Episode 5: Hermits and Anchoresses


Em and Jesse begin a journey into the world of Medieval mysticism with a discussion of hermits and anchorites/anchoresses. With some interesting discussions of cats, Michel Foucault, Plato, and Siddhartha Gautama.

Annotations, Notes, and Corrections

0/ There are some sound issues in this episode–I (Em) recorded in what sounds like a cave, and Jesse’s mic is a little staticy and flat for some reason–I suspect she accidentally recorded with the wrong mic. Sorry! [Actually, I turned the gain way down and sat further away–I thought I was being too loud before!–JN]

1/ Quarantine: See our episode on the plague, especially note 22.

2/ The woman who died in 1990 was Maria-Nazerina of Jesus. She became an anchoress in 1945, meaning she went 45 years speaking once per year. (She appears to have been much stricter in her observance than many of the Medieval anchoresses we’ll discuss, in that she did only speak to her spiritual director instead of also offering counsel to anyone who wanted it.) Another modern anchoress we found is Sister Rachel Denton, who is arguably less strict than the Medieval women–for example, she gives seminars and uses the internet, and I think she has a garden. [Christina of Markyate is a good example of an anchoress who was in a tiny cell for a while…she shows up in more detail later in the episode.–JN]

3/ [4:57] My cat has occasionally caught mice, but we can’t rule out that there was something wrong with them that he managed to get them. [Julian’s cat comes from the Ancrene Wisse‘s Outer Rule, Part 8, which allowed anchoresses to have a cat. Here is the quote (lines 76–77: “Ye, mine leove sustren, bute yef neod ow drive ant ower meistre hit reade, ne schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane.” Translation: “My dear sisters, unless need drives you and your director advises it, you must not have any animal except a cat” (trans. Savage and Watson, p. 201). Here are some Julian of Norwich images with her cat (that she presumably had, because of Ancrene Wisse)! Here is the image of Julian with her cat in Norwich Cathedral (and here is the full window where you can see her name). Here is the second window in Norwich Cathedral of Julian (no cat–Julian is the far bottom right figure; here’s a close up). Here’s another great image of Julian and her cat from St Thomas, Earlham Road, Norwich. This window also includes Julian’s famous statement–a quote from Christ, who told Julian that “All shall be well.” We’ll discuss this full statement at more length in the Love and Hell episode in a few weeks. Here is a famous icon of Julian with her cat by Robert Lentz, OFM. (The cat pictured here is a legendary cat of great soul, Magnificat, the protector of all Northwestern University graduate students in medieval studies). Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, eds. Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.–JN]

4/ St. Anthony (251–356): of St. Anthony’s Fire (a disease caused by ergot) fame. Also known as St. Anthony the Great, because there were at least eleven saints named Anthony. Nobody does it better; I mean, he lived half his life in the desert and died at 105? He must’ve been doing something right.

5/ The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Hieronomyous Bosch: This link has a pretty good scan of the panels,and Wikipedia has a bigger but slightly less well photographed version. As with all of Bosch’s paintings, there is a lot going on there–weird bird people, a fish that is also a boat for fishermen, a flying fish, naked people pretending to be the legs of a table…

6/ Theater of Cruelty. [Here’s Artaud, and here’s The Theatre and Its Double (Bosch is mentioned on page 87 of this translation/edition).–JN] [Side note: We don’t have any Amazon affiliation or whatever–if you can order any of the books we mention through your local bookstore, we 100% support that! –Em]

7/ Em: I’m laughing because, as we’ve all recently learned, after a while being alone with your inner thoughts kinda sucks. (And I say this as a writer, which is to say someone who finds my inner thoughts almost infinitely entertaining.)

8/ The transfiguration of Christ.

Jesse: “At the end of all things” is a shout out to Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo’s work is completed (parallels to Christ, see the Passover and Easter episode, part 1)–Remember, Tolkein was a medievalist! Eagles are divine symbols in many traditions–Zeus had an eagle–but in Christianity they also represent divine revelation. John the Evangelist, author of Revelations–the book on the Apocalypse–is symbolized by an eagle.)

9/ Foucault also talks about the replacement of the confession to a priest with the confession to a psychologist (in The History of Human Sexuality). But yes, creating “docile bodies” is a major theme of Discipline and Punish.

