The village of Shere is the site of the cell of Christine Carpenter, an early fourteenth century recluse or anchoress.
Anchoriticism was a religious movement requiring strict isolation and celibacy that flourished in the later Middle Ages. Particularly popular amongst women, it allowed them to live a life of religious devotion and contemplation, protected from many of the concerns of the outside world. The most striking aspect of the anchorite’s existence was that she would usually live in a cell attached to a church with the door blocked off so that contact was only possible via internal and external windows. The former, known as squints if they were angled to face the altar, allowed the anchorite to participate in mass. The anchorite might live on her own, with just a servant to attend to her physical needs, or with a small number of companions. She was, symbolically if not literally, dead to the world.
One of the most famous early Middle English works of literature is the Ancrene Wisse or Guide for Anchoresses, written in the early thirteenth century by an anonymous author for three sisters living in the West Midlands, near the Welsh border. The Ancrene Wisse was composed for their edification and instruction, providing them with spiritual advice and strict rules of conduct appropriate to their calling.
Arguably, the anchoritic life offered late medieval women, who had limited options beyond marriage or joining a convent, a room—or cell—of their own; the opportunity for religious study and possibly even authorship. The most famous English anchorite is Julian of Norwich, renowned for the divine revelations that she received at the end of the fourteenth century. Her two accounts of these Showings are literary and theological classics. Julian seems to have been something of a celebrity in her own lifetime. She was visited by the visionary Margery Kempe, and several women in Norwich seem to have followed her into the anchoritic life.
Christine Carpenter in comparison is a far less distinguished figure. We don’t know much about her background, except that her father was a skilled craftsman. She first entered the written record in 1329 after she petitioned the bishop of Winchester to allow her to become an anchoress and live a life of ‘perpetual chastity’. A cell was built specifically for her at the Church of St James in Shere, and, while it has long since been demolished, traces of it remain, including a quatrefoil window and squint blocked up inside the chancel. The parish would have welcomed Christine’s enclosure as her cell would attract visitors seeking her advice and blessing. While Shere might seem off the beaten track today, it is situated on the Pilgrim’s Way, a popular route for devout Christians making their way from Winchester to Canterbury.
Three years after her initial enclosure, the ecclesiastical records reveal that Christine had not kept her vow but instead had left her cell to ‘wander about the world’ where she was vulnerable to diabolic temptation. In a further twist to the story, Christine then requested permission from the Pope that she be re-enclosed, and this seems to have been granted, subject to her undertaking suitable penance and being closely policed thereafter.
Christine is a significant figure for several reasons. First, her conduct and apparent independence of spirit provide something a counterpoint to the obedience and submission to male authority promoted in Ancrene Wisse and apparently embraced by Julian of Norwich and some of her acolytes. Indeed, Christine’s subversive life is closer to that of Margery Kempe, who was never enclosed. Second, usually women of such a relatively low social status as Christine’s leave little historical imprint, so the fragmentary information about her life captured in the ecclesiastical records and church architecture offers vital insights into the possibilities open to them. Unlike Julian of Norwich, or even Margery Kempe, there is no reason to think that Christine was educated or had access to books, but that did not prevent her from forging her own, somewhat uneven, spiritual path.