realm of Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan. More specialized courses focus on earlier works, and occasionally investigate the relevance of the ‘birth’ of feminism by reading Wollstonecraft and Mary Astell.

Yet women’s studies and women’s literature courses, while educational and highly informative, largely fail to consider the earliest of women’s movements. The most rudimentary of organized feminism lies long before the Enlightenment, and even before Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies. Scholarly and non-scholarly feminists alike should be aware of the feminist foundation laid by the anchorites. This group of women worshipped God by leading cloistered and unconventional lifestyles during a period where women’s ability to declare independence of any form, even within religious worship, was strictly controlled and highly suspicious. Surrounded by patriarchy in the very home in which they worshipped-the Catholic Church- these women went to extraordinary lengths to prove their devotion to Christ, even if their retributions ended in martyrdom. Their literature, typically undervalued and overlooked, is an important trajectory for literature throughout the development of feminism. This paper will look at two anchorites (Christina of Markyate and Marguerite Porete, respectively), and identify the effect of their lives and literature on feminism, while also comparing their efforts to more prominent modern feminists, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Stuart-Phelps, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Identifying the religious allegiance and writings of an individual anchorite or beguine is inspirational; however, it is in the study of these women as a group that proves to be most impressive. In the same way we look at Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps as early modern feminists, or “first wave” feminists, the beguines and anchorites should be referred to as medieval proto-feminists, and their effects on modern feminisms over the course of several hundred years should be viewed as a collective effort and movement. The term “medieval proto-feminist” is appropriate, as it was the success of the Crusades that spawned a religious fervor within Europe, and fueled cloistered devotion among both men and women. This religious dedication lasted through to the divergence of the Catholic Church in the fourteenth century.

It was the beginning of the thirteenth century that saw the publication of Ancrene Riwle (also known as Ancrene Wisse), the manual for holy living for anchoresses. Anchoresses and religious women practiced the contents until the sixteenth century (Riwle 1) The punctilious degree of devotion necessary for anchoresses in everyday life is evident in the first few pages of the ‘Vernon’ text of the Ancrene Riwle, where it offers an intriguing view of the level of required dedication:

Ac þis Rule eueneþ hire. and makep hire euene softe. Þe oþur rule is al withouten. ruleþ þe bodi. bodiliche deden. Þat techeþ al hou me schal beren him wiþ outen. How. eten. How drinken. weren. syngen. slepen. waken. And þis Rule nis not. but to seruen þe toþur. Þat toþer is as ladi. Þeos is as hire soiet. (Riwle 3)

The literal translation of the text outlines the strict rules the anchoresses were expected to follow: to ignore any other rules of living, and to accept the rules of the manual as the most important. It also instructs the women how to fully accept the Holy Spirit within them at all times - when eating, drinking, sleeping, and singing - in order to be completely pure. The manual’s foundational rules for women also include necessary qualities: “…[c]harite. Þat is loue. and meekenesse. . .soffrynge. and holdynge of þe ten hesten. schrift. and penaunce. Þeos and such oþure” (Riwle 5). Perhaps most interestingly, in addition to living a completely holy life through speech and action, the anchorites were also physically barricaded from the rest of society. In a recent edition of the Ancrene Wisse edited by Robert Hasenfratz, it is noted that the ‘bricking in’ of the women was a strict ceremony: “[A]n anchorite receive[d] [her] last rites, ha[d] the Office of the Dead said over her, enter[ed] her cell, and [was] bricked in, accompanied at each stage by various prayers” (Hasenfratz 1). Evidently, after a woman made the decision to dedicate her life to God, and found a willing patron for her basic needs, she was inducted into a miniscule room called a ‘cell,’ also known as an ‘anchorhold,’ (Hasenfratz 1) which was connected to the church, where she was sealed in for the remainder of her days.