10/ [16:30ish] What Jesse is describing–the Christian colonization of Plato’s theories–also happened in the Islamic world but with Aristotle’s theories. If this sounds like a super exciting idea you’d love to learn more about, I suggest you check out The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast episodes 120–195 and especially episode 122.

11/ A comic I drew a really long time ago about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. (Em oi! #150)

12/ Plato’s forms. Comes up a lot, especially Meno, Cratylus, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, and Parmenides. And, honestly, most of the rest of his works. Jesse’s explanation synthesizes small bits of this from a lot of places–I don’t remember offhand just hearing a super thorough discussion of the hierarchy of forms laid out the way she presents it. [Thanks!–JN]

13/ Plato hated art (poetry for sure) but was okay with Beauty. For a really long discussion of poetry and rhetoric in The Republic, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Honorable mention to The Republic, Book III, where Plato makes his dislike of any form of artistic imitation whatsoever very clear. Thank goodness his student Aristotle was a fan boy and chose to fight back against Plato’s anti-theatrical prejudices with The Poetics!–JN]

14/ Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. Quote: 1 Corinthians 13.

15/ Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, is a relatively faithful retelling of the story of Siddhartha Gautama and his journey from prince to Buddha. Siddhartha undertook his ascetic practices in an attempt to find a way to alleviate suffering. In the sense that the desert fathers perceived life on Earth as a form of suffering (because of separation from God), their practice is similar. Where it falls apart is that Siddhartha doesn’t really attribute existence to any one particular god, nor does he see separation from any one specific god as the source of suffering (rather, attachment causes suffering).

16/ The Cistercians: Stricter Benedictines. Trappists: Stricter Cistercians. This happened a lot. For example, the Carmelites spun off the Discalced Carmelites. [The Trappists are officially the OCSO–Order of Cistercians Strict Observance. I did some of my earliest work as a graduate student on the Cistercians, and I thank them and their incredible generosity–especially the organizers and audiences of their panels at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, fondly known as Kalamazoo or the Zoo, which accepted my first ever conference paper and where I consequently gave my first ever conference presentation. My Northwestern University cohort, organized by (now but not then Dr.) Katelyn Mesler presented me with a book afterwards that they had bought and all signed, thus beginning a decade-long tradition for Northwestern Medievalists presenting at Kalamazoo. The book I received signed by my cohort was, very fittingly, Theresa Colletti’s wonderful Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints. Many years later, Therea Colletti taught a year-long seminar at the Folger Library that I had the privilege of attending, and she also signed the book!–JN]

17/ Jesse: Catherine of Siena (way more on her next episode!). Also here’s the Wikipedia article on Tertiaries (Third Order).

18/ The Avignon Papacy: actually, it was in Episode 2, note 14.

19/ Unofficial orders of religious women: beguines. [More on them in our next episode!–JN]

20/ [section around 30 min] One thing that strikes me [Em] is that there doesn’t seem to be a sense of people believing that God will provide them the correct husband who takes their desire to be a nun or anchoress seriously, or that God will deliver them from whatever their parents are asking… it’s more like, often, a trial that they have to endure before they can do what they really want. Just an interesting change from how people seem to relate to their religion today (arguably, different religions–Catholicism vs Protestantism). [Yes! Husbands and parents are frequently trials to be endured. Again, see Christina of Markyate.–JN]

21/ The Ordo, aka the Ordo Virtutum: We will talk about this more in the next episode. [Yes, because Hildegard is so awesome!!–JN]

22/ Theodora of Alexandria

23/ St. Marina. [Yes! It’s possible we should be calling him Saint (Brother) Marinos instead of calling her Saint Marina.–JN]

24/ Jesse: Images of the Arma Christi (arms of Christ) abound during the Middle Ages. These are his tools and his arms (i.e., coat of arms, which workmen usually didn’t receive, of course). Arms also means weapons–they are Christ’s tools/weapons with which he fought for salvation.

Em: Christ at the home of Mary and Martha: Biblical episode is summarized here, although Jesse gives (as always) a good summary as well. [Awww, thanks!–JN] As a cook and someone who often entertained large crowds (before social distancing, anyway), my sympathies are entirely with Martha. Also, given how many times I’ve seen Jewish women do this (rushing around producing enough food to feed an army at short notice), there’s something comforting here about human nature.

