During a turbulent period as was the 14th c. emerged in Valencia a number of women who adopted an original way of ascetics live his earthly existence, invoking the Vote of Darkness or Walling; these women were well known as The Walled Ladies of St. Andrew, or of St. Catherine, or of St. Stephen, or the of Holy Cross, etc., according to the neighbouring church where her retreat place was, reaching fame in our city; but there were other “enwalled” not so well known, attached to public places such as bridges, city walls, convents, private buildings, etc. scattered throughout the city and already disappeared, like the Chroniclers documented.
The practice of walling, as punitively it is very ancient and used since antiquity; in Persia was condemnation for thieves and in Rome was applied to the Vestals who lost their virginity. It was also a very common form of punishment during the Early Middle Ages, but the novelty during 14th c. was volunteer submission (with relative’s permission or higher) as a form of ascetic-penitential way of life. This practice was a form of radical mysticism, which was born during Middle Ages, it was revived in the14th c., it reached its climax in the 16th c. and lasted until the beginning of 19th c., despite its prohibition by the Ecclesiastical Authorities. It was a form of voluntary retreat where women were locked for life in a small cubicle where the light barely penetrated, to devote herself to pray and mystical contemplation.
These small spaces, mostly of new construction, were built taking small projection walls or hollow walls of churches or monasteries; they used to be narrow cubicles with a small stone bench, barely illuminated by a narrow skylight, the best of them had two opposite windows, one for outside food and another to opposite side for the church to follow the liturgical offices. Women voluntarily submitted by a public ceremony similar to the ritual of a funeral, subsisted with a scarce food supplied through a tiny grid, with few old clothes, knowing that they would die there (often for infection). The most common was that the family previously defrayed the cost of her existence, that could last for decades, with cash or by donating goods, others lived for charity; and some of them withdrawing its enclosure for aged or for health reasons.
The idea arose centuries ago when in the early years of Christianity appeared the figure of the “ascetic” who withdrew voluntarily society life to live in solitude in the desert giving up material comforts and worldly pleasures to live a life of deprivation, and pray, and being closer to God. San Antonio Abad, in the 3th c., is considered the first ascetic, followed by others such as St. Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Eusebius of Vercelli, Simeon Stylite, etc. This tradition was continued for over 1000 years through the monks gathered in communities under different rules in convents and monasteries, erected in beautiful natural surroundings; arriving at 14th c. as a new form of Urban Female Spirituality. This “new” asceticism was motivated by an impregnated popular religiosity of bigotry and fear of hell, that found in this penitential practice a voluntary act of those who wanted the mortification of the body as a way to reach holiness. This secluded life made untouchable and inviolate her body as only communicated with the outside through a very small window that not only protected from physical danger, protected of be accused of heretics or witches, due to from her condition could give ascetics advises, “gratis et amore” opinions, instruct and think freely about transcendent and worldly without being religious or fall into heresy.
But over time was the abuse of this form of life because in 1566 the Archbishop D. Martin Lopez Ayala prohibited these enwalling; but nevertheless, happened and they remained, but subject to visitors appointed by the Ordinary Court and providing no Masses in confinement, not even in Article Mortis. Result of this veto was the creation of “Beguines”, confined spaces that could bring together a small number of walled ladies and they used to be subject to some Religious Order sought greater physical and spiritual assistance. Some years later the individual enwalled returned throughout the city with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities and lasted until the beginning of 19th c. with the French Invasion, which shocked and change the Peninsular Religiosity bringing New Rationalistic Ideas. And due of this change of spirituality the enwalled ladies expressed their mysticism grouped otherwise in so-called Tertiary Orders or Laywomen Communities of Maidens and Widows .
Vote of Darkness was not something unique to the city of Valencia, there were many other places in Spain as Burgos, Jaen, Cordoba, Granada, Astorga, Alicante, Salamanca, etc. And in Europe in cities like Lisbon, Genoa, Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc. There are still many places in our city and testimonies that remember this lifestyle, but it was certainly the church of St. Catherine one of the favourite churches to be enwalled, whose old tower was located on the façade of the church (current Plaza Lope de Vega) and those women were enwalled in tiny cells to live on handouts; there were also at Church of St. Andrew, St Lorenz and St Stephen walls. Among the famous enwalled ladies were Sis. Madalena Calabuig, Sis. Martina Aparisi and Sis. Esperanza, who were enwalled together in St. Lorenz; Ines Pedrós, well known as Agnes Moncada; Juana Zucala in the Monastery of Mercy where the Patriarch Juan de Ribera established the Augustinians of St. Ursula; Margarita Agullona whose admired by many local saints; Genzana Angela Palomino, etc, etc…
Of these, making a more current reading, in a feminist way, we can say that was the proposal of teaching in a visible public expression which led them to separate from the established order, denying society in a sign of rebellion, with a life invented by women and exclusively for women.