Lydia Shahan

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Jeffrey Bowman


Marian imagery was an important component of guides written for female anchorites, and Lives written about them by male authors in the first half of the thirteenth century. These authors invoked Mary as a way to define the virtues of the anchorite, and to reconcile her dual role as a humble solitary and a powerful intercessor on behalf of her community. Among the many forms of religious life available to devout women in the Middle Ages, the anchorite’s life was unique in its rigor, and in its potential for spiritual rewards. Anchorites lived alone in cells attached to parish churches and spent their lives in constant prayer. Solitude was necessary in order to achieve the closeness with God that they yearned for, and which manifested itself in contemplative and visionary experience. However, townspeople, both clerical and lay, routinely compromised the anchorite’s solitude, hoping that she could use her closeness with God to intercede on their behalf. As “the handmaid of the Lord,” as she is described in the Book of Luke, Mary was humble, meek, solitary, and obedient, but she also powerfully served others as their mediatrix before the judgment of Christ. These dynamics of Marian imagery are especially apparent in two groups of texts from the first half of the thirteenth century, the Ancrene Wisse, an English guide for anchorites, and the Vitae of Yvette of Huy and Margaret of Magdeburg, anchorites who lived in the Low Countries and southern Germany. In both texts, the male authors characterize Mary as the ideal female anchorite because of, not in spite of, her embodiment of these contrasting images. Mary provides an ideal for the anchorite to emulate, but because she is an unattainable ideal, Marian imagery is as much a mechanism of control as it is of inspiration.

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