Despite the ability to converse and even visit with other anchoresses (and to a very limited extent, their own guests), anchoresses lived a life of solitude inside one of the most historically patriarchal establishments in history – the Catholic Church. The women were ultimately under the management of the bishop, and owed him allegiance. The Ancrene Wisse notes that “[. . .]the anchoress is to vow that she will never leave her anchorhold, unless "for [absolute] necessity . . . force and fear of death, [or in] obedience to her bishop or his superior" (Hasenfratz 1). Anchoresses were also indebted to their male patrons. Bishops had certain conditions that needed to be met in order for a woman to successfully enter anchoritic life, and eligibility was largely dependant on financial status (Hasenfratz 2). Thus, the woman’s patron needed to have sufficient funds, and the degree of patronage was extensive. Ann K. Warren notes the complexity of this system: “’Royal rates’ were granted by members of the aristocracy and episcopacy. . .[i]n general, the farther down the social scale the anchorite went in search for patronage the more likely his or her endowment would be more modest or pieced together from several sources” (Warren 50). In some cases, ‘wealthy candidates for reclusion endowed themselves’ (Warren 42), while others “needed a promise of support from outside sources” (Warren 42). It should be noted that anchoresses were able to obtain a very small income of their own “by doing needlework” (Warren 42). Regardless of the source of their payment, all anchoresses needed to be provided for throughout their lives.

The anchoresses, in return for the holy life they sought to live, were expected to be chaste at all times. The author of Ancrene Wisse explains the expectations of resisting the wickedness of the outside world in order to uphold their reputation, of which he respects:

Lokith thet te parlures [clath] beo on eaver-euch half feaste ant wel i- tachet, ant witeth ther ower ehnen leaste the heorte edfleo ant wende ut, as of Davith, ant ower sawle seccli sone se heo is ute. Ich write muchel for othre thet na-wiht ne rineth ow, mine leove sustren, for nabbe ye nawt te nome - ne ne schulen habben, thurh the grace of Godd - of totilde ancres, ne of tollinde locunges, ne lates thet summe other-hwiles - wei-la-wei! - uncundeliche makieth.1 (Ancrene Wisse 2)

Upon this initial research on the anchorites, it seems odd to consider them associated with a feminist movement at all. Preliminary findings, such as their daily routines, their financial dependency (usually on men, such as a male relative or wealthy merchant), and their staunch religious devotion, seem to point in an alternative direction. Their lives were incredibly solitary, and the most obvious reason for denying them any feminist notoriety appears to be the fact that they abided by the rules of men without even recognizing their demeaned position in both the Church and in medieval society. One could argue that the recognition of women’s inequitable social status was not fully understood or contemplated by women until the 15th century, when Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, in which de Pizan creatively and effectively describes the reality of misogyny, and challenges the societal norms. De Pizan’s fictional construction of a city of women allegorically explains to her readers that women, in the eyes of God, are as equal as men: “[Women] [were] created in the image of God. How can any mouth dare to slander the vessel which bears such a noble imprint?. . .God created the soul and placed wholly similar souls, equally good and noble in the feminine and in the masculine bodies” (de Pizan 23).

Yet if one considers the medieval period in which these women lived, and if one also considers the unique challenges of the period, it then becomes easier to view their literature, their accomplishments, and their lives as something far more revolutionary. These women were not simply religious persons with an interest in a solitary life. They became somewhat active members of their community, sometimes by defying the astringent rules they were expected to follow. Hasenfratz claims:

[S]ome anchorholds, it seems, became the center of town life, acting as sort of bank, post office, school house, shop, and newspaper - services which today are provided mainly by public and quasi-public institutions. The AW2 author, of course, advises against these activities mainly because they draw the heart of the anchoress outside her anchorhold, but that they must be prohibited points to the fact that many anchorites became something like spiritual celebrities - they became the focus for the communal religious life of the village. (Hasenfratz)

