Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.
This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).
Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.
As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.
Megan J. Hall
Department of English
University of Notre Dame
The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513
The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1
F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.
Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).
St. Christopher is a saint with an exciting etymological pedigree. The name Christopher is actually a brief description of one of the most famous stories about him: he is the Christ-bearer, from the Greek words Χριστός (Christ) and φέρειν (to bear or carry). Christopher, the story goes, was a new convert to Christianity and, as an ascetic spiritual exercise, undertook to wait by a river ford, carrying travelers across on his back. One day, a young child came along and requested passage.
As he carried the child across, the boy seemed to increase in weight until it seemed to Christopher that he carried the entire weight of the world on his back. This anomaly was explained when, on being challenged, the boy revealed that he was in fact the Christ child, and the weighty importance of his burden – responsible for both the creation and redemption of indeed the whole world – meant that this physical weight was a true reflection of its spiritual and symbolic importance. Depictions of Christopher, therefore, are easily recognizable, in depicting this famous story and rendering visible the pun of his name. Christopher is almost always shown stooped over, fording a river while carrying a small child on his back.
While this iconography is the most frequent and prevalent representation of Christopher, it is not, however, fully consistent with how the saint is represented in some of the earliest medieval descriptions of his story. Christopher is perhaps able to bear such a weighty burden because he is no ordinary man, but a giant in strength and stature. He was a convert to Christianity, coming from a country somewhere in the mysterious east – a region that, in medieval chronicles, romances, and travel writings, was frequently asserted to be the home of wonders and so-called “monstrous races,” mysterious peoples with strange customs and bizarre bodies: cannibals, men with ears like fans or faces in the center of their chests.
Among these strange peoples were the cynocephali, the dog-headed men, and it was to this race that Christopher was sometimes said to belong. In Mandeville’s Travels, one of the best-known of the travel narratives in the English traditions, a race of dog-headed men are described who are a fascinating combination of the fierce and the cultured: “Men and wymmen of that contre [country] hath houndes hedes [heads] and they ben resonable and they worshipeth an oxe for her [their] god and they gon [go about] alle naked save a lytel cloth byfore her [their] privyteis and they ben good men to fiȝt [fight] and they beren [carry] a great targe [shield] with wham [which] they coveryn alle her [their] body and a sper [spear] in her honde [hand].”
Despite their bestial appearance, they have “reason” and an apparently well-developed religion (although one, to Christian sensibilities, misguided). Largely naked, they are still human enough to wear loincloths and carry weapons – and when they defeat an enemy in battle, they take the prisoner to their king, “a gret lord and devout in his faith,” who wears a prayer necklace the author compares to a rosary.
Such a religiously-minded race, indisputably and terrifyingly “other,” but strongly mirroring the familiar, seems an appropriate match for St. Christopher. Being physically strong himself, one version of Christopher’s story goes, he decided to seek out and serve the strongest king he could find. But a powerful human king still stood in fear of the name of the devil, and when Christopher then sought out Satan as clearly the more powerful lord, he was likewise disappointed to find his new master frightened by the Christian symbolism of the cross. So finally he decides to serve Christ instead, as clearly the most powerful. In this version of the story, Christopher is cast in the role of a virtuous outsider, and his bestial appearance makes him an even more powerful spiritual exemplar, while the conclusion of the tale reassures the faithful of Christianity’s superiority, obvious even to someone not quite fully human.
Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of Notre Dame
The account of Abel’s slaying in Genesis represents one of those moments where the desire for more detail is frustrated utterly by Scripture’s silence. How did Cain murder his brother? Where did he learn to kill? What did he do with the body? And so on and so forth in this manner, without recourse to satisfactory answers from the primary sources.
Much like Nature, however, ancient and medieval scriptural commentators abhorred a vacuum; wherever lacunae existed in the biblical narratives, many were more than happy to fill the gaps with clever conjecture, rationalistic explanations, and apocrypha sourced from a variety of traditions. Perhaps the grandest example of this taste for a veritably encyclopedic concatenation of biblical trivia is what Bernard Bischoff economically called Das Bibelwerk (or the Reference Bible), the massive eight-century Irish biblical commentary bearing the Latin title Pauca problesmata de enigmatibus ex tomis canonicis (“Little Questions on Obscurities from Canonical Books”). Unsurprisingly, then, there arose in both the early Jewish and Christian textual communities a number of traditions dealing with the precise method of Abel’s murder.
The neck or head, for example, is identified in a number of early Jewish sources, including the Genesis Rabbah, as the anatomical locus of Abel’s murder. Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud explains how Cain, unfamiliar with the mechanics of death, effectively unleashes a flurry of wild blows until he finds the sweet spot of the neck. The neck and its vital organs are further implicated in the act of strangulation or suffocation, a method alternatively suggested both in Ambrosiaster’s Quaestiones Ueteris et Noui Testamenti CXXVII and the Reference Bible.
Tucked away in a quirky little sermon on tithing dating from at least the eighth century (a copy of which survives in British Library, MS Royal 5. E. XIII, ff. 9r-11r ), we also find the jarring explanation that Cain both suffocated and decapitated Abel with the jawbone of an ass, perhaps even implying that he used animal’s remaining teeth to saw off his brother’s head. Yikes! In fact the earliest literary source to specify the jawbone of an ass as Cain’s murder weapon is a comment on Genesis IV. 8 found in glosses originating from the Canterbury school of Theodore and Hadrian in the seventh century.
