Tombs of the Living Dead: Illness and Disease in the Anchorite Cell

Tombs of the Living Dead: Illness and Disease in the Anchorite Cell

By Bernadine De Beaux, Flinders University, South Australia

Photo 1: Anchorite Cell, St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. Evidence suggests that the cell would have been at least two stories.

(Note: although a modern staircase is in place now, there would have been some means in place to get from the lower levels of the cell to the Oratory).


The anchorites of medieval England were a very eclectic group. They did not come from one particular area of society. There were men and women who were lay and religious, single, married or widowed and of low and high status. By their own free will they were enclosed in a cell, a room or set of rooms, usually attached or “anchored” to a church, typically on the North side of the Chancel – the more inhospitable, colder side of the Church, for the rest of their lives, in solitude and prayer, in order to be closer to God.

They would be symbolically, and in most cases physically sealed in their cell into irreversible enclosure for eternity, in a ‘living tomb’. Indeed, in the second chapter of the thirteenth century anchorite guide, the Ancrene Wisse, the author urges the sisters to whom his instructions were given, to “…each day scrape up the earth of your graves, in which you will rot”, as a Memento Mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death. Those who left their cell without permission, which was rarely given, were forcibly returned and damned by the Church for eternity for abandoning their vows, their promises to the Church, and to God.

In comparison to their female counterparts, male anchorites could be periodically called upon by the Church to accept pastoral duties. This meant that they were then free to leave their cell to fulfil that role. The Church would also be more inclined to grant permission to male anchorites to move cells for various reasons, or to visit other anchorites or religious figures, thus being given much more freedom and religious responsibility than female anchorites. An example of this can be found in the Calendar of Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland dated 1401-1402, during the reign of Pope Boniface IX. John Bourne, an early fifteenth century member of the Friar Preachers of Arundel, who, after being enclosed as an anchorite, found that his cell was very “inconvenient”, he also felt that living in poverty was “…so trying”, that he obtained papal licence to relocate to a more ‘suitable’ place.

This is not to say that female anchorites were not given permission to leave their cells. Although rarely given, we do have some evidence that this did happen. Emma Sherman, anchoress of Pontefract, was given permission to temporarily leave her cell to go on an annual pilgrimage. This same anchoress, who also possessed an enclosed garden, had her request to move cells approved because her garden was too noisy. However, it must be reiterated that from what we know of the relocation and movements of female anchorites, this was very uncommon.

Anchorite cells varied in sizes. Two of the smallest currently identified have been recorded and subsequently noted by Mari Hughes-Edwards. The first, only 2.4 meters square is located in Leatherhead, Surrey and the second, 2.04 x 1.1 metres located in Compton, Surrey. However, there is evidence that suggests this second extant cell, attached to St Nicholas Church, would have been at least two stories. Therefore, although only 2.04 x 1.1 metres on ground level, it would have held a much larger living space (photo 1). It also includes the only access to an Oratory, which is in a gallery overlooking the Nave of the Church (photos 2 and 3). There is no evidence of a fireplace for heating and it has only two small windows, one of these being a squint in cruciform (photos 4, 5 and 6). In comparison, the largest known cell recorded was one attached to Chichester Cathedral, which measured 8.7 x 7.2 metres as detailed by Anne K Warren. Also, as already mentioned, some rare cells included the use of an attached, but equally secluded and enclosed, garden, which would have made the ‘living’ space even larger.

In general, anchorite cells usually had only three small windows. The average size of these being approximately 90cm (H) x 60 cm (W), but this depends on the architectural period of the cell. One window was for a source of natural light, and was usually set high, another used as the only connection with the outside world. This was where people would come to speak to the anchorite, asking for their prayers, intercessions and spiritual guidance. It is where the recluse would have been provided with food and water or wine, and where waste was removed. This window may have had a black cloth to give privacy and modesty to those enclosed, as suggested by the Ancrene Wisse, and some had a wooden shutter attached to protect against the harshness of the winter, wind and rain. Lastly the squint, this window, sometimes in the shape of a cruciform, faced the altar. It was provided so that the anchorite could view the altar, and follow the services and prayers being said by the priest.

2: St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. Door to the anchorite cell from Oratory.
Photo 3: St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. Oratory. Note door to the anchorite cell on the right side behind railing.










You may be wondering, what does all this have to do with illness and disease? Well, imagine being enclosed in such a cell, possibly no bigger than an average bathroom. You may have been sleeping on the stone floor, possibly in the grave you would be digging daily with your hands, or in a make-shift hammock. If you were not enclosed in a cell with a fireplace, the coldness and damp, during the winter months, would be seeping into every part of you through the cold stone which surrounded you. Your day may have consisted of the Benedictine Order of Prayer which usually started at 4.30am with Vigils (morning prayer). There would have also been time for needle work, making clothes for the poor, or the copying of texts for the Church, and of course the visitors to your window seeking guidance and asking for your prayers. You may have had one meagre main meal, or possibly two small meals a day, prepared and brought to you by your servant, who would have been contracted to attend you during your enclosure. But, as more than one anchorite guide stipulated, with whom you were forbidden to gossip or talk idly with.

Photo 4: St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. View from outside of the anchorite cell, showing enclosed door and the only window to the outside.
Photo 5: St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. The window to the outside world, as seen from inside the cell.


Photo 6: St Nicholas Church, Compton, Surrey. Anchorite squint – view from inside the cell. The squint looks towards the altar.











If you were not one of the fortunate anchorites to have access to a garden, this meant you would be eating, sleeping, praying, going to the toilet and bathing in an approximately 4 x 3 metre cell for the rest of your life. But how long would that be exactly? 20, 40 or even 50 years? And what state of health, both mental and physical, would you be in?