In addition to both the social network and social services the anchoresses created, anchoresses were often prolific writers. It should not be overlooked that the two anchorites discussed in this paper, Christina of Markyate and Marguerite Porete, were also authors. Christina of Markyate, a twelfth-century anchorite, was influential enough to be written about. The author of her vita3 is unknown, but her hagiography is filled with fascinating accounts of her transition from young girl to anchorite, and it is suspected that Christina herself may have lent a hand in biographical details. Christina was, for instance, a supposed prophet. Charles H. Talbot notes that “instances of [Christina’s] clairvoyance had no public import. . .but it is interesting to note that she was always careful to have witnesses of these events when they occurred” (Talbot 32). Her vita also includes detailed accounts of her lifelong illnesses, which may or may not have been psychologically induced, but as Talbot notes, “they were worth recording to give us a complete picture of a woman, highly strung but not hysterical, overcoming her physical disabilities and finding her equilibrium in a life of prayer and contemplation” (Talbot 33). Her struggles, along with her interesting and suspiciously intimate friendship with Geoffrey the abbot, make Christina an important medieval woman. Her life’s work was obviously important enough to record. The documentation of her life illustrates a phenomenal religious woman who helped, in her own way, to pave the way for holy women that proceeded her.

Marguerite Porete, by contrast, made an impression by martyrdom. While Christina’s life was occasionally tumultuous, it was largely stable. Christina also lived for quite a long time, considering the time period, and was born to an affluent family. Marguerite Porete, however, was a woman who battled controversy from the beginning of her life. After the completion of The Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite sent her book “to three authorities, all of who approved of it” (Babinsky 22), but later ended up defending its contents multiple times after accusations of its contents. The book is a fascinating account of how opening one’s self up to God’s love is a transcendental experience, and the book is rich with Porete’s religious poetry. Unfortunately, heresy was suspected in the book’s antinomian content. In the second deliberation against her, “the

canonists. . .determined that the beguine had refused to take the oath. . .and that she had not submitted to the injunction of the bishop of Cambria forbidding her to speak again of her book” (Babinsky 23). Because the Church believed the book “contained heresies” (Babinsky 23), Marguerite Porete, along with her “self-appointed defender” (Babinsky 20), Guiard de Cressonessart, were burned at the stake on June 1, 1310. The fact that Marguerite Porete defended her book until her untimely death is especially important when looking at holy women’s contributions to feminism. As Robert Cottrell states in his paper:

In her text, Porete traces out Christ’s image, that is to say, the image of her love for Him, in terms whose logic is that of subjective consciousness. She presents the female self not as a passive object of the Other’s gaze, but as a subjective consciousness that shapes and controls her vision in accordance with the demands of her own desire. Invalidating the patriarchal mandate that consigns women to fleshiness, Porete disregards the bar of gender and inserts the female self in the registers of subjectivity and power. In short, she appropriates patriarchal discourse. (Cottrell 20)

Several hundred years after both Christina of Markyate and Marguerite Porete, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argues that women are reasonable persons, capable of rational thought, just as men are capable. A progressive thinker for the Enlightenment, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication goes as far as to present extreme measures for equality, including the amalgamation of sexes: “I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society. . .[f]or this distinction is, I am firmly persuaded, the foundation of the weakness of character ascribed to woman” (Wollstonecraft IV.18). In Phelps’s The Story of Avis, the Victorian heroine, Avis, finds herself dissatisfied with marriage, and prefers to indulge herself in her art: “Avis found herself. . .approaching a condition of serious unrest…[u]sually, at such times, she retreated to her studio. Life had become a succession of expectancies” (Phelps 270-271). In both texts, important women’s issues are raised, but they are reminiscent of issues already raised by the anchorites. Christina of Markyate ultimately left her arranged marriage to pursue a religious life and ensure her vow of chastity. Her convictions to live as a virgin anchorite were strong enough that she received support from the bishop. These desires, to live a life dedicated to a passion, are seen in both Christina and Avis, Phelps’s heroine. Whereas Christina left an unconsummated marriage to seclude herself and devote her life to prayer, Avis leaves her unhappy marriage to return to the solitary life she once had, and to continue her love of painting. Wollstonecraft considers women’s unfavorable position in society, and attempts to reason why their physical and mental capabilities are considered second-class. She determines that “all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners, from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society” (Wollstonecraft 12-14.II). Wollstonecraft’s deductions mirror the conclusions Marguerite Porete reaches about serving God. Porete is adamant in The Mirror of Simple Souls that gender is irrelevant, using “Love” and “Reason” as two female allegorical representations. Love claims “I am God,” “for Love is God and God is love” (Cottrell 18). Porete’s identification of women as equal to men or equal to godly qualities was progressive enough to have caused her demise, not unlike Wollstonecraft’s unpopularity with misogynistic critics.

