Dame Lilias is a strange nun at Oby. She rarely speaks, to the point that the other nuns ask her inane questions to which she responds with basic “yes” or “no” answers. The discontent in her soul rattles Sir Ralph, to the point where he is willing to go to war with Prioress Matilda on Lilias’s behalf in order to emphasize the existential problems of the spirit, rather than prioritize the ongoing debt of the convent.
But then dramatically, Dame Lilias approaches Sir Ralph and says her prayers have been answered.
Dame Lilias wants to become an anchoress.
Before reading this book, I had no idea what an anchoress was, let alone that it actually existed. An article online from the British Library helped me out:
An anchoress was a woman who was walled into a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. (The male equivalent was an ‘anchorite’.) Anchoresses were enclosed in their cells and had no way to get out. Despite how extreme this may seem to us today, the anchoritic way of life seems to have been remarkably popular in the medieval period. Scholars have found that there were around 100 in England in the 12th century, and the figure swells to 200 from the 13th to 15th centuries.
The startling part of this anchoress idea does not have to do with its contemplative side. That much has been found in every religion whether East or West, and no matter what modern Christianity has done to stamp it out in order to promote a more cohesive and salient face, the history of contemplation is as wide as it is deep. My own religious heritage, the Quakers, has sects that feature this as a foundational element.
It’s the walling up in a cell part!
To be honest, the first reaction that I had was for the video game Dark Souls. Pictured here, the “fire keeper” is a character in the first game who remains near the “bonfire” in order to keep it lit.
The research done on the fantasy world that becomes Dark Souls must have taken inspiration from this historical artifact that I completely overlooked.
I wish I could see you, the reader’s, reaction to entertaining the idea of an anchoress, let alone coming to terms with the fact that this was a popular or romantic notion of belief. I wonder if you are fascinated, perhaps more than a little disgusted. I bet after those initial reactions, you’re wondering about some of the logistics required for eating, sleeping, and…and…going to the bathroom.
Self-imposed solitary confinement (as that is what this literally is) has not really slipped off the tongue in my life. As I have meditated this year in 2020, there have been moments where going away could not be more delicious, where I have entertained the mind by resting it and trying as hard as I can to actually make less happen, rather than more. But at the end of the session, I get to come back. I get to bring those skills back to society.
And indeed we seem to be living in a time where solitary confinement is another word for “social distancing,” especially for those without partners or lovers or family.
In the novel, Prioress Matilda’s reaction is as pragmatic as ever: how will Oby hope to keep her dowry if she is approved to be an anchoress? I suppose in this universe the implication is that the dowry would help fund her cell, as well as her food and clothing.
I also suppose it is not all bad. There are slits whereby Dame Lilias can offer commentary and advice to those who seek it, and being unsure of how exactly company is to be provided I suppose means a decent friend could check in daily at a certain time.
But it seems to be a refutation of our basic biology. As hunters and gatherers, our bodies developed for roaming and scavenging. We develop tools, we have prehensile thumbs, and we constantly sure and evaluate the world in a “multiple drafts” sort of way (to quote Daniel Dennett). The assumption of being an anchoress is that the ascetic lifestyle gives the brain the simplicity to think greater thoughts.
Just trying to imagine someone like Werner Herzog becoming an anchorite is a parallel universe I do not want to entertain for long.
I think each era has some elements of its culture that are taken for granted. Why we ever thought that purchasing furs to wear was a good idea, for example, from dwindling populations of animals, might be hard to stomach hundreds of years from now.
What China is doing to the Uyghurs, placing them in trains without windows and taking them to reeducation camps, is being thought of right now as a human rights violation. The future is going to have a hey day with these types of events.
“The past is a foreign country” goes the quote. “They do things differently there.”