Come Learn About Medieval Christianity With Me: A Review of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
Hey there, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life, or welcome if you are new. My name is Hannah and I hope you enjoy the journey we’re about to take into my bookcase.
We’re staying in the middle ages this week. We are sadly saying goodbye to Christine de Pizan, but we are going to meet another medieval feminist. Please give a warm welcome to The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.
Yes that’s right, we’re diving into medieval, Christian, historical fiction. A very odd choice for me, but the book was actually pretty good.
I am gonna put this out there right away, I am a very staunch atheist. Do not expect a deep dive in medieval era Christianity. The religious motifs, symbols, and what not have all gone over my head; I am not the person to talk about them so I won’t. I can only offer you the bare minimum explanations on some of the terms in this novel.
For example, what is an anchoress? That I can answer. An anchoress, or an anchorite to use the gender neutral term, is a someone who has chosen to basically become a religious hermit. They live in a teeny, tiny cell that is attached to a church. The idea is that they give up most worldly possessions and comforts to devote their life to god. They are locked in their cell, like the door is nailed shut and they’re not allowed to leave unless they want shame to be brought down upon them, and they have very minor contact with the outside world. They are able to listen to sermons and take mass daily, partake in confession, and offer minor counsel to community members; so they aren’t fully cut off from the outside world. Just mostly.
TL;DR: an anchorite is a person who is locked in a cell attached to a church where they pray 24/7 and sometimes give advice.
Thank you for coming to my history lesson, let’s move onto the synopsis now. As always, a spoiler alert is in order. A content and trigger warning is also necessary. The Anchoress is a story about rape and sexual assault. There are also mentions of physical abuse throughout the story. Please read this story and review at your own discretion.
Our story today follows a young woman named Sarah. After a very rough year, in which her sister dies during childbirth and has had to deal with the unwanted sexual advances from a local lord, Sarah decides to become an anchoress. She realizes that she’d likely end up in an arranged marriage with the man chasing after her, and that there is a high probability she’d die in childbirth like her sister. She doesn’t want that. So she’s getting far away from what is expected from women of the time. Love that for her.
I should mention that this book takes place in 1255. Women were basically not people at this time. Men controlled everything because how could the “weaker sex” be able to handle anything. Women were good for one thing and one thing only: children. A medieval woman’s life pretty much revolved around being homemakers and raising the young. But, Sarah found the loophole. She said “men aren’t going to rule all of my life” and chooses her own path. Men still control her finances and fund her wellbeing as an anchoress, but overall things are going fairly well for her. She will not be forced to marry and birth children as was expected back then!
Like I said, things are going great for her. Until her benefactor dies. Once that happens, the man she rejected takes over the position of benefactor. This man, known as Sir Thomas, can end the life Sarah has chosen should he wish. Don’t love that for her.
Also don’t love that she is beginning to talk with the spirits of anchoresses who used to live in her cell. They are telling her to do a lot of wild stuff; like fasting for months straight and to be a flagellant. By the way, a flagellant is a person who partakes in multiple forms of self-harm as a form of penance. Yep, don’t love that. But, the question is, who is Sarah talking to? Are these voices real or are they just in her head? And if these voices are real, are they actually that of the former anchoresses? Or could they be from a malevolent force?
Listen, I know I threw a lot at you in that synopsis, but please stay with me.
Sarah is my girl. She chose safety and leading her own life over what everyone told her she should do. This is 1255 medieval feminism and I am here for it! Also, this book becomes more timely with age. The story is set in 1255, and it’s 2021 now, yet Sarah’s story is one that many readers can identify with. This is what I’m going to be talking about today. Both points deserve to be talked about in detail.
Let’s talk about this medieval feminism first. As I said, Sarah is my girl. She knows exactly what her life will be like because it’s exactly what every other woman’s life is at the time. She’ll get married and have a hoard of children. If she’s lucky, she won’t die in childbirth and maybe half her kids will live until adulthood. She doesn’t have much going for her if she continues down this well-worn path. But she’s a smart woman. There is one other, one rarely traveled, path she can take. She can become an anchoress.
As an anchoress, she has a lot of freedom she wouldn’t otherwise have. She may be locked away from the outside world, but that's what she wants. Her time is spent in the ways she wants it to be. Sure, her daily routine may be reading gospel and praying, but that’s what she wants so that’s what she’ll do. By being locked away, Sarah doesn’t have to answer to anyone. If she doesn’t want to read the gospel, she doesn’t have to. If she wants to lay around all day, she can. Nobody is watching her, very few people are allowed to set eyes on her, meaning she can do whatever she wants in her tiny chamber. Her life is finally fully hers to dictate. What an icon. That’s all I have to say about her.
Before I get to the next point I want to talk about in detail, I need to mention the trigger warning again. The Anchoress is a story about sexual assault and rape. This is the last chance to get out if the novel’s main topic is not something you are comfortable with. If you’re leaving, that’s totally ok. I’ll see you next week.
For those of you who have stayed, I’m guessing you have come to the conclusion that Sarah is a victim of sexual assault. I’ve kinda been saying that this entire time in not so many words. This book, first and foremost, is the story of a sexual assault victim. The trauma she endured, and continues to endure, is the main reason Sarah became an anchoress. For her, being locked away for her entire life means she won’t ever go through that type of trauma again.
Also by being an anchoress, she is able to come to terms with what happened to her through prayer and speaking with other women who come to ask her for advice regarding similar experiences. Due to all of that, she is able tell her story. She finally feels safe, and is no longer going to allow her trauma from the assault to make her feel disgusted in herself. Or think that the assault was somehow her fault. She shall move forward with her life and help those who have also experienced these traumas overcome them and not feel shamed about what has happened to them in a time when being a victim of sexual assault or rape was basically considered a sin.
I did not expect any of that from an historical fiction novel steeped in medieval era Christianity. I lowkey thought this was a phycological thriller because the synopsis talks about Sarah speaking with the former anchoresses. I fully thought this novel was going in the direction of The Haunting of Hill House, but it’s not. No. It’s not like that at all.
This novel, it was a hard one to get through. Firstly, I had to keep stopping to look up what the author was talking about because I know virtually nothing about medieval era Christianity. Secondly, the subject matter is not a before bed read. Nothing about this book is light-hearted. And I haven’t even touched on the psychological aspect yet.
We’ll do that now. The spirits of the former anchoresses were what drew me to this book. Although I do have to say, they were certainly the novel’s one shortcoming. Not so much because this device was rarely used or how it’s presented in the text, but because of how the synopsis made it sound. Like I said, I came in expecting a medieval Haunting of Hill House. The voices Sarah hears end up working more as her inner conscious instead of an outside force influencing her. Once I realized that, I was fully fine with the voices, but not with the book’s synopsis. I feel like issues like this always worm their way back to marketing/synopsis, and that’s really all I have to say on the matter.
At this point, I have droned on for long enough so I shall let you all go. The Anchoress is a very different book from what I typically read, and I’m proud of myself for expanding my horizons this week. Overall, this was a decent book. I neither hated it nor loved it obsessively, but I do think it is a story that many can relate to in some way shape or form.
With that I must bid you all adieu. Until next time, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.