By recognizing the similarities between the different generations of feminists, recognizing the contributions of the anchorites to feminism, and by understanding the importance of proto-feminism, we can begin to identify its medieval origin, as well as its effects on future women. This paper aims to prove the validity of the anchoresses’ contribution to feminism, and give medieval holy women the notoriety they deserve: not just as authors and influential people, but also as pioneers for early feminism.

Identifying the importance of anchoritic women’s literature and lives

In her marvelous book, Anchorites and their patrons in medieval England (the most thorough and comprehensive book written about the daily lives of anchorites to date (in the opinion of this researcher), Ann K. Warren writes that in the time of the Egyptian saints, “St. Mary the Egyptian. . .provides a female solitary as archetype” (9), a “primitive, half-mythic, half-historic [forebear] of the medieval recluse” (9). Together with St. Anthony and St. Paul, Mary “found in the wasteland the closest possible communion with God” (9), and the saints purposely “sought to lose themselves in the Egyptian desert” (9). Warren’s description of the saints’ devotion explains the need to find the most ascetic of places for worship: wanting to be as close to God as possible demanded a place of not only solitude, but a place completely devoid of distraction.

Hundreds of years later, anchorites and anchoresses lived in enclosed cells attached to churches or friaries, living out their life in isolation and with little contact with the outside world. The cell, Ann K. Warren argues, “was a version of the desert home of the first Christian anchorites, the arena of spiritual welfare, a place for contemplation, a representations of the prison of the early martyrs, a penitential prison, a refuge, a way-station” (Warren 8). Indeed, the women, like the male anchorites, were confined to a cell, and, with the exception of a few allowances in their daily regimes, they lived an isolated and regimented life.

Yet, as the introduction of the thesis implies, the women were highly influential despite their confinement, despite their own personal ‘desert’ space. Marguerite Porete is perhaps easily more defined as a person of influence, for she was a published author. More than that, she was a contentious religious woman writer in the Middle Ages. Thus, her contribution to early feminism is more easily traced. Christina of Markyate, however, is no less illustrious than Porete, despite not having written any known literature. It is likely she did write, as a large part of the daily life of an anchoress was to be reflective in prayer, which often extended itself into journal entries or small poems. It can be assumed that her writing was more informal than Porete’s, and thus more appropriate for her own consideration than to a wider audience. Her biggest contribution, however, seems to be her intriguing and very uncharacteristic lifestyle, a lifestyle that was questioned by some as possibly inauthentic or inappropriate. Regardless of any questionable decisions she may have made, she was obviously important enough to have had the St. Alban’s Psalter dedicated to her.

To most effectively identify the importance of the anchorites before moving on to the Enlightenment and the 20th century, words from the most contemporary of this paper’s subjects, Simone de Beauvoir, are presented as a trajectory to this thesis:

On the whole, men in the Middle Ages held a rather unfavorable opinion of women. The court poets, to be sure, exalted love; in the Roman de la Rose young men were urged to devote themselves to the service of the ladies. [On the other hand], writings of bourgeois inspiration . . . attacked women with malignancy: fables, comedies, and lays charged them with laziness, coquetry, and lewdness. Their worst enemies were the clerics. . .” (de Beauvoir 104).

