In some cases the cell was merely a bedroom, and they could freely step out into the church, though they may choose to only do so on certain holy days. More restricted versions were at least as common, and frequently the anchorhold was actually bricked up except for small windows (called a hagioscope or "squint"), possibly shuttered, and closed with the seal of the local bishop. The windows were to allow the passage of food, water, and the chamber pot, or to allow the anchorite to hear prayers, take holy communion or dispense wisdom like a sage.
The anchorite lived a life of spiritual contemplation, and were regarded as very wise and holy. Not just anyone could become an anchorite, you had to petition the catholic church for the right to be sealed up on the holy grounds.
Being bound by oath to stay indoors and renounce worldly events, anchorites were dependent on the charity of the church or community for their continued existence.
Game and Story Use
- A prophet, sage, seer, avatar, faith healer or other source of wisdom could be cast as an anchorite to make them a bit more exotic and otherworldly.
- In games with divine intervention or divine/clerical magic, the anchorite might be a high-level spell-caster. They may in effect be the genius loci of the church, or serve as an immobile last line of defense should the cathedral be besieged.
- An anchorite might make an interesting patron for the PCs, being a retired adventurer or former spymaster who found religion. They no longer interact with the outside world directly, but they still watch over it via inspired visions and send the PCs out to right wrongs.
- The old anchorite has been sealed in that wall for longer than anyone can remember. It turns out they were bitten by a vampire generations ago, and the local priests gave them the choice of a stake through the heart or being walled up inside the church where they couldn't hurt anyone. The flagellant priests provide just enough of their own willingly-donated blood to keep the undead anchorite alive. The holy ground of the church keeps the vampire from using their powers to escape.
- You know those times when your players do something really awful, maybe destroy some poor NPCs life? Having the effected NPC move to the church and become an anchorite is a novel way to show how deeply they've been hurt. Plus, later, you can use them as something of a recurring villain when months or years of hermitage have convinced them that God wants vengeance for the horrible thing the PCs have done.
- An anchorite in the wall might be a mastercraft artisan, producing illuminated manuscripts or embroidered altarcloths that make the local church very respected in the larger religious community.
- Hidden behind their windows, an anchorite might be the only witness to a crime or other problem that happens within the church.
- An anchorite who is supposedly sealed in his anchorhold but can actually come and go quite easily - perhaps via a secret tunnel - could get up to all sorts of strange things. If no-one gets to see the anchorite's face then the mysterious stranger is doubly unlikely to be traced to his cell.
- An anchorite might also make a good custodian for something - sealed up with it so that neither can come in or out.