Among others, J. E. Cross and T. D. Hill have also noted the presence of this tradition both in the later Old English prose dialogue Solomon and Saturn, as well as in the mid twelfth-century Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn, where the jawbone is said to be that of a camel.
The extra-scriptural tradition that Cain used a jaw-bone (whether that of an ass, camel, or otherwise) to slay his brother may ultimately derive, as M. Shapiro and A. A. Barb have suggested, from his designation as a tiller of the ground. In trying to account for the murder-weapon, early literal-minded commentators may have sought an instrument germane to Cain’s agrarian occupation, such as a scythe.
Such an implement would not, of course, have been made from metal, since the forging of metal tools only began generations later with Tubal-Cain, as any early biblical scholar worth his salt would have remembered. In the absence of metallurgical science, then, a scythe or sickle would have been made of animal bone, perhaps even a jawbone (or so the argument goes). As it happens, excavations of Near Eastern palaeolithic settlements have discovered just this sort of object, animal jawbones inset with flint blades as a replacement for the original teeth.
That his agrarian occupation did encourage other creative conjectures, however, is clear enough from the statement, found in the eighth or ninth-century Vita Anstrudis, that Cain killed his brother with a hoe; or from Benzo of Alba’s Ad Heinricum ImperatoremLibri VII where, this time, Cain is said to have used a shovel.
Yet by far the most macabre explanation comes to us from the thirteenth-century Joca monachorum (“Monks’ Jokes”) dialogue. There, in response to the question how Cain decapitated his brother, the interrogator is told matter of factly that, since he didn’t have a sword, Cain used his teeth, and then buried Abel twelve feet deep. One of the very earliest sources to allude to this outrageously primal method of killing is the apocryphal Latin Life of Adam and Eve (or the Apocalypse of Moses in the Greek version), a collection of texts largely considered to be Jewish in origin and dating to the first century AD. Here Eve is said to have dreamt of Abel’s murder, seeing in her vision Cain mercilessly drinking up every drop of his brother’s blood and vomiting it forth upon the earth. A striking depiction of this scene can be found in the so-called “Alba Bible” from Maqueda, Spain (c. 1430).
Some such source as this must also lie behind the account given in the Zohar (a thirteenth century collection of esoteric and Kabbalistic scriptural exegesis), where Cain is said to have bit his brother like a serpent because he did not know how to separate body and soul.
It is worth pointing out as well that the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text dating from around the third to first century BC, describes the antediluvian giants of Genesis 6 as cannibalistic monsters who drank the blood of their own race. These very giants, according to the tradition preserved in both the Irish Reference Bible and the Old English poem Beowulf, among others sources, had sprung directly from the murderous seed of Cain. The Book of Enoch, or at least a fragment of its Latin translation, was also definitely known in Anglo-Saxon England by the tenth century at the latest, and it is perhaps this very bit of apocryphal lore that the Beowulf poet had in mind when describing the monstrous kin of Cain, among whom the blood-drinking horror of the marches—Grendel—numbered.
While certainly not exhaustive, the above little discussion will have shown, if nothing else, how wonderfully (or frightfully) imaginative and diverse apocryphal tradition could be in the face of Scripture’s silence. For questions remained, and answers were demanded—and when every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial, potentially held deep symbolic significance, such silence was indeed unacceptable. Luckily, there existed a robust inheritance of extra-biblical sources and authorities to satisfy even the most inquisitive of minds.
University of Notre Dame
Bischoff, Bernard and Michael Lapidge, eds., Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), p. 499.
Barb, A. A., “Cain’s Murder-Weapon and Samson’s Jawbone of an Ass,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972), pp. 386-87.
Cross, J. E., “Cain’s Jawbone: Earlier Allusions” in KM 80: A Birthday Album for Kenneth Muir, Tuesday, 5 May, 1987, ed. A. Kettle (Liverpool, 1987), p. 33.
Cross, J. E. and T. D. Hill., The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus (Toronto, 1982).
Henderson, G., “Cain’s Jaw-Bone,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 24.1/2 (1961), pp. 108-114.
Mellinkoff, Ruth, “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part I, Noachic Tradition,” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979), pp. 143-162.
Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto, 1995), pp. 58-85.
Shapiro, M. “‘Cain’s Jaw-bone That Did the First Murder’,” The Art Bulletin 24.3 (1942). Pp 205-212.
W. Suchier, ed. Das mittellateinsche Gespräch Adrian und Epictitus: nebst verwandten Texten (Joca Monachorum) (Tübingen, 1955), no. 23, p. 124.
Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis. A New American Translation, trans. J. Neusner (Atlanta, 1985), p. 248.
Sanhedrin, ed. I. Epstein, trans. Jacob Shachter, 2 vols. (London, 1935), I, 37b, p. 237.
Vita Anstrudis Abbatissae Laudunensis V, 25-26, ed. W. Levison, MGH: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum 6 (Hannover, 1913), p. 68: “Semper enim pars malorum infesta est parti piorum, ex quo Cain fregit sarculo guttur fraternum.”