The medieval era was not kind to women. Beauvoir’s words are echoes of earlier statements of inequality. In 1405, Christine de Pizan wrote “[men] all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice” (de Pizan 4). Scholars well versed in women’s history would find these statements difficult to argue. For when in history have women been viewed by society as equal to men? When have women been given credit for their writing without extensive criticism? It is an unfortunate reality that women have been viewed as a lesser sex: less able, less intelligent, less powerful, and less important. It is, furthermore, undeniable that Christianity has perpetuated the alienation of women by fueling patriarchy. Misogyny is an unfortunate by-product of religious fundamentalism. Howard Bloch writes that “[t]he ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament. . .[and] dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law” (Bloch 1). Certainly, the Bible has been anything but friendly to women, stating astringent laws surrounding their liberties. Corinthians 14:34-35 even forbids women to speak in church:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (King James Version, Cor. 14.34-35)

Current feminist theologians study “sexism in the churches. . .[r]ecovering the history of Christian women, Christian ethics; the meaning of Christ (Christology); [and] Bible interpretation” (Mandell 290). Sexism within medieval Christianity was rampant, as is portrayed in copies of both the Ancrene Riwle and Ancrene Wisse. Expectations of women entering religious seclusion were high. The Ancrene Wisse makes note of the Corinthians verse, and claims that “[n]ai. Wimpel ne heaved-clath nowther ne nempneth Hali Writ, ah wriheles ane: Ad Corinthios: Mulier velet caput suum.

"Wummon," seith the Apostle, "schal wreon hire heaved”4 (Ancrene Wisse Part 8 120-122). In addition to the strict rules around clothing, anchoresses were expected to completely remove themselves from the their families and their communities, and to obey the laws of the church, which required following a regimented schedule of prayer and community service (often gardening and knitting for the poor).

What exactly was so appealing about this isolated and oppressive existence? Why did women choose to enter the religious life, and to give up the few freedoms they enjoyed as members of a community? Robert Hasenfratz suggests that “one answer may be that, in a strange sense, many anchorites withdrew from the world only to find themselves squarely in the center of village life” (Hasenfratz 1). Despite the prohibition of writing and sending letters (with a few exceptions), idle gossip and communication with the outside world, many anchoresses apparently engaged in these very activities. Ann K. Warren suggests that perhaps the shift in the women’s social status resulted in a desirable advisory position: “Identification with the anchorite provided the villager with a private conduit to heaven and salvation” (Warren 282). Warren also notes that for women, especially ex-nuns, the shift to anchoritic status meant a higher ‘rank’ of sorts:

Although male anchorites who were clerics. . . gained new status without losing the old, it was not so for women. Once a woman became a recluse, almost never was she referred to by her former status as a nun (if she had been one).

As a group, women lost their identity more completely than did men. They may not have minded this. [A] recluse [gained] enormous status. . . [A] former nun had no social value in the new context. (25)

Evidently, anchorites were able to provide advice to her fellow citizens, or perhaps were able to transfer some of their newly acquired religious authority to the village residents. Either way, this new religious influence was obviously a perk to the otherwise secluded lifestyle of the holy women, regardless of how little it counted for.

As humble as it may seem, these women did have religious inclinations. While it is true that they did form their own liberal social network within the church, they also felt genuinely called by God to live a life of prayer and devotion. It is documented that Christina of Markyate spoke to God during her childhood (Fanous and Leyser 3), and that these unusual conversations were the segway to a pious life. Christina was still very young when she decided to take her vow of chastity, much to the dismay of her wealthy parents and her husband Burthred (Fanous and Leyser 3). She ended up having to flee her home for fear of repercussions, and ended up “confined to a tiny room” (Fanous and Leyser 5) for four years with the “former St. Albans monk. . .Roger” (Fanous and Leyser 5). Christina’s fear of her local bishop refusing to grant her an annulment ended up keeping her in constant hiding for several years before she finally “made her profession” as a nun in 1131” (Fanous and Leyser 5). Her dedication to God is undeniable.

Marguerite Porete’s unwavering spiritual devotion is best summed up in her writing. While Christina of Markyate’s Vita was written for her, Porete wrote her own religious poetry in The Mirror of Simple Souls. One particular rondeau stands out as especially impressive:

Thinking no longer matters, nor work, nor speech. Love has brought me so high (thinking no longer matters) with its divine regard that I have no understanding. Thinking no longer matters, nor work, nor speech. (Porete 2).

