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Ch. 15: Anchorites

ANCHORITES, STRICTLY SO CALLED

The fertile and peaceable lowlands of England, as I have just said, offered few spots sufficiently wild and lonely for the habitation of a hermit; those, therefore, who wished to retire from the world into a more strict and solitary life than that which the monastery afforded were in the habit of immuring themselves, as anchorites, or in old English "Ankers," in little cells of stone, built usually against the wall of a church. There is nothing new under the sun; and similar anchorites might have been seen in Egypt, 500 years before the time of St. Antony, immured in cells in the temples of Isis or Serapis. It is only recently that antiquaries have discovered how common this practice was in England, and how frequently the traces of these cells are to be found about our parish churches. They were so common in the Diocese of Lincoln in the thirteenth century, that in 1233 the archdeacon is ordered to inquire whether any Anchorites' cells had been built without the Bishop's leave; and in many of our parish churches may be seen, either on the north or the south side of the chancel, a narrow slit in the wall, or one of the lights of a window prolonged downwards, the prolongation, if not now walled up, being closed with a shutter. Through these apertures the "incluse," or anker, watched the celebration of mass, and partook of the Holy Communion. Similar cells were to be found in Ireland, at least in the diocese of Ossory; and doubtless in Scotland also. Ducange, in his Glossary, on the word "inclusi," lays down rules for the size of the anker's cell, which must be twelve feet square, with three windows, one opening into the church, one for taking in his food, and one for light; and the "Salisbury Manual" as well as the "Pontifical" of Lacy, bishop of Exeter, in the first half of the fifteenth century, contains a regular "service" for the walling in of an anchorite. {330} There exists too a most singular and painful book, well known to antiquaries, but to them alone, "The Ancren Riwle," addressed to three young ladies who had immured themselves (seemingly about the beginning of the thirteenth century) at Kingston Tarrant, in Dorsetshire.

For women as well as men entered these living tombs; and there spent their days in dirt and starvation, and such prayer and meditation doubtless as the stupified and worn-out intellect could compass; their only recreation being the gossip of the neighbouring women, who came to peep in through the little window--a recreation in which (if we are to believe the author of "The Ancren Riwle") they were tempted to indulge only too freely; till the window of the recluse's cell, he says, became what the smith's forge or the alehouse has become since--the place where all the gossip and scandal of the village passed from one ear to another. But we must not believe such scandals of all. Only too much in earnest must those seven young maidens have been, whom St. Gilbert of Sempringham persuaded to immure themselves, as a sacrifice acceptable to God, in a den along the north wall of his church; or that St. Hutta, or Huetta, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, who after ministering to lepers, and longing and even trying to become a leper herself, immured herself for life in a cell against the church of Huy near Liege.

Fearful must have been the fate of these incluses if any evil had befallen the building of which (one may say) they had become a part. More than one in the stormy Middle Age may have suffered the fate of the poor women immured beside St. Mary's church at Mantes, who, when town and church were burnt by William the Conqueror, unable to escape (or, according to William of Malmesbury, thinking it unlawful to quit their cells even in that extremity), perished in the flames; and so consummated once and for all their long martyrdom.

How long the practice of the hermit life was common in these islands is more than my learning enables me to say. Hermits seem, from the old Chartularies, {331} to have been not unfrequent in Scotland and the North of England during the whole Middle Age. We have seen that they were frequent in the times of Malcolm Canmore and the old Celtic Church; and the Latin Church, which was introduced by St. Margaret, seems to have kept up the fashion. In the middle of the thirteenth century, David de Haigh conveyed to the monks of Cupar the hermitage which Gilmichael the Hermit once held, with three acres of land. In 1329 the Convent of Durham made a grant of a hermitage to Roger Eller at Norham on the Tweed, in order that he might have a "fit place to fight with the old enemy and bewail his sins, apart from the turmoil of men." In 1445 James the Second, king of Scots, granted to John Smith the hermitage in the forest of Kilgur, "which formerly belonged in heritage to Hugh Cominch the Hermit, and was resigned by him, with the croft and the green belonging to it, and three acres of arable land."

I have quoted these few instances, to show how long the custom lingered; and doubtless hermits were to be found in the remoter parts of these realms when the sudden tempest of the Reformation swept away alike the palace of the rich abbot and the cell of the poor recluse, and exterminated throughout England the ascetic life. The two last hermits whom I have come across in history are both figures which exemplify very well those times of corruption and of change. At Loretto (not in Italy, but in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh) there lived a hermit who pretended to work miracles, and who it seems had charge of some image of "Our Lady of Loretto." The scandals which ensued from the visits of young folks to this hermit roused the wrath of that terrible scourge of monks, Sir David Lindsay of the Mount: yet as late as 1536, James the Fifth of Scotland made a pilgrimage from Stirling to the shrine, in order to procure a propitious passage to France in search of a wife. But in 1543, Lord Hertford, during his destructive voyage to the Forth, destroyed, with other objects of greater consequence, the chapel of the "Lady of Lorett," which was not likely in those days to be rebuilt; and so the hermit of Musselburgh vanishes from history.

A few years before, in 1537, says Mr. Froude, {333} while the harbours, piers, and fortresses were rising in Dover, "an ancient hermit tottered night after night from his cell to a chapel on the cliff, and the tapers on the altar before which he knelt in his lonely orisons made a familiar beacon far over the rolling waters. The men of the rising world cared little for the sentiment of the past. The anchorite was told sternly by the workmen that his light was a signal to the King's enemies" (a Spanish invasion from Flanders was expected), "and must burn no more; and, when it was next seen, three of them waylaid the old man on his way home, threw him down and beat him cruelly."

So ended, in an undignified way, as worn-out institutions are wont to end, the hermit life in the British Isles. Will it ever reappear? Who can tell? To an age of luxury and unbelief has succeeded, more than once in history, an age of remorse and superstition. Gay gentlemen and gay ladies may renounce the world, as they did in the time of St Jerome, when the world is ready to renounce them. We have already our nunneries, our monasteries, of more creeds than one; and the mountains of Kerry, or the pine forests of the Highlands, may some day once more hold hermits, persuading themselves to believe, and at last succeeding in believing, the teaching of St. Antony, instead of that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of that Father of the spirits of all flesh, who made love, and marriage, and little children, sunshine and flowers, the wings of butterflies and the song of birds; who rejoices in his own works, and bids all who truly reverence him rejoice in them with him. The fancy may seem impossible. It is not more impossible than many religious phenomena seemed forty years ago, which are now no fancies, but powerful facts.

The following books should be consulted by those who wish to follow out this curious subject in detail:--

The "Vitae Patrum Eremiticorum."

The "Acta Sanctorum." The Bollandists are, of course, almost exhaustive of any subject on which they treat. But as they are difficult to find, save in a few public libraries, the "Acta Sanctorum" of Surius, or of Aloysius Lipommasius, may be profitably consulted. Butler's "Lives of the Saints" is a book common enough, but of no great value.

M. de Montalembert's "Moines d'Occident," and Ozanam's "Etudes Germaniques," may be read with much profit.

Dr. Reeves' edition of Adamnan's "Life of St. Columba," published by the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, is a treasury of learning, which needs no praise of mine.

The lives of St. Cuthbert and St. Godric may be found among the publications of the Surtees Society.

Charles Kingsley