Also known as Ancrene Riwle, Middle English rulebook, c. 1215-21.
Ancrene Wisse is an anonymous thirteenth-century guidebook of the West Midlands of England that provides rules for anchoresses (monastic women) on spiritual matters. It is of great value to religious and social historians for its abundant and detailed descriptions of the more mundane aspects of daily life both in the anchorage and in the outside world. The author explains how to control one's senses and emotions, how to resist temptation, and how living a life of penance can help one better to love God and understand His love. Originally intended for three specific sister anchoresses, the guide was later changed to apply to a larger group of recluses. Its early Middle English text was translated into Latin and French in the work's infancy and for years misled many scholars about the original language of its composition. Critics praise Ancrene Wisse for its conversational style and simplicity but stress that it is actually a very accomplished, well-planned, and highly structured piece of writing.
Plot and Major Characters
Ancrene Wisse begins by explaining that there are two rules, an outer and an inner, that guide the life of the religious. The outer rule concerns the flesh and the outside world, whereas the inner rule concerns the heart. The outer rule varies somewhat according to circumstances, but the inner rule cannot be changed in any way. Obedience, chastity, and stability are stressed. Ancrene Wisse then sets forth instructions on devotions, the senses, dealing with temptation, confession, penance, and love, as well as conduct in the outside world. The writer devotes much attention to the outside world and uses representatives from many walks of life to illustrate salient points.
Ancrene Wisse is essentially a rulebook intended to guide the reader in ways to avoid sin through living separately from the outside world, even when surrounded by other people. Even friendships among members of the religious community pose certain dangers and must be approached warily. The writer stresses the idea of individuality and seems aware of the need to balance spiritual and material concerns. The individual woman must also practice humility through meditation and obedience to the head anchoress and through following the theological rules outlined in the book. Purity of heart, mind, and body is essential to a deeper understanding of God's love and the Ancrene Wisse writer devotes a good deal of attention to warning readers about the pitfalls of impure thoughts and practices.
Scholars have demonstrated considerable interest on the origins of Ancrene Wisse. Ingenious detective work has yielded numerous hypotheses as to the identity of the author, the identities of the original recipients of the text, and the date of creation, but definitive answers to these questions have been difficult to confirm. Hope Emily Allen's work exemplifies the search for answers, but many of her conclusions have been superseded by further discoveries in the decades since she wrote. Succeeding scholars addressing the matter of origin include C. H. Talbot, who examines liturgical details in an attempt to date Ancrene Wisse; E. J. Dobson, who has offered brilliant but ultimately inconclusive specifics about the various versions of the text; and Bella Millett, who argues for a later dating than most scholars but explains that the more investigations are undertaken, the more puzzling the results of the research. J. R. R. Tolkien maintains that answers to such questions as the specific identities of author and subjects will probably always evade discovery and are not so important anyway. Tolkien concentrates instead on the manuscript tradition and textual history of Ancrene Wisse and offers important foundational work, including a linguistic study of its dialect. The style and structure of Ancrene Wisse is examined by Geoffrey Shepherd, who notes that its author shows elaborate intellectual and thematic development; that there are careful transitions between subjects; and that “symmetry, parallelism, and antithesis are habits of his thoughts.” Linda Georgianna attempts to reconcile the anonymous author's spiritual advice for recluses with his realization of the material needs of religious community. Georgianna writes that Ancrene Wisse reveals great interest in “the ordinary affairs and desires of people living in the world,” and notes that “It is curious that a book written for recluses should be so dense with reminders of every conceivable aspect of medieval town life—the market, mill and barnyard, the parlor, battlefield and tournament, the manners of knights, ladies, servants, soap peddlers, cloth merchants, wrestlers, and thieves.” Nicholas Watson analyzes Ancrene Wisse in terms of its devotional material but points out that it serves as an excellent source for many disciplines, including philology, stylistics, and cultural history.