Ellen Babinsky claims “[h]er treatment of mystical union is frank and fearless, provocatively raising issues of autotheisim, quietism, and antinomianism. Her conception of the true church as. . .[t]he spiritual elite is fearless too” (Babinsky 3). Ultimately, her bravery for defense of her writing would end in tragedy. Both women’s accomplishments within the church were different, as were their life paths, but both of them believed without doubt that they had been summoned to live holy lives. In addition to embracing spiritual asceticism, both women also managed to speak and act in a manner that defied the social norms of their time, setting a precedent for an early feminist movement.

Christina of Markyate

In an effort to write both a contributory paper, as well as an interesting one, it was essential to study anchoresses who were appealing. Although this researcher finds all early religious women impressive - if only for their fervor and dedication - introductory research found Christina of Markyate and Marguerite Porete as the most compelling and interesting of all the anchoresses considered. Both women led a unique life, and each woman had a profound affect on the direction of medieval proto-feminism.

Christina of Markyate’s story is not more significant than Marguerite Porete’s story, but it is inarguably more mysterious. Preliminary research for this paper revealed that her life, although largely ascetic, was filled with much controversy in terms of relationships with men. From a purely religious perspective, this kind of documented unanimous suspicion about Christina is largely unappealing; an author writing about her religious inclinations would have little choice but to either avoid the controversies altogether, or to depict Christina in an unflattering light. This paper, however, is focused only partially on early women’s devotion to God. It will not be proving the degree of Christina’s piety; it will only be discussing her motives, and applauding her for her contribution to feminism. In truth, it is Christina’s possible faults despite her piety, her human error, and her supposed sexual encounters that make her so interesting. To read of a woman who chose to embrace God so wholeheartedly, without sacrificing her sexuality, is nothing short of phenomenal, particularly for her era. The fact that Christina is so relatable is what makes her so captivating. Women of the present day are likely to empathize with her struggles in marriage and in life, seeing in her a piece of themselves. The fact that Christina of Markyate was born nine hundred years ago and still manages to create such an influential role for herself in the church only makes her life events more remarkable.

Markyate’s actual date of birth is unclear, but it is believed to be 1096 (Fanous, Leyser). Similarly, her date of death is unknown, but scholars agree it is around 1160 (Fanous, Leyser). Born not long after the Norman Conquest, Christina was a child during a time of language transformation, rebellion, and social chaos. Understandably, Christina’s early life is nothing short of intriguing. In Christina of Markyate: a twelfth century holy woman, Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser introduce the peculiar childhood of Christina, claiming her innocence “was contrasted with the. . .frivolous behavior of her elders” (1) who apparently engaged in excessive amounts of “party-going” (1) with “lots of alcohol” (1). For reasons unknown, Christina not only refused to follow such a life, she chose, instead, a life of piety. Scholars agree that Christina’s initial decision to devote her life to God was when she visited St. Albans as a child. The visit was a pilgrimage, and it is obvious that “the new abbey church built in place of its demolished Anglo-Saxon predecessor” (Fanous and Leyser 4) made an enormous impact on young Christina. What was a dutiful pilgrimage to her parents was a transformation for Christina. As noted by Fenous and Leyser, she took a vow of chastity the following day, asking for “purity and inviolable virginity” (qtd. in Life 41). Unfortunately, Christina is documented as being very attractive, and was subsequently pursued by Ranulf, Bishop of Durham, who “trie[d] unsuccessfully to seduce, then to rape her” (qtd. in Life 41-45). When Christina denied him, he ordered her marriage to a young man named Burthred, who “marri[ed] her, but never consummat[ed] the marriage” (qtd. in Life 45-47). The marriage of Burthred and Christina was eventually annulled.

Despite fleeing her village of Huntingdon in fear of Ranulf’s reprisal, it is interesting to note that the events that followed after Christina’s escape involved sexual encounters with men. It is this period of Christina’s life that is most interesting, because although she ferreted out an existence with Roger the Hermit and a hermit called Alfwen (Warren 37) before establishing herself as prioress of Markyate, her Vita documents her relationships with Roger the Hermit, un unnamed cleric, and Geoffrey the Abbott (Fanous and Leyser 101). In Christina of Markyate: a twelfth century holy woman, Stephen Jaegar quotes from Markyate’s Vita: “The conflict between spiritual and carnal passion is at the core of the [Vita’s] work, and her commitment to virginity must maintain itself against a character and psyche strongly oriented to the erotic” (101). Jaegar further points out that scholars must be aware that the flourishing popularity of the literary roman may have influenced the author of Markyate’s Vita, stating:

[T]he writer had a conception of Christina’s life that he wanted to dramatize. This is not to exclude the possibility that the scene actually happened very much as described, but much of it and of the Life in general shows literary modeling, is formulated by a writer with a keen sense of romance, of drama and of narrative staging. (104).

