Ancrene Wisse Criticism - Essay

Hope Emily Allen (essay date 1918)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 for whom the Ancren Riwle was written. These, with some evidence confirming the connection of the treatise with Kilburn, will be enumerated point by point.


The Ancren Riwle was written for women who, like the recipients of the hermitage of Kilburn, were three in number. They were of noble birth, and young, and their entrance into religion had occasioned a stir in the world.5 The youth of the Kilburn ladies seems implied in the use of the word “puellae,” which is applied to them in the charter of foundation, and their noble birth is put beyond all doubt by a statement of John Flete, the fifteenth century prior of Westminster (who, as such, would be, as we shall see, infra, p. 495, in constant connection with the house in his time, and thus in a position to know its traditions); he says that the “virgines” whom Abbot Herebert established at Kilburn were “domicellae camerae” of “good Queen Maud,” the wife of Henry I, daughter of St. Margaret of Scotland, and niece of King Edward the Confessor.6


The three women are in both cases inclusae. The references to this fact in the Ancren Riwle are continuous, from the first pages on. The fact that the Kilburn sisters are also enclosed appears from the use in the foundation charter of the phrase, “quae infra clausae fuerint,” as applied to the sisters' residence in the hermitage of Kilburn, and a plea is quoted from 1207 by Park (p. 188), in which reference is made to the Prioress of Kilburn, “quae inclusa est.”7 The Riwle makes it clear that the nuns addressed are enclosed in a church (Morton, pp. 68, 142, 242, 262), and the second Kilburn charter printed by Dugdale implies the same for the Kilburn sisters,—“quae sunt in ecclesia beati Johannis Baptistae de Keneburna.”8

The failure to recognize that the Kilburn sisters were “inclusae” is probably responsible for the failure of scholars heretofore to identify them with the ladies of the Riwle, when all the surface indications so plainly pointed the way to that identification. It has not been well understood that “inclusae” might be women living in a definite organization, with a superior. In this connection it is interesting to observe that once, in giving a more or less formal statement of the sisters' condition, the French text uses the term “recluse de moustier” (f. 67v), where the English gives “chirche ancre” (Morton, p. 416).9


We are told in the Ancren Riwle (p. 356) that the three sisters are “beadsmen”; the Kilburn sisters are the beadsmen of Westminster Abbey, as had been the hermit Godwyn, the builder and original occupant of the hermitage of Kilburn. It may be observed that traces of the duties of prayer expected of the anchoresses of the Riwle in return for their sustenance appear in the regulations for their service. Prayers for the dead make an important part of their daily routine: it would be well if they were to say Placebo, Dirige, and Commendacion every day (Morton, p. 22), though on the eve of a festival of nine lessons10 they may say only three lessons of the service for the dead. … “The anniversaries of your dear friends” are probably the anniversaries of Westminster, of which a list from a later period is printed in the Customary of the Abbey (p. xxvii).11


When the author of the Riwle describes the material circumstances of the three anchoresses, he says that they enjoy a very unusual security in this respect: many others suffer great want.12 These statements make it all the more significant that the nuns of Kilburn enjoy just such material security as is described in the Riwle. Moreover the assistance which the nuns of Kilburn receive, like that described in the Riwle, is not only secure, but perfectly definite and regular. It is one of the most striking correspondences between the two lines of evidence which we are following that the corrodies received at Kilburn seem specifically referred to in the Riwle. … It would appear that the “hall of the friend” was the hall of the Abbot of Westminster, who had granted the ladies of Kilburn by their foundation charter a sum of money and “duo beneficia” (“one for the benefit of the souls of Westminster and Fécamp,” and one “which Ailmar the hermit had”); very soon a second rental is granted them by the Abbot (one was given by a priest at the foundation), and their other benefits are soon described as “three corrodies,” of which one is that “which Ailmar the hermit had.”13 A vagueness of expression makes it impossible to decide just the relation between the benefits of Kilburn described in the charters of the first two abbots concerned with the house, but it seems very likely that the ladies may have been receiving the three corrodies before 1138, which was approximately the time of Gervase's accession. No sign is given in the charters as to any increase in the personnel of the hermitage, and if there were none, each of the three ladies would be receiving by 1138, if not before, from the hall of the patron of her house her “bread and what is eaten with bread,” just as did the sisters of the anchorage. Her clothes and the food of the serving maidens (which were also secured for the women of the anchorage) could be provided out of the rentals of Kilburn, even if the eleemosynary sum given at the foundation had been discontinued.14 Since the source of all their support was the abbot, he might very easily be the “dearest friend” to whom the women of the Ancren Riwle were to show their need if such arose (p. 416).15