The Lack of Social Interaction

In the words of Aristotle, “human beings are by nature social animals”.

The Ancrene Wisse warned the anchorite to be on their guard against “internal demons”. It may indeed have been referring to the normal psychological torment of being locked in solitary confinement. The enclosed anchorite was not only forbidden to speak idly or to gossip with their servant, but to any person who came to seek their spiritual guidance. The anchorite’s sole focus was to be on God and prayer.

Although there are not currently any studies on religious confinement and its effect on the mind of the recluse, there have been several studies on solitary confinement in prisons. While prisoners do not commit to solitary confinement by their own free will, these studies may prove useful when trying to understand how built form creates certain behaviours, and how their enclosure may have affected the mental state of the anchorite.

In his 2014 article on solitary confinement in US prisons, Jason Breslow, researcher and editor for Frontline stated: “For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept in a cell that is approximately 80 square feet (or 24 square metres), smaller than a typical horse stable. Cells are furnished with a bed, sink and toilet, but rarely much else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, and each day inmates are allowed just one hour of exercise in a cage…”. This description is like that of the anchorite cell, even how their food was served, except perhaps the modern cons of a flushing toilet and running water, and the dimensions of the cells which varied for the anchorite, some being much smaller.

In another relevant example, bioethnist George Divorsky noted that “solitary confinement can cause irreversible psychological effects in as little as 15 days…without the benefit of another person to converse with on a number of different subjects, the mind decays, without anything to keep the mind active, the brain wastes away, and without the ability to see off in the distance – to change the line of sight, vision fades, and anxiety and hopelessness creeps into existence.” How much more of a mental toll would it have been for the anchorite, being in a similar situation for 20 – 30 years plus!?

Let’s Get Physical

I think it can be fair to assume that enclosed in a cell, physical activity would be minimal. In all honesty, I do not think that the anchorite would be running around the cell doing star jumps and sit ups. Physical inactivity can cause many painful and sometimes terminal illnesses and diseases to form. Among these are, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, DVT, stroke, balance problems and bone fractures after falls, Type II diabetes, several forms of cancer, and premature death.

Lack of Exposure to Sunlight

The importance of sunlight and hence vitamin D has been highlighted by the medical profession as vital. It is medically essential that our skin is exposed to direct sunlight. Enclosed in their cells, with little to no sunlight, the anchorite would have therefore experienced the effects of vitamin D deficiency, which can be the cause of headaches, impaired wound healing, bone, muscle and back pain, low blood levels, hair loss, osteomalacia (adult rickets), pneumonia, depression, and cancer.

Lack of Fresh Air

With only one small window to the outside world, the lack of fresh air would have indeed caused drowsiness, headaches, fatigue, difficulty in concentration, depression, inhalation of dust mites and toxins, and even anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations. Is anyone thinking ‘Mystic’ visions?


As mentioned earlier, some cells did not have any source of heating. With no fireplaces and very little ventilation toxic mould could form in damp or warm areas, these can produce toxic substances called mycotoxins. These in turn may have caused severe respiratory infections, asthma, and allergic reactions including rashes, coughing, sneezing and itchy red eyes. In the worst of scenarios, they may have even caused lung infections or chronic lung disease.

It is without a doubt that the anchorite would have experienced, over their lifetime, a number of chronic health problems. They would not have been healthy individuals.  However, how can we possibly begin to prove this?

There are historical records of instances of illness in the anchorite cell, although they are not numerous and are not in great detail.  The twentieth century historian and researcher, Rotha Mary Clay, relates some examples of such records in her book ‘Hermits and Anchorites of England’.  These include Christina of Markyate, who was shut in a corner of a small hut and was unable to wear enough clothing to protect her from the cold, endured daily fasting and thirst. Added to these sufferings “were many and terrible diseases”. Matilda of Wareham, who suffered in silence when, “her jaw was in such a state of disease that it seemed to be breaking away”. The ill health of Joan of Blyth is mentioned, as is the seizure and loss of speech suffered by Margaret Kirkby and Dame Julian’s “severe attack of sickness”.

However, we cannot solely rely on historical records. For tangible proof of the illness and diseases endured, we would also need to excavate, examine, analyse and compare several anchorite skeletons of both genders, bearing in mind that most anchorites were buried within their cells. We must note too that not all diseases can be seen in the skeleton, only those which are chronic or last for several months or years can affect the skeleton. Cancer for example could cause bone loss and cell destruction. An example of this is metastasized breast cancer which causes destruction to the cranium. Other illnesses relevant to the anchorite which may be seen in the skeleton include tuberculosis, osteomalacia (adult rickets), tooth decay and chronic infections such as osteoarthritis.

This topic has many broader research possibilities. For example, in comparing anchorites with those incarcerated in the prison systems, particularly those who are in solitary confinement, we can research chronic mental diseases which may have affected the enclosed anchorite. Skeleton gender comparison of the anchorite, specifically evidence of difference or similarity in disease or illness and ages at death. Or indeed evidence of anchorites being victims of the plague. It is hoped that we see these and many further research topics on anchorites and their lives develop in the near future.

This article is based on my 2017 conference paper of the same title, delivered at the International Medieval Congress – Leeds University on the 3rd of July 2017.

A full bibliography is available for those who wish to view it.

Bernadine De Beaux is currently a postgraduate student at Flinders University, South Australia, and is researching anchorite cells in England and Wales. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Open University (UK), a Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies and a Masters in Cultural Heritage from Deakin University (Victoria Australia), a Masters in Medieval and Early Modern Studies from The University of Western Australia, and a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education (Teaching) from Deakin University. With interests in academia, she aspires to become a lecturer in Medieval Studies.