Despite the purported embellishments and dramatizations of the romantic events in Christina’s life, her Vita is the best-documented source of her story. Certainly, even with a taste for painting a slightly more risqué story than the story that really occurred, there appears to be a theme of human error, impure thoughts and submission to passion within Christina’s life. From a feminist perspective, however, Christina’s shortcomings as an anchoress are incredibly refreshing. The life of an anchoress was far from easy, despite a woman’s own willingness to live her life in such solitude. One could even argue that a ‘call’ from God allowed little room for refusal, promoting the idea that a woman wasn’t necessarily ‘willing’ at all, but in some cases was only doing God’s will. Ann K. Warren writes that anchoresses were “burdened. . .with problems” (43), which included the potential loss of patronage, adequate food, and other “sufficient resources” (43). The fact that Christina of Markyate faced these human fallacies portrays her not as a weak woman, but as a real woman: someone who was able to live both holily and humanly.

The obstacles that greeted Christina were met with her fierce personality, one that got her from a vulnerable virgin-bride to a prioress with remarkable influence. Her advancement from recluse to prioress is admirable, but it is the power she obtained as prioress that is truly extraordinary. The church was, of course, controlled by patriarchy during the time when Christina was interested in pursuing a life of reclusion. In particular, it was the bishops who exercised the greatest control over the anchorites. In many instances, however, joint power was held between a bishop and an abbot (Warren 55). In terms of immediate control over recluses, abbots were the direct superiors of the anchoresses, “exert[ing] controls both on their own monks and on others who entered their domains” (Warren 55). In addition to having to consent to the acceptance of a recluse to his monastery, abbots gave license for recluses wanting to build oratories (Warren 55) and were “[responsible] for [their] enclosure” at the order of a bishop (Warren 63). With an abbot’s significant authority, it should not be underestimated that Geoffrey, the abbot of St. Albans, was heavily influenced by Christina of Markyate, an anchoress under his authority:

[H]e was a worldly man. . .inclined to pay little heed to the opinions and advice of others. [His] first personal encounter with Christina, unpromising as it seemed, marked the turning point in his career, and the gradual change that came over his character as a result of his closer intimacy with [Christina]…[H]e expended his energies less on the aggrandizement of his own monastery than on the hermits and recluses who dwelt in the neighborhood. Not only did he take on himself the economic burden of providing for the needs of the nuns Markyate, but he also established the recluses from Eywood in the Priory of Sopwell, and converted the hermitage of Moddry into a regular cell of Benedictine monks dependant on St. Albans. (Talbot)


1 Literal translation by Hasenfratz: The black cloth also, besides [its] symbolism, does less harm to the eyes and is thicker against the wind and harder (lit. worse) to see through and holds (halt = reduced form of haldeth) its color better against (lit., before) wind and against other things (lit., other what). Look that the curtain (lit., cloth) in the parlor be always on both sides secured and well attached, and defend there your eyes lest the heart escape and go out, as with David, and [lest] your soul sicken as soon as she (i.e., the heart) is out (i.e., gone)

2 Ancrene Wisse

3 Known more popularly as “Christina of Markyate’s Vita” or “The Life of Christina of Markyate.”

4 Hasenfratz translation: No. Holy Writ does not mention either wimple or headcloth, but the veil (or, covering) only. Letter] to the Corinthians: "Let a woman cover her head" (1 Corinthians 11:6). Women shall cover her head.


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sisterhood seclusion medieval women writing




Title: A Sisterhood of Seclusion. Medieval Women's Writing