Jesse: Some of the women with whom the Magdalen was identified aren’t actually named at all in the Bible. (These nameless women are now assumed to be different people who simply remain unnamed and therefore unknown.) See Jansen’s terrific book on the Magdalene in note 25.

25/ Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Amazon link here! Non-Amazon link here!

26/ Jesse: For anyone who’s interested! Anchoresses become known as recluses. This is from a medieval term (reclusio from verb recludere), but the specificity really arises in modern scholarship as scholars attempt to delineate the different types of seclusion. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia definition of recluse (with its list of recluses) reminds us that in pop culture anyone who sequesters themselves for any reason is now called a recluse. (Howard Hughes and Proust are on the list.)

Du Cange’s Latin dictionary (1678): “reclusio qua quis ad vacandum Deo in cella se includit” or “the seclusion whereby someone encloses himself or herself in a cell in order to be free for God” (Mulder-Bakker 6). Also Du Cange: reclusa “Sanctimonialis ab aliis segregata et in cella reclusa, ut Deo sibique vacet tranquillius.”

Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources: (click on DMLBS after reaching the link) reclusio [LL =opening] , act or state of being shut up, enclosed; b(w. ref. to monastic seclusion).
de ~one x tribuum ‥ . respondit quod artius includeret eos Flor. Hist. I 65; si ex non ~one bovis ‥ mors viri vel mulieris accidit, Domino non recludenti minime imputatur Ockham Dial. 553. B 1321 eam [anchoristam] ‥ recludatis in loco predicto, officium quod in hujusmodi ~one fieri consuevit debite ‥ peragendo Reg. Heref. 205; s1414 Celestini ‥ profitentes regulam Sancti Benedicti ‥ se astringunt ad ~onem perpetuam Wals. HA II 300 (=Id. YN 450); s1428 sui successit in honorem et ~onem monialis de Markyata Chr. S. Alb. 27.

See Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker, Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe, trans. Myra Heerspink Scholz, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Amazon link! Non-Amazon link!

27/ Aelred of Rievaulx.

Jesse: Aelred’s rule is the De institutione inclusarum. The original text is in Aelred of Rievaulx, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis I, ed. by A. Hoste and C. H. Talbot (Turnhout: Brepols, 1971), pp. 635–82 (p. 639). There is also an EETS edition Aelred of Rievaulx’s De Institutione Inclusarum: Two Middle English Translations edited by Ayto and Barratt. Aelred wrote the original in Latin, and this is an edition of two Middle English translations. Translations have always been popular!

Ancrene Wisse. Here are two versions: in the original and in translation (also linked above in note 3). See note 3 above on the Outer Rule and cats (and for other useful info)! The original text version is the TEAMS edition edited by Robert Hasenfratz.

28/ Jesse: Richard Rolle. We’ll definitely talk more about him in the future. In the meantime, here Nicholas Watson’s book on Rolle: Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority. For The Form of Living, the Rule that Rolle wrote for Kirby, it’s included in the Paulist Press edition Richard Rolle: The English Writings edited by Rosamund Allen (in translation). For the original text, see this or click directly here. The original is also available in the EETS edition edited by Sarah Ogilvie-Thomson.

29/ Margaret Kirby’s Wikipedia page. Lots more on Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich in future episodes!–JN

30/ Christina of Markyate. This story is even weirder than Jesse suggests because apparently her aunt was the concubine(?) of a bishop who wanted to also make her his concubine, and when she rebuffed him, he arranged a marriage for her to another man (which–I’m shocked that someone other than her parents could do that? Maybe just because he would’ve had a lot of power?) [For a man with greater power to arrange a marriage for a woman from a lesser family was considered a potential honor–the man might arrange a marriage with a family slightly more powerful than the woman’s, or at least the woman’s family would be on the powerful man’s good side.–JN]

31/ Margaret the Lame. She became an anchoress at age 12 WTF. [Better than married!–JN]

32/ Mechtild of Magdeburg was a super famous medieval mystic.–JN

33/ Dorothea of Montau.

34/ Eve of St. Martin and Juliana of Mont Cornillon (much more on them next time!). The Low Countries are, of course, also partly French speaking (with important mystics like Marguerite Porete below!), but the Dutch-speaking mystics also have legendary importance.–JN

35/ Marguerite Porete was amazing, more on her in the future!–JN