Recreating a medieval ‘rite of enclosure’

This summer, researchers from the Faculty of Music are working with an innovative young ensemble to reconstruct, enact, and reflect on a little-known medieval ritual in an Oxford church where it was once used.

In a collaboration with the early music ensemble Sub Rosa, which specialises in the music of women religious, Matthew Cheung Salisbury (Univ & Worcester) and George Haggett (Magdalen) will bring to life the medieval chants and prayers which were used at the ‘enclosure’ of an anchorite, a person who withdrew from society to devote their life to prayer and ascetic practices, in medieval England.

Anchorites, who were almost all women, usually lived in small, often doorless structures attached to churches, and their withdrawal from their previous life into solitude was marked by elaborate gestures, some of which mirrored the church’s rites for the dying. One such anchorite lived at St Mary’s Church, Iffley, in Oxford, in the thirteenth century, which will be the venue for the team’s work.

Working from a mid-twelfth century source, the team will produce the first modern performance edition of the rite of enclosure and produce, through enactment, a documentary film. This work will be followed by a public workshop in collaboration with ‘Living Stones’, the education programme at St Mary’s Iffley.

Dr Salisbury, who has spent nearly two decades editing religious rites of the medieval church, and enacting them in the historic built environment, said, ‘At a time when many people have had recent experience of withdrawal from ordinary life as a consequence of the pandemic, a sort of enforced solitude, it is more important than ever to reflect on the ways in which some people have valued the spiritual experience of solitariness, and how the Church marked their setting-apart in this way.’

The project, ‘Recreating an Anchoritic Rite of Enclosure’, has been fully funded by the John Fell Oxford University Press Research Fund.