Ancrene Wisse: Edited from MS. Corpus Christi College Cambridge 402 (edited by J. R. R. Tolkien) 1962
The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle (edited by E. J. Dobson) 1972
The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle (edited by A. Zettersten) 1976
The Ancrene Riwle (The Corpus Ms.: Ancrene Wisse) (translated by Mary B. Salu) 1955
Ancrene Riwle: Introduction and Part I (translated by Robert W. Ackerman and Roger Dahood) 1984
Anchorite Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works (translated by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson) 1991
Medieval English Prose for Women: Selections from the Katherine Group and Ancrene Wisse (edited by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne) 1992
Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses (translated by Hugh White) 1993
Temptations from Ancrene Wisse, 1 (translated by Yoko Wada) 1995
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SOURCE: Allen, Hope Emily. “The Origin of the Ancren Riwle.” PMLA 33, no. 3 (September 1918): 474-546.
[In the following excerpt, Allen presents and discusses evidence that Ancrene Wisse was written not long after 1134 in the hermitage of Kilburn.]
The following paper will give a preliminary statement of a new conjecture as to the origin of the Ancren Riwle.1 It is proposed to identify the three maidens for whom the treatise was composed with the “tribus puellis, Emmae, videlicet, et Gunildae et Cristinae,” to whom, according to the charter printed by Dugdale,2 the hermitage of Kilburn, with its appurtenances, was granted by the Abbot and convent of Westminster sometime between the years 1127 and 1135.3 The hermitage was endowed permanently with money, land and beneficia, in return for which the inmates were to be the beadsmen of the abbey and of its confederate, the Abbey of Fécamp. The house at Kilburn was to be under the protection of St. Peter's, but it was to have complete independence in regard to its internal affairs. The establishment thus made had a continuous existence till the Reformation, under the title, which it seems to have acquired very early, of “Kilburn Priory.”4
The records of Kilburn Priory show that striking likenesses existed between that house and the establishment of anchoresses...
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SOURCE: Tolkien, J. R. R. “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meidhad.” In Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. XIV, collected by H. W. Garrod, pp. 104-26. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
[In the following excerpt, Tolkien offers a linguistic study of Ancrene Wisse and its assorted manuscript variations.]
The Ancrene Wisse has already developed a ‘literature’, and it is very possible that nothing I can say about it will be either new or illuminating to the industrious or leisured that have kept up with it. I have not. But my interest in this document is linguistic, and unless I am mistaken, a purely linguistic aspect of the problem will bear renewed attention, or repetition. I even believe that it may be of value to set forth a line of argument that is based on assertions of which the proper proof (or retractation) must wait for a later occasion.
I start with the conviction that very few Middle English texts represent in detail the real language (in accidence, phonology, often even in choice of spellings) of any one time or place or person. It is not to be expected that they should, in a period of manuscript reproduction and linguistic decentralization; and most of them in fact do not. Their ‘language’ is, in varying degrees, the product of their textual history, and cannot be fully explained,...
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SOURCE: Talbot, C. H. “Some Notes on the Dating of the Ancrene Riwle.” Neophilologus 40 (1956): 38-50.
[In the following essay, Talbot disputes Hope Emily Allen's claim for an early twelfth century dating of Ancrene Wisse and offers evidence that it was written in the thirteenth century.]
Thirty years ago R. W. Chambers1, reviewing the previous work done on the Ancrene Riwle, brought forward some sound arguments for the dating of the treatise, which Miss Hope Emily Allen was inclined to place in the early part of the twelfth century. He based his remarks on the quotations taken from the Declamationes of Geoffrey of Auxerre and showed that such passages, mentioned by the Riwle as being “almest Seint Beornards Sentence”2, could not have been extant before 1153. Without going further into this particular question, it may be remarked that for the purpose of throwing doubt on the validity of Miss Allen's theory about the Riwle being written for three maidens who had been given a hermitage between 1127 and 11353, Professor Chambers need have gone no further afield than the first page of his own article. For he quotes the description of the back-biter, “a character sketch”, as he calls it, in which “we find the writer showing powers of an astonishing kind” but which turns out to be nothing more nor less than a translation...
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SOURCE: Georgianna, Linda. “Self and Society: The Solitary Life.” In The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse, pp. 32-78. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, Georgianna examines the skill displayed by the author of Ancrene Wisse in balancing the different concerns of the spiritual and material worlds.]
