In the Middle Ages, women chose to be walled up alive.

In the Middle Ages, most Western cities were equipped with recluseries: Installed on bridges, at the corner of busy streets or in the walls of churches, these facilities accommodated "spiritual sentinels" whose constant prayer was supposed to repel plague epidemics and invaders. It is no coincidence that these cells are linked to the bridges or the gates of the city: they form a spiritual rampart which is superimposed on the physical defences.

They are called “reclusoirs” or “recluseries”. These cramped cells (between 4 and 9 square meters), which can still sometimes be seen attached to the walls of certain churches, look like a challenge to the face of time. Nothing has changed since their medieval construction: blind, bare walls, a cold flagstone floor, a trickle of gray light filtering through a latticed window. For only comfort, a frozen fireplace; for only decoration, a crucifix on the wall. A table, a stool, a hardwood bed.

The recluse (a woman in most cases) who lives there has sworn to devote herself to prayer and penance until the end of her life. She prays for the dead buried in the nearby cemetery, for the fertility of the land, for the protection of the church and the keep, for the opulence of the city whose muffled murmur reaches her. She lavished advice and blessings on the bourgeois who came to consult her.

She honors a society that no longer concerns her: by crossing the threshold of the reclusory just before the entrance is sealed, she has entered her own tomb. Moreover, the ceremony which precedes this confinement is similar to the rites of burial. the recluse receives extreme unction, hears a requiem and therefore becomes "dead to the world" in the eyes of her contemporaries.

However, it is not a punishment. It is even a very coveted privilege, which is only granted to a handful of individuals. If the word “reclusion” is today associated with a criminal penalty, the original term designates a form of voluntary isolation, of withdrawal from the world. In the Christian tradition of the time, religious piety often manifested itself through extreme exercises: pilgrimages, deprivation of food, flagellation of the flesh… marked with the seal of sacrifice.

In this context, completely renouncing the world, like hermits or monks, is considered a magnificent display of piety. Can we make a greater sacrifice? It's not quite abandoning the world, but seeing it gradually reduced to the two little slits in the walls of the reclusory – one used to receive public charity, the other to listen to mass.

“Suddenly, the signs are reversed , in history. The prison becomes a paradise, the gate of Heaven; the tomb a cradle where the seed of blissful immortality germinates. Anchor of the ship of the Church, the reclusory is an accumulator of graces for the entire community, here below and in the hereafter.

Very widespread in the Middle Ages, the use of the reclusory lost momentum as Western society emancipated itself from the sinful tradition of Christianity , in particular by rubbing shoulders with the Protestant reform . Outside in the 19th century , people cried out for torture. Victor Hugo thus qualified, in Notre-Dame de Paris , the reclusory as an "early grave" and its resident as a "living skeleton".

This is to forget that locking oneself in voluntarily had its virtues – especially for a woman in the Middle Ages. One could be protected from the vices of society, especially the gang rapes that plagued most urban communities. One could live with a roof over one's head and receive food and firewood, in a form of independence. unthinkable for his counterparts. We passed on the towel on a poor life, punctuated by trauma, to see ourselves set up as a model of virtue, serving God without having to bear the costs of entering the monastery. In short, the solitude of the reclusory could be synonymous with peace.

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