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An associate professor at the University of Oxford, Annie Sutherland, has recently sought to draw the link between anchorites of the medieval centuries and the fictitious handmaidens found in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. She suggests that they have more in common than initially perceived, both groups revealing symbols of protest amongst holy women.

The modesty costume, worn by the handmaidens in Atwood’s novel, and more recently by women across the globe on numerous occasions who have been protesting against threats to women’s bodily autonomy, has been adopted as a symbol of female agency and protest. Atwood has said that these ‘’modesty costumes worn by the women [in The Handmaid’s Tale] are derived from Western religious iconography’ – reminding us that, over the centuries, a significant number of women in the Christian West have been defined by appearance and their attire, and have been objectified in a multitude of ways by those having authority over them.

Anchorites, who could be men, but were more frequently women, were significantly common across England during the Middle Ages and were people who ‘wanted to live lives of Christian prayer and extreme devotion to God’. They vowed themselves ‘to a life of chastity and penance’, being permanently enclosed in small ‘cells’ adjoining their local church, by being willingly bricked into these cells until the moment of their death. Although, unlike the characters in Atwood’s novel, anchorites were not subjects of a repressive regime since they were not enclosed unless they actively sought it out as a lifestyle, they do bear surprising similarities with the fictional handmaidens. Both groups of women were meant to live in a state of perpetual fear, suggests the theologian Aelred of Rievaulx. Further, what they have in common is ‘their isolation from the world around them and their submission (whether enforced or chosen) to wills other than their own’, as well as the underlying ‘capacity to turn subjection into agency and subservience into freedom’.

Students applying to Theology as well as to English Literature may consider the parallels and resemblances of ideas and outlooks voiced in both the real world and fictitious pieces of work.

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