Ancrene Wisse Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Ancrene Wisse

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.