While in the bookstore shopping for a gift for a friend, I noticed a novel by Robyn Cadwallader titled The Anchoress. Drawn to the title by my love for Julian of Norwich, who was an anchoress, and feeling the need for a break from my work, I added it to my purchases.
Cadwallader’s novel (her first) was inspired by medieval women who lived their lives as anchoresses. The term “anchoress” comes from a Greek word that means “withdrawn from the world.” An anchoress was a person who, with the permission of the local bishop, completely withdrew from society and committed herself to Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. Often the anchoress’ living quarters (called an “anchorhold”) was a small room built right into a wall of a church. Although these anchoresses lived a generally removed and secluded life, it was not a life completely divorced from contact with others (who would come to seek advice from the anchoress, speaking to her through a small window).
The novel opens in the year 1255 in England (a century before the time of Julian), with the decision of a seventeen year-old girl named Sarah who has just chosen to become an anchoress. Her reasons are a mixture of her natural piety and religious devotion and uneasiness about her body. The interest of a local lord in marrying her, her sister’s dying in childbirth, church teaching about the sinfulness of the female body all play a role.
While the book is clearly a novel and makes no claim to historical accuracy in its description of the life of women like the protagonist, it does give a picture of what such a life much have been like. It conveys effectively that withdrawing from the world means more than building a physical wall around oneself. It addresses issues of isolation, the human need for connection and touch. It touches on difficult issues of attitudes toward the body and acceptance of the self. And it gives a real sense of the physical experience (I could feel the smallness of the space).
The author also paints a vivid picture of the time period in which the novel takes place takes place. I read an interview with the author in which she said that “the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).”
While this is not a book I would imagine re-reading, I did find it an enjoyable (and quick) and worthwhile read.
“. . . church teaching about the sinfulness of the female body all play a role.”
How many of the faithful struggle to this day with the ramifications of such teachings?
A case can be made that St. Augustine followed a Latin translation that mistook Paul’s teaching that sin (original sin) came into the world ‘in him’ (Adam) whereas the Greek text actually states ‘following his (Adam’s) example’. St. Augustine taught that original sin ‘enslaved’ humanity to their carnal desires – passed on through the act of sexual intercourse – condemning every newborn infant to eternal death until freed from original sin in baptism.
“This doctrine has given rise to a fatal denigration and denial of sexuality. In this view, even the slightest sexual desire or overt action, even when meant as a token of affection, becomes a grave sin, unless it is performed within marriage and motivated by the intention to produce children. Human sexuality becomes a demon to be repressed and if possible purged, since carnal pleasure makes a person impure. . . permitted only as an instrument for the propagation of the race, and it should be accompanied by as little carnal pleasure as possible.” – from ‘Can We Save The Catholic Church?’
Historically Augustine’s theology had a profound influence on medieval morality and penance. The belief that original sin was passed on through the sexual consummation of marriage gave rise to austere sexual ethics and sexual abstinence, including abstinence from marriage – abstinence eventually required of the clergy (eleventh century) and even recommended of the laity.
“Conversely, the laity were forbidden to touch holy objects with their impure hands, especially the sacred bread and wine of the Eucharist. Male sperm, like menstrual blood, having intercourse and giving birth to a child, made a person ritually impure and excluded the affected person from receiving the sacrament for a longer or shorter time. Thus it was taught that married couples should refrain from sexual intercourse on Sundays and high feast days, as well as on the eves of such feast days and the eight days following them;. . . and general during Advent and Lent.” (see above reference)
Through the association of original sin and sexuality with women, theology further propagated misogyny, marginalization and even the evil nature of women.
All the baptisms to this day cannot wash away the stain of teachings on original sin, papal infallibility, celibacy, sexuality, contraception and today’s call from a growing number for ‘personhood of the conceived’. Will we soon be attending Masses of Christian Burial for each miscarriage?
As the Magisterium and Curia continue to address denial of and asset protection from the sexual assault scandals coupled with their desire of returning the faithful to past fundamental beliefs and teachings, is it any wonder ‘Sarah’ (and many women today) were / are burdened with the teaching of the sinful nature of her (their) body?