Coronavirus: advice from the Middle Ages for how to cope with self-isolation

By Godelinde Gertrude Perk

The pandemic of COVID-19 is often called “unprecedented” – and for many people cooped up in their homes in different countries, the experience is both unparalleled and challenging. But in late-medieval Europe, individuals self-isolated professionally. Some people – women particularly – permanently withdrew from society to live walled in, alone in a room attached to a church. 

Guides for, and texts written by, these female “anchorites” – as the women were known – from Britain and continental Europe give us descriptions of their way of living and recount their reflections. So what can these medieval women teach us about how to cope with self-isolation? 

These anchorites chose to be confined in these cramped cells for many reasons. According to medieval religious culture, a life of prayer on behalf of others vitally supported society. Isolation empowered women to express their love for Christ, and minister to their fellow believers through their prayers and counsel. Anchorites were even presented as possessing “super powers” of interceding for the deceased in purgatory. 

Furthermore, in the late Middle Ages, devotion among laypeople – people who are not clergy – flourished. Life as an anchorite offered laywomen an option to express this piety, but offered more freedom for individual contemplation (and solitude) than a nun’s life. 

Warnings in guides for anchorites also hint at less spiritual motives. Life as a recluse, paradoxically, situated anchorites at the heart of their communities and could transform them into religious celebrities. Their cells often faced busy roads in bustling cities and doubled as a bank, teacher’s cubicle, and storehouse of local gossip. 

Don’t expect comfort

The 13th-century, medieval English guide for female anchorites, Ancrene Wisse, warns recluses not to look for comfort. Instead, the anchorite should remind herself that she was enclosed not just for her own benefit, but for the sake of others too.

She is told to “gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched” and “feel compassion”. By self-isolating, the anchorite “holds [all fellow believers] up” with her prayers. Now, nurses and doctors are urgently calling for a similar commitment from the public, when begging “Stay home for us.”

The Wisse’s advice has a flavour that feels equally relevant today. Self-isolation may be easier to bear if instead of seeing it as a stretch of boring but comfy nights in, you recognise it as an unpleasant, stressful experience – but also visualise all the people whose health you are protecting by staying home. 

Acknowledging vulnerability

The earliest-known English woman writer, Julian of Norwich(c.1343–c.1416) – an anchorite – likewise encouraged readers to acknowledge their own vulnerability, but suggested perceiving it as a strength. She assured readers in her late 14th-century or early 15th-century text, A Revelation of Love, that suffering and difficulties will not defeat them:

Christ did not say, ‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’

Modern statue of Julian of Norwich at the west entrance to Norwich Cathedral. Evelyn Simak, CC BY-ND

Julian promises that readers will experience emotional turmoil during any crisis but will ultimately conquer it. This promise parallels modern survival psychology. When adapting to life during a crisis, acknowledging the challenging circumstances as forming one’s real life now is essential. Yet one should simultaneously remember that one is doing one’s utmost to return to a better, pre-crisis style of living. Only by acknowledging our vulnerability – both physical and mental – and consequently taking action to protect and care for others and ourselves, will we make it through.

Guarding the senses

According to manuals for anchorites, they should guard their metaphorical windows (their five senses) and actual cell windows, to prevent falling into temptation and being distracted from their prayers and meditation. The Wisse declares: “disturbance only enters the heart through something … either seen or heard, tasted or smelt, or felt externally.” 

The external world can upset one’s interior world. Dutch anchorite Sister Bertken (1427-1514) recounts this confusion in a poem:

The world held me in its power
with its manifold snares
it deprived me of my strength. 

Yet this nervousness about the effect of sensory input can also be understood as a medieval analogue to a warning against fake news or anxious over-consumption of news. Several guides recommend having a female friend scrupulously guarding the anchorite’s window, refusing to allow access to visitors who spread gossip and lies. Social media today can be a little like such visitors.

The Enclosure of Sister Bertken. Photo by E de Groot & S Pieters, University of Utrecht

Keep busy, keep sane

Anchorites and writers of manuals for anchorites also reflected upon how to keep sane. Keeping occupied prevents one from climbing the walls. British Cistercian monk, Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), tells his sister, an anchorite, in A Rule of Life for a Recluse that: “Idleness … breeds distaste for quiet and disgust for the cell.” 

Routines are key. Anchorites recited sequences of prayers, psalms and other Bible readings at fixed points of the day. According to modern survival psychology, dividing a problem or stretch of time into manageable steps is crucial when faced with a crisis. Equally important is performing each step one by one, never looking further ahead than the next step.

Mentally absorbing hobbies, such as crafts, gardening or reading, are another time-honoured strategy for dealing with self-isolation. After recommending sewing clothes for the poor and church vestments, the Wisse assures anchorites that keeping occupied will shield their minds against temptation: 

For while [the devil] sees her busy, he thinks like this: ‘It would be useless to approach her now; she can’t concentrate on listening to my advice.’ 

These suggestions are easily translatable to today. After all, according to survival psychology, performing manageable, directed actions with a purpose is crucial in crises. Incidentally, the Wisse also recommends keeping a cat.

On the one hand, self-isolation can feel limiting – Julian of Norwich also felt that: “This place is prison,” she said, referring either to earthly life or her cell. But the cell’s cramped space also granted medieval women a paradoxical, spiritual freedom. In his letter to the anchorite Eve of Wilton, the 11th-century monk Goscelin of St Bertin exclaims: “’My cell is so narrow,’ you may say, but oh, how wide is the sky!”

This article was originally published in The Conversation

Godelinde Gertrude Perk, Postdoctoral researcher in Medieval Literature, University of Oxford.

Report on the Medieval Intersectionality Workshop

By Philippa Byrne

I got 99 research problems, and questions of identity impinge on all of them in one way or another” – many medievalists, probably.

Medievalists have been pondering identity for a long time, arguably since long before we were even called ‘medievalists’ and were simply labelled ‘antiquarians’ – just think of seventeenth-century arguments about Saxon freedoms versus Norman yokes.
Lots of work – good and bad – has been done on medieval identity. Any scholar working in the field of medieval studies could point you to an article or book which takes a subtle and nuanced approach to issues of identity and belonging. Equally, I’d be willing to bet that nearly every medievalist has worried, at some time or another, about nakedly political attempts to claim the middle ages as the origin point for modern nativist mythologies about (white) identity and ethnicity.
In March, medievalists of Oxford were asked whether we should be thinking about identity and identities in a more complicated and critical way – and, what’s more, talking to other medievalists about our collective approach to these topics. At a workshop on intersectionality, organised and led by Amanda Power and Robin Whelan, we were challenged to think about identities, experiences and labels as overlapping and, indeed, intersecting.

Identity is not one thing or another: it might be rather like a game of 3D chess, with different levels and different engagements being played out. The social systems of the past are complex things with many moving parts. This may seem an obvious point: of course identity is not a static, singular thing. But it is easy to overlook if we, as researchers, pursue and cling onto, a particular kind of identity as the explanatory key to a whole community, kingdom, or historical problem.

This is where, as many speakers over the course of the day suggested, medieval studies needs to speak to, and borrow from, other disciplines. ‘Intersectionality’ is not our coining – and we are still more likely to meet it in the context of sociology or critical theory, applied to modern societies, than in medieval studies. The term itself might need some reframing and repositioning before we can apply it to the medieval world. This was a point made by Bernard Gowers in his paper on ‘Systacts and Literati’: how do we go about constructing and theorising the right type of language to describe medieval groups? Medievalists, as ever, need to worry about how we fit modern terms to past societies. But along with the worry, might we also have an advantage? Almut Suerbaum peered into a number of religious texts by German religious authors in her paper ‘Virgin Mothers, Lowly Queens’. In these texts which describe personal encounters with God, female authors put on and take off a number of different identities in a single piece. A speaker setting forth multiple identities might not seem so strange to a medieval reader. Here we had the paradox of medieval texts dealing with identity in a more complex and sophisticated way than modern medieval scholars might be doing.

My own contribution to the day attempted to think through the life of a Muslim town, in Lucera, southern Italy, in the thirteenth century. Removed from Sicily and established in a formerly Christian town, this group of Muslims was initially permitted to retain their religious practices so long as they paid taxes. But in the early years of the fourteenth-century, Charles II of Naples dissolved the ‘Muslim colony’ (a potentially problematic label) in an extremely violent process, and its Muslim inhabitants were sold into slavery. The story of Lucera fits well into established historiographical explanations about the hardening of religious identities of thirteenth century, and the story of a slow shift from ‘tolerance’ of non-Christians at the start of the period to their persecution at the hands of Christian authorities by the end of the century. But this big overarching narrative might not be very helpful in thinking through the dynamics of local or individual experience.

In attempting to describe the lives of the inhabitants of Lucera, if we begin and end with the term ‘Muslim’, we’ll not get very far. One might even suggest we do the Muslims of Lucera something of a historical injustice by painting their experience in such broad strokes. Though not an exact parallel, to talk about a ‘Christian’ town in southern Italy wouldn’t tell us very much about the experiences of its inhabitants. That label/category of ‘Muslim colony’ needs more adding to it: not least in terms of the dimensions of local experience. Not every facet of life in Lucera was connected to religious practice, and we need to think about the existence of the town beyond its mosque – in terms of its urban geography, its public and private spaces, and how they were built and experienced.
Much of this research is still at the stage of a thought experiment: to what extent can we capture the experience of a group of individuals deported from Sicily to Puglia, southern Italy, in the early thirteenth century? What sources can we look at to tell us about their relationship to the land, to the town, and to other communities in Italy?

But the point of the day – and the point of trying to be ‘intersectional’ medievalists – was not solely about getting to know our medieval subjects better and finding better words to describe their experiences. Intersectionality is a term coined with an inherently political purpose. It underscores the question of how we draw the boundaries of medieval studies, of who we include and who we exclude – and who gets to do that including or excluding. The watchword for the day was a phrase used by the organisers which came up repeatedly in discussion: we should be making ourselves “usefully uncomfortable”. There is value in worrying about our choices of subject and case study, and value in challenging ourselves to justify those selections. With this in mind, we might possibly avoid the lure of only studying the people who look, or seem to look, like us. We might avoid the trap of writing a medieval Europe that looks just like the academy, as presently constituted. We might also hope that one day both our image of medieval Europe and the face of the academy might look a little more diverse. If this is the beginning of a shift in the discipline, it can only be welcomed as a good thing. I, for one, hope to remain usefully uncomfortable for a long time to come.

Click here to view the report written by Rachel Moss on the same event.

Philippa Byrne