The Ancren Riwle gives us hints as to the fare received by the sisters, which would seem to suggest the monastic food supplied by corrodies. The anchoress is not to complain of “mistrum, oðer leane mel, of unsauure metes, of poure pitaunce” (Morton, p. 262). The French text at this point speaks of “defalte de repast ou de sauourees viandes ou de pure (?) pitance” (f. 40v).16

In contrast to the fare of Kilburn may be cited the example of Tarente, the nunnery with which the Ancren Riwle was formerly connected (see infra, p. 542). This received from the hall of the lord of the manor, who was its patron, a tithe of all bread “except the king's bread, and all the tithe of salt pork, and of cattle killed in his house every year.”17

… All the way through the text the author has so combined admonitions directly intended for the three sisters with what he expressly tells them is not needed for them, but may be useful to others,18 that in a case like the present it is difficult to separate general references from those that reflect actual conditions in the life of the women in question. At the same time, considering all the other circumstances, it would appear that this passage may be taken as an admonition adapted to the special circumstances of the women addressed,—given impersonally, with a slight touch of affectionate sarcasm. There would be nothing startling in the author's referring to the sisters as “rich,” since he has already (p. 192) spoken of their material circumstances as superior to those of any anchoresses whom he knows. B, in any case, here uses “church” instead of “rich” (Macaulay, p. 330). As a matter of fact, the sisters of Kilburn were “tillers of land and receivers of rents” from the first. They owned land in Southwark and Knightsbridge, and there was land connected with their hermitage.19


In the foundation charter of Kilburn it is stated that Godwyn is to continue to live there as “magister loci, illarumque puellarum quamdiu vixerit custos. Et post ejus obitum eligat conventus puellarum seniorem idoneum, qui earum ecclesiae praesit, abbatis tamen concilio.” The anchoresses of the Riwle are also under a “master.” …

B (apparently written for the house descended from the original anchorage) contains many references to “your master” (see Macaulay, pp. 470-2). It is of the greatest interest that one implies that the “master” is the author of the Riwle. …

The author's “mastership” would give the perfect explanation for the special authority, knowledge, and affection which he shows in relation to the sisters (who are “les femmes qe ieo plus eym,” f. 22v, p. 116). Godwyn probably knew his charges in their secular life, for it was at his “concessu” and “precatu” that they received their hermitage. No reader of the Ancren Riwle can doubt that its author would be, in the literal sense, “a fair for the mastrye.”20


The Kilburn church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and in a transaction of the reign of Henry IV the name of the Virgin is joined in the dedication (Park, app. p. xxx). About 1200 Kilburn is referred to as dedicated to St. Mary (v. infra, p. 490 n.). In the treatise the Virgin and St. John are taken as the types of the solitary life as described in the New Testament, and a specially lengthy discussion is given to St. John (Morton, p. 158). The whole account of the solitary life at this point is taken, with some minor changes, from the Carthusian Customs drawn up about 1127 by Prior Guigo;21 but this need not destroy the significance of the passage for the present discussion, for its original use by the Carthusians was exactly that which has been suggested in connection with Kilburn. Guigo's praise of the solitary life in the Customs, given with special reference to the Virgin and to St. John the Baptist, made the climax to the Carthusian Customs, because Carthusians were dedicated to the life of solitude almost as specially as anchorites, and their patrons,—to whom they made their vows on profession—were the Virgin and St. John the Baptist.22

In all the versions and manuscripts of the Riwle the ninth day set for communion is June 24 (p. 412), the day of the patron of Kilburn, but all the manuscripts designate it as “Midsummer Day,” except the French, which calls it the “Day of St. John the Baptist” (f. 67)—the title which we should expect at Kilburn. The French form of this passage will be discussed later (p. 541), and will be seen to show other evidence of superior authority.


When about 1140 two hermit women were taken under the protection of the Abbot of St. Alban's, and given companions and monastic buildings at Sopwell, we are expressly told, not only that additions were made to their numbers, but that the Abbot—although they are called “inclusæ”—“more sanctimonialium velatas, et sub Ordine S. Benedicti victuras constituit.” When about 1134 his neighbor the Abbot of Westminster had put three women into the hermitage of Kilburn, it is a contrast significant for the present hypothesis, that we are given no sign of the rule which they are to follow. This fact has excited the astonishment of Park (p. 162), and he is still more astonished that no mention of the rule followed at Kilburn is to be found till after the middle of the fourteenth century, and that in a formal document of 1377 the nuns are called “of the order of St. Augustine” (Park, pp. 171, 177). This information he is inclined to discard, because of the connection with the Benedictine house of Westminster, and, accordingly, for the same purely conjectural reason, the historians all call Kilburn Priory Benedictine. There exists, however, practically no mediæval evidence for this title, and the Augustinian connection is repeated in a Patent Roll of Edward III (p. 340),23 and supported by the excellent authority of Prior John Flete, who, in the passage already quoted, calls Kilburn Priory a “cell of canonesses.”

The gradual process—hard to trace in the records—by which the Augustinian rule was attached to canons at just this period has been described by Dr. Frere,24 and perhaps the same development went on in time in the case of irregular communities of women. In 1244 the Pope united some communities of hermits as the “Hermits of St. Augustine” (who thereupon made the claim that their manner of life had been kept alive since the days of St. Augustine). We do not know when the Augustinian Rule was first applied to Kilburn, and this may have been a precedent influential in the case of that house.25 Since, at least in early days, Benedictine houses like Marcigny and Cluny counted anchorites and hermits among their numbers, it would appear strange, however, that Kilburn did not come into the order of its protector.26

It is significant that the Rev. Vincent MacNabb, in an article to be discussed in the Appendix, has made the interesting discovery that the Rule of St. Augustine was used in the Ancren Riwle. It may be added that the sisters of the anchorage celebrate festivals of nine lessons, like Augustinian canons, secular clergy, and lay-folk, instead of festivals of twelve, as was the custom in the Benedictine order.27 An Augustinian influence would be natural in the Riwle, if written for Kilburn, since, as Dr. Frere points out, Augustinian houses were the height of the fashion until the Cistercians began building in England, and conspicuous Augustinian establishments were made by Henry I and by “good Queen Maud.” The Augustinian Rule could be imposed on local customs, and old houses could thus get the prestige of being Augustinian without alteration in their habit of life. The Gilbertine order is a mirror of contemporary influences in that its nuns were Benedictine, its canons Augustinian, and its lay-brothers Cistercian.


The most surprising manuscript of the Ancren Riwle is B which, as we have already seen, is at once the earliest copy, the most correct in the minutiæ of the text, and the most interpolated. By their mention of friars, some of the new sections cannot have been composed much earlier than 1230, and by its handwriting B cannot have been much later.

It is clear from the additions themselves that they are directed towards a special community, and we seem to have good reason to believe that this is the house for which the rule was originally written. There are several cross-references to the original text as “your rule,” and a great effort is apparently made to coalesce the new material with the old. The community addressed is spoken of as being “like a mother house”—not, we should be careful to note, as being a mother house—and the author goes on, apparently as a metaphor for their extraordinary unity, to say that they are united, “as if they were a convent of London, Oxford, Shrewsbury or Chester” (Macaulay, p. 470).28 He goes on to say that the fame of the community he addresses is everywhere known—especially for their extraordinary unity—and their “convent” is spread over England. This again seems to me to be a metaphor, and perhaps a reference to the wide dissemination of the Riwle, originally written for this house. That the additions were considered somewhat authoritative, appears from the fact that they were to some extent copied in some of the later manuscripts—and in the French and Latin versions—and a manuscript (C), already written, was at some points corrected to bring it into line with the version represented by B. It is significant that the place-names above quoted begin practically at Kilburn, and follow in the order of their relative distance from there.

Another fact of the greatest importance is added in the same passage, and furnishes the basis for the interpretation given above, and a very important link with Kilburn. We are told that the community addressed now number “twenty recluses or more”—the “most living together anywhere in England.” It can easily be seen how, from their tradition of isolation, twenty recluses living together in the same unity which the author of the Ancren Riwle had recommended for three—in the passage (p. 254) to which was later appended the section described above—would be worthy of special praise, and this would be the only case in which unity, the first of the conventual virtues, could be so considered.

The mention of the twenty recluses has another very important implication for the present hypothesis; it gives a satisfactory explanation for the omission from B and the later copies, of the description of the personal circumstances of the three sisters.

It is perhaps the strongest single piece of evidence for the identification that is here proposed—apart from the similarity in the personal circumstances of the original inclusœ—that the new material in B, added about the year 1230, can be connected with the history of Kilburn during the years 1225-31. During that period a great dissension arose between the Bishop of London and the Abbot of Westminster in regard to the jurisdiction over the cell of Kilburn—in spite of the fact that this had, at the foundation of the house, been formally secured to the abbot by Gilbert the Universal. This dispute probably made part of the general controversy as to the exemption from episcopal control which Westminster was undergoing at this time, and the particular question of Kilburn was settled in 1231 by a commission appointed by the Pope (who had been twice appealed to in connection with the cell). It is noteworthy that the convent yielded to a compromise on the subject of Kilburn, in spite of what had apparently been the custom from the beginning, though they fought out the larger issue to a successful conclusion.29

The terms of the settlement made in 1231 as to the supervision of Kilburn would seem to show that some abuses had crept into the house from the too exclusive power exercised over it by the abbey. It is stipulated that no member of the convent except the abbot or, in his absence, the prior, shall have access to Kilburn to hear confession and enjoin penance, and the Bishop is to have the right of visitation, and of hearing even secret confession. As Park again notes with astonishment (p. 171), there is still no mention of a rule. The real power seems to be vested still in the successor of Godwyn—who appeared in the plea of 1207 as “magister et custos”—and, as it is important to note, is here described as the “secular priest who is set over the house.” A chapter house and a prioress are mentioned and would seem to imply a great increase of numbers,30 but nothing definite on this point appears in the records until the latter part of the fourteenth century,31 and it is doubtful whether the inmates would ever have numbered more than twenty: thirteen was, as a matter of fact, the number to which their neighbors of Sopwell were restricted at the time of foundation,32 and it was the number in Carthusian houses.

Though the information given by B makes clear that in point of numbers the house in question may agree with what we know of Kilburn at the date of the writing of B, it cannot be said that B is quite explicit as to the manner of life there. It is evident that the anchoresses of B meet the outside world only at the windows of their cells, and that also their personal intercourse, as it were, with their sisters, is carried on by visits of their sisters' maidens (Macaulay, pp. 466, 473); but no mention is made of leaving the cell for religious service or for chapter, or of not leaving it. In any case, we know that in 1207 the Prioress of Kilburn is called “inclusa,” and the absence of any mention of a rule in the Kilburn records of 1231 may point to an unusual manner of life. They certainly give no information which would make it impossible that we have to do with anchoresses, unless it be that we are told that at the visitation of the bishop the prioress and nuns are to come in procession to the chapter-house, but we shall see later (p. 542) that B practically implies that the house addressed is a priory. It would be hard to see how a settlement of twenty recluses could keep together without some corporate life, for which a chapter would occasionally be necessary, and it would appear inevitable that the strictest degree of enclosure must in any case have to be abandoned in so large a group, since all could not have windows looking into the church, and they would therefore have to go there to hear mass. The original three sisters had windows from which they saw the altar (Morton, p. 68), but that does not make it impossible that they also attended mass in their church, and chapter, according to the example of the Carthusians.33

We have seen that in the settlement of 1231 the most important innovation is the visitation of Kilburn by the Bishop. It is a striking coincidence that, as Mr. Macaulay has thought it “interesting to note,” “the precautions urged upon the anchoress with regard to shewing herself unveiled … are expressly extended to the case of a bishop's visit” (p. 463).34 The passage in question (p. 466) apparently describes a bishop's visit to the anchoress's window, but such an incident would be quite possible at Kilburn according to the terms of the settlement of 1231. The bishop was then given the right of hearing “confessio privata,” which might have taken place in the cells, as was the Carthusian custom.35 The fact that the writer of the new passages would doubtless be on the side of the abbot in the controversy perhaps accounts for the somewhat suspicious manner which he shows towards the bishop.

The causes which may have existed for curtailing the exclusive power of the abbey over the cell do not appear in the records at present available,36 but it would appear from B that specific abuses have suggested the composition of the recension, and that they are such as would be very foreign to the original anchorage, but might arise from the connection of the house with the abbey. Whereas in the original Riwle the author continually reminds the sisters that they already live in some ways only too strictly, and do not need his counsel in respect to the grosser sins (see Morton, pp. 8, 50, 68, etc.), the author of the new directions seems to hint mournfully at irregularities, present or just past, among those whom he is addressing. Their conversations with men unveiled are restricted with the greatest anxiety, and they are told that this is the most important external regulation of their rule (p. 466). The text of Jeremiah on the darkening of the finest gold, which is the stock text used in the Middle Ages against degenerate religious, is commented on with great feeling, in a passage (p. 467) which accuses some anchoresses, at least, of extreme worldliness, bitterness, desire for prestige, and extreme love of dress. As a matter of fact there is no passage added by B which does not dilate eloquently on some sort of conduct most unsuitable for an anchoress. We can, therefore, hardly escape the conclusion that the recension of the Ancren Riwle which is present in B was written at a time of the reformation of the house, which would appear to be that of which the records of Kilburn tell, at just the same period. We do not, of course, know who was the master of Kilburn at this period, but we know that the abbot of Westminster, Richard Berking (the special counsellor of Henry III, who is supposed by Widmore [p. 42] to have influenced the king to rebuild the abbey) was a man of unusual power.

It would perhaps be suspected that we have in B an official copy—perhaps an original—preserved at Kilburn, but the absence of the name “St. John the Baptist,” which would naturally be used at Kilburn for the ninth date for communion, has already been mentioned, and this passage in the French text (which gives the Kilburn patron), and the French version of another, to be discussed in the Appendix, seem distinctly superior as a whole, to that given by any English manuscript. The same state of affairs appears in details; Mr. Macaulay has noted that the French text in general supports “what seem to be the original readings, as opposed to those of the manuscript followed by Morton” (p. 70). A trifling example that shows superiority over B is in the case of the passage from Jeremiah, already mentioned. B here has the absurd “sein ierome,” whereas the French has “li prophete Ieremie” (Macaulay, p. 467 n.).

If B cannot be considered to be the original of the second form of the work, it is also obvious that the French cannot. What seems to be true is that every manuscript, for one cause or another, stands very far from the original; B, because though evidently nearly related to an official copy, this copy was a second version; N because of its general carelessness, in spite of its superiority as the most complete representative of the original first version; the French, because though, unlike the others, it possibly is derived from the copy in the original language and in details often shows distinct superiority, yet it, like B, is related to the second version and is only an incomplete copy of that—as is perhaps natural, since it is to be dated a hundred years later than B. This state of affairs would seem to suggest a long circulation for the work, and it is useful to observe, in this connection, that Mr. Macaulay notes that “the reviser whose text is represented by N was in the matter of grammatical inflexions in some respects ‘earlier’ than B, especially in regard to pronouns, articles and demonstratives” (p. 149 n.), though, in general, the “text of N represents a fuller development,” which, however, is not “necessarily later in time” (p. 149). He notes (p. 65) that early and late forms are to be found mixed in the French text, and he finds no difficulty in assigning the original composition to a date a hundred years before that of the manuscript. The rapid changes in language found in prose works would probably make an even earlier date possible. It was noted by Heuser37 that the Ancren Riwle shows a mixture of late and early forms. Again we find evidence that would seem to prove that the work had passed through a considerable period of circulation. Altogether, it seems very hard to believe, when the manuscripts and versions in 1230-50 show such variations of all sorts, that the original treatise could have been composed at the beginning of that century. It is one of the many important results of Mr. Macaulay's investigation of B that, by showing the serious alterations in the text which were existing at the time of the writing of our earliest copies, the date of the original composition of the Ancren Riwle is put back far beyond where it has usually been placed. More than that, B suggests that the house addressed is near London, and a priory—to go no further in summarizing its benefits.


One possible indication of a date for the Riwle earlier than 1160 occurs in the statement by the author: “Eresie, God beo iðoncked, ne rixleð nout in Engelond” (Morton, p. 82). With this should be compared the description of the Waldenses who came to England in 1160 by William of Newburgh; he declares, “Sane ab hac et ab aliis pestibus hæreticis immunis semper exstitit Anglia, cum in aliis mundi partibus tot pullulaverint hæreses.” From the time of the Britons the “virus of heresy” “nec in eam aliunde usque ad tempora regis Henrici secundi tanquam propagandum et dilatandum introivit.” Since the Continent was at this time full of heretics—so that Peter the Venerable, so many times mentioned here, devoted to them much of his energy—the immunity of England would appear conspicuous. They went on increasing on the continent till the Albigensian Crusade of 1215, and it is hard to believe that they did not again reach England. A letter of Peter of Blois of c. 1191 seems to refer to heretics in the diocese of York, and Higden tells us that some Albigensians were burned in England in 1209.38


Dr. Robinson believes that the foundation of Kilburn made one of three projects in which Osbert of Clare took a principal part. Osbert's relation to Kilburn seems to me doubtful, but it is at least certain that he took a leading part in the movements to canonize King Edward, and to establish the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. The latter enterprise met with opposition, though it was approved by a council of English bishops in 1129.39 It is not certain that the celebration with which Osbert was connected took place at Westminster, for it falls at a time (1127) when he is supposed to have been in exile.40

Father Bridgett has pointed out41 that we have an echo of this controversy in the statement of the author of the Riwle (p. 38) that there was no sin in the Mother of Christ after His Conception, “as I believe, whatever may have been before.” The author was here suspending judgment on the exact theological doctrine that underlay the festival.


Even if the treatise were not originally written in English, it is quite clear from the English texts that it was written for persons knowing English, and therefore, in the conditions of those times, almost certainly of English blood. …

The French should also be quoted here:

“Quantqe vous vnques dites daltres celes prieres, sicome pater nostres, et auees, psalmes et oroisons en votre maniere demeine, ieo en sui bien paiez. Chescune die ausi come mieuz li aporte al queor, versiller en psalter, lire euangeiles (sic) ou en francoys seinte meditacions.”

(f. 8)

Though the divergence of the French text here may make a slight uncertainty as to this passage, it would appear that the English may give the original reading. The fact that the treatise was at least translated into English very early, would support the presumption that it was written in an environment where English was read. Moreover, there is a reference (Morton, p. 244) to the “English book of St. Margaret”—a very interesting indication of the use of English literature at this time—which is all the more interesting if the work in question can be identified with the alliterative life of that saint42 which makes part of the “Katherine-group” of legends judged to stand so near to the Ancren Riwle both in dialect and in spirit.43 Altogether, it would appear that we were justified in taking it for granted that the Ancren Riwle was written in a distinctively English environment.

Archdeacon Pearce has remarked in his work on the monks of Westminster that “the fact appears to be that from its quite early years the Convent was predominantly English” (p. 36). Of the persons connected with the foundation of Kilburn, several were apparently natives. Godwyn, the Master, and “Ailman sacerdos,” the donor of the land in Southwark (noted in the first charter), would appear to be so by their names, and Osbert of Clare was an Englishman.44 Flete tells us that Abbot Herebert was a Norman (perhaps, as Dr. Robinson conjectures, one who came from Bec with Abbot Crispin), but Widmore remarks that this must be “only by family, or at farthest by birth for he was a monk here, and almoner of the convent, when appointed abbot” (p. 23). He was the first monk of the house chosen abbot after the Conquest.

Not only is it certain that some of the special patrons of Kilburn at its foundation were Englishmen, but we would seem to have reason to believe that the three occupants of the hermitage were at least not all Norman, since one bore the name “Gunhilda.” As a matter of fact there would be some reason why all three names should be given to English women, for they all occur in the family of King Edward the Confessor. Emma was his mother, Gunhilda his half-sister (the daughter of Canute), and Christina his niece, the nun of Romsey who brought up Queen Matilda.45 We know that some of the strength of Henry I's position came from his reconciliation of the English elements of the nation, and that this was specially furthered by his marriage with a princess of Anglo-Saxon royal blood. William of Malmesbury, in a passage often quoted, tells how the Norman courtiers called the king and queen by English nicknames, and this would seem to suggest English influences at court, and doubtless English persons in attendance there.


Since Mr. Macaulay accepts the French text as the original version of the Ancren Riwle, the question of the date and locality of the English text may not be vitally important for the present hypothesis. However, even if the work were not first written in English, it is highly probable that it was soon translated, and at the original anchorage. The fact that the English text found in N retains the personal details of the work—which so many later copies omit—would seem to show that it was made before changes in the conditions described had made these details uninteresting. It would be likely that the place of the translation would be Kilburn itself, where the serving maidens—to whom the last section was to be read weekly—would, it might seem, need such a text,46 and the example of the use of the vernacular for lay religious (sometime in the twelfth century) by the Cistercians—who were the most potent influence of the day—must be remembered in connection with the English text of the Riwle, as well as the long tradition for vernacular religious instruction in Anglo-Saxon England.

Since, therefore, it is highly probable that the English text, even if not the original, should be written at Kilburn,47 it is important to localize the dialect of the English version. Mr. Macaulay, who is the only writer who has had the advantage of knowing all the manuscripts of the work, writes of them as follows: “B, C, and G constitute a group resembling one another closely in forms of language, and belonging to that particular development of the Southern dialect, on the borders of the Midland region, which is exemplified in the early lives of St. Katherine and St. Juliana,48 the purest form of this appearing in B, which is also distinctly the earliest in time of our manuscripts. … T has as its basis a text of the same kind, but was evidently written by a North Midland scribe” (p. 148). The latter is the copy which, next to N, best preserves the original details of the anchorage. N, which, as we have seen, presents the original form of the text better than any other whatsoever, is “distinguished from all those that have been mentioned by features characteristic in this period of the purely Southwestern dialect” (p. 149). It is significant that the two copies most alien in dialect are those most out of touch with the later development of the text.

The facts just reviewed would make it appear that the composition of the English version took place in the Southern dialect region, on the border of the Midland, which was the home of three of the thirteenth-century manuscripts, and of the parent of the fourth. In exactly this region London was included at the time of the Proclamation of Henry III of 1258 (which is approximately that of the writing of our manuscripts), as an analysis of that document has shown;49 though earlier it had doubtless spoken a pure Southern dialect, and later the influence of the neighboring Midlands and of its cosmopolitan position (already active in 1258) was to make its speech almost consistently Midland.50

The age of the dialect of the Riwle would not appear to be a valid obstacle to the present hypothesis, even if the origin of the English version be put a very few years after that of the original (which would thus become very nearly the earliest piece of French prose extant). The date of the foundation of Kilburn is generally put, as we have seen, at 1134; but it is evident that the treatise is not written at once on the retirement of the three sisters, since their virtue as anchoresses seems to have been thoroughly tested at the time of writing, and the author remarks that they have often asked him for a rule. Therefore the composition of the work could probably be put several years after 1134. A long circulation before the writing of the extant copies would inevitably bring serious changes in the language, yet it would appear that we have several touchstones which may be used to test its date, though none perhaps is quite perfect. The Peterborough Chronicle, which is securely dated, belongs to another dialect, and is, moreover, deliberately archaising;51 most of the manuscripts written in the middle of the twelfth century contain transcripts of older works, and are therefore obviously no fairer standard for the speech of their own time,52 than the Ancren Riwle is for the speech of the early thirteenth century, if, in spite of the thirteenth-century manuscripts, it turns out to have been composed in the middle of the twelfth. Altogether, however, in spite of the lack of English literature accepted as composed in the first half of the twelfth century, the characteristics of late dialect found in the Riwle—so far as they can be observed without an exhaustive study and collation of the manuscripts—can be all found at times in the various manuscripts and legal documents which have been considered our only basis for the study of English of this period.53

Though the dialect of the English Riwle can doubtless be fitted sufficiently well both to the time and place that is