Whilst I was poking around a church recently I came across one of these (see photo below). It is an Anchorite Squint.
Pious and and Holy people from faiths around the world have long sought solitude to get closer to God. usually this would take the form of living on top of a mountain or creating a little hermitage on an island or deep in the desert. What about those who lived in a city or were unable to travel for more mundane earthly reasons? In that case in medieval Britain at least you could become an Anchorite or Anchoress.
The anchorite’s was one of the most extreme of the religious lives of the Middle Ages: it inspired awe in contemporaries, and has held a morbid fascination for modern observers. It was a life of strict and irreversible enclosure, entered into in an elaborate ceremony during which the last rites were administered, and at the conclusion of which the door to the reclusory would be walled up. An anchorite who left their enclosure could be forcibly returned by the authorities, and faced damnation in the hereafter.
And yet, it was a life that continued to attract vocations, and that the rest of society was happy to endorse, throughout the Middle Ages. In England, the earliest examples are recorded from the 11th century. It seems to have been at the height of its popularity in the 13th, for which we can identify some 200 individuals. There is no sign of decline in the 16th century, and anchorites can be found among the religious who were turned out of their houses at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The anchoritic life was embraced by both men and women. The men were almost always priests, but it seems to have been unusual for anchorites of either sex to have been a professed religious (monk, friar or nun) before enclosure. Women outnumbered men throughout the period — perhaps because of medieval prejudices concerning women (whose unruly bodies needed to be kept under strict control), or perhaps simply because the range of religious vocations open to women was more limited than that available to men.
The cell or reclusory was most often sited adjoining the parish church. A narrow window or “squint” looked into the church, and afforded the anchorite a view of the altar. A second window opened on the outside world (often into a parlour) and allowed the anchorite to converse with visitors. Some “cells” had several rooms; some had gardens attached to them.
The solitary life of the anchorite could not be lived entirely alone. A servant was required to bring food and remove waste, and to attend to visitors. Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote an influential “Rule” for anchorites (addressed to his sister), advised having two: an older woman, for her sober influence, and a younger, to do the fetching and carrying. Julian of Norwich had maidservants (at different times) named Sara and Alice. Material support had to be in place before the authorities would sanction enclosure: anchorites had, therefore, to be of independent means. They were also the recipients of alms and grants from all levels of society, from the king down to their fellow parishioners.
In the medieval world, those who chose to live a solitary life were greatly respected. Anchorites lived a solitary life in a cell attached to a church where they stayed living a life of prayer with the Eucharist as their focus.
Although solitaries, they were often searched out for their wisdom and counsel such as Julian of Norwich, perhaps the most famous English Anchorite. Hermits were also solitaries, but not fixed to a particular place and many wandered the country offering their prayers and counsel.
With the Eucharist as their focus, the anchorite would require a squint that allowed them to receive the Eucharist and have a good view of the Mass as it progressed, but at the same time remain unseen by the congregation. Many anchorite cells or reclosoriums were connected to the church in such a way that the squint was placed in the apse, which guaranteed a good view of the altar while leaving the anchorite unable to be seen by the congregation. The squint would also have allowed for food and other items to be handed in, and also for counselling or praying with the people who sought them out so was a slightly deeper and larger opening than the other forms of squint.
When the anchorite first entered their cell a form of funeral was held with psalms from the Office of the Dead sung, the doorway was sealed up and the Anchorite remained there for the rest of their life. So for the anchorite, the squint was life-sustaining: nourished spiritually by observing and receiving the Eucharist, and dispensing wisdom; nourished bodily by food and the reception of other physical requirements such as, for example, pens and paper if they chose to write down their thoughts.
I always find such piety and devotion fascinating though speaking for myself, I can’t help but think a life-time of physically helping those in need might be of more practical use but then devoting your life to God in this way would back then be undoubtedly thought to be a Higher Good.