Solitaries, by definition, are those religious who have most radically withdrawn from the world. That the anchoresses addressed in the Ancrene Wisse have more in common, by way of a religious rule, with canons and friars than with cloistered monks seems, therefore, incongruous. Viewed historically, the solitary ideal is marked by the desire to become “dead to the world.” Severely ascetic and obviously antisocial, this goal implies an absolute denial of self and the world that extends beyond the renunciation of all physical pleasure to include the renunciation of even the most common of human and social desires—concern for family, friends, and one's own well-being. Many scholars have found the Ancrene Wisse exceptional in this regard for its “moderation” and “good sense.”1 But it seems to me that the author moves beyond simply moderating the severities traditionally associated with the solitary life. While it cannot be denied that the Ancrene Wisse is, by our standards at least, an ascetic work, it is...
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SOURCE: Ackerman, Robert W. and Roger Dahood. “General Introduction.” In Ancrene Riwle: Introduction and Part I, edited and translated by Robert W. Ackerman and Roger Dahood, pp. 3-38. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984.
[In the following essay, Ackerman and Dahood explain the advent of the solitary life and provide an abstract of Ancrene Riwle.]
The aim of the present edition is to make available for students an often neglected portion of Ancrene Riwle in a form demonstrably close to that which was actually known and used in the thirteenth century. These pages set forth, in addition to the short Introduction, the daily round of devotions, the central core of the anchoress's existence. In his edition, restricted to Parts VI and VII, Geoffrey Shepherd was particularly interested in those moving passages designed, in his words, “to stimulate and control acts of penance and love in daily life.”1 Our chief concern is with the prescribed program of worship, which in our opinion supplies the proper context for understanding the spiritual and domestic advice in the remainder of the treatise.
In view of the intense study of AR over the years, it is surprising that the elaborate prescriptions for the anchoress's liturgical day given in Part I have not long since been better explicated. Modern secularism and a consequent failure...
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SOURCE: Dahood, Roger. “Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wohunge Group.” In Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres, edited by A. S. G. Edwards, pp. 1-33. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Dahood presents an overview of Ancrene Wisse, including its origin, manuscripts, editions, languages, sources, and style.]
This chapter deals with several related early Middle English works associated with the West Midlands. The longest and best known is Ancrene Wisse (AW), a rule of living written for anchoresses, female religious of more or less solitary life. The Katherine Group (KG) consists of five works in alliterative prose, of which one is a treatise in praise of virginity, Hali Meiðhad (HM); another is an allegorical homily of body and soul, Sawles Warde (SW); and three are saints' lives, Saint Katherine (SK), Saint Juliana (SJ), and Saint Margaret (SM). The Wohunge or Wooing Group (WG) consists of þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd, On wel swuðe god Ureisun of God Almihti (the Lambeth version of which Morris printed under the title On Ureisun of Ure Louerde), þe Oreisun of Seinte Marie (the Nero version of which Morris printed under the title On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi), and On...
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SOURCE: Shepherd, Geoffrey. Introduction to Ancrene Wisse: Parts Six and Seven, edited by Geoffrey Shepherd, pp. ix-lxxiii. Exeter, England: University of Exeter, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Shepherd analyzes the solitary life of the hermit and the recluse, considers the need for theological rules, and examines the themes and methods of arguments used in Ancrene Wisse.]
THE EREMITICAL LIFE
Among Christians the first large-scale movement away from society took the form of an individual flight by men and women of the fourth century into the deserts of Asia Minor and North Africa. There, in the following centuries, the so-called Desert Fathers led their solitary lives, though these were often passed physically within the confines of a loosely organised communal settlement. A monasticism of this type became familiar in Celtic lands later, and also in England. Solitaries are common enough figures in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English and in later OE records. But the norm of Western monasticism, as established by Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.547) and set out in the Benedictine Rule, conceived of the monastic life as essentially corporate. Monks lived in community, their way of life was strictly regulated, and their devotions were highly organised. And this is the ideal which dominated English religious life in the centuries following the Benedictine...
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SOURCE: Watson, Nicholas. “The Methods and Objectives of Thirteenth-Century Anchoritic Devotion.” In The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Exeter Symposium IV, pp. 132-53. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1987.
[In the following essay, Watson contrasts Ancrene Wisse to works of devotional writing from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.]
I cannot pretend to detail for you the sundry stages of the Christian mystical life. Our time would not suffice, for one thing; and moreover, I confess that the subdivisions and names which we find in the Catholic books seem to me to represent nothing objective or distinct. So many men, so many minds: I imagine that these experiences can be as infinitely varied as are the idiosyncracies of individuals.1
A number of works intended for anchoresses survive in six important early thirteenth-century manuscripts. Four of the manuscripts—Corpus Christi Cambridge 402 and three Cotton manuscripts, Cleopatra C.VI, Nero A.XIV and Titus D.XVIII—contain the best known of these works, the anchoritic manual Ancrene Wisse; in addition, the Nero manuscript preserves several prayers and Passion meditations from the so-called ‘Wooing group’, including On wel swuðe god Ureisun of God Almihti, while the Titus manuscript contains Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd...
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Elkins, Sharon K. “Advice to Recluses in the Early Thirteenth Century.” In Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England, pp. 156-60. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
[In the following excerpt, Elkins explores the distrust of friendships as expressed in Ancrene Wisse.]
Early in the thirteenth century, a small group of young women recluses received the Ancrene Riwle. A friend of theirs, a well-educated cleric, had composed this tract for them on their request. Partly because some versions of this text were written in Middle English and French, scholars have analyzed in detail the text of the Ancrene Riwle, prepared careful editions of the surviving manuscripts, published translations, and considered its content and context in numerous scholarly articles. After much speculation on the identity of the author and the female recipients, historians now agree that neither can be identified with certainty. The earliest manuscript, however, can be reliably traced to the southwest midlands of England and identified as a copy made between 1224 and 1230 of the urtext, or original, written a decade or two earlier. The author may have served as the master of the community he addressed.1
The advice given recluses in this tract at the beginning of the thirteenth century does not represent a great change from what Aelred of Rievaulx offered his sister....
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SOURCE: Millett, Bella. “The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions.” Medium Aevum 61, no. 2 (1992): 206-28.
[In the following essay, Millett presents evidence that the author of Ancrene Wisse was more likely a Dominican than a Victorine.]
Although it is a book-length work, the early Middle English guide for recluses known as Ancrene Wisse gives us very few clues to its origin. Its author is anonymous. So is its audience: all that we know for certain is that the work was originally addressed to three well-bred (gentile) sisters, who ‘in the flower of your youth renounced all the joys of the world and became recluses’,1 and that it was later revised (in the version surviving in the Corpus MS) for a group of recluses which had grown to twenty or more.2 The only definite indication of its date is the author's assumption in the revised version that the recluses would be visited by both Dominican and Franciscan friars; since the Dominicans arrived in England in 1221 and the Franciscans in 1224, the revised version at least must have been produced sometime after 1224. As for its place of origin, the author writes in a variety of West Midlands English which probably originated in northern Herefordshire or southern Shropshire; but there are no indications of locality in the text itself, apart from a passage in the revised version which...
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Barratt, Alexandra. “Anchoritic Aspects of Ancrene Wisse.” Medium Aevum 49, no. 1 (1980): 32-56.
Explores both Carthusian and Augustinian influences.
———. “The Five Wits and their Structural Significance in Part II of Ancrene Wisse.” Medium Aevum 56, no. 1 (1987): 12-24.
Discusses the abuse of the mouth and how the concept works structurally in the text.
Dahood, Roger. “Design in Part I of Ancrene Riwle.” Medium Aevum 56, no. 1 (1987): 1-11.
Refutes the claim that Part I is loosely arranged.
Diekstra, F. N. M. “Some Fifteenth-Century Borrowings from the Ancrene Wisse.” English Studies 71, no. 2 (April 1990): 81-104.
Discusses textual transmission, presenting parallels to two fifteenth century texts.
Dobson, E. J. “The Affiliations of the Manuscripts of Ancrene Wisse.” In English and Medieval Studies: Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, edited by Norman Davis and C. L. Wrenn, pp. 128-63. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1962.
Examines omissions from and additions to assorted versions in order to help determine the lineage of the manuscripts.
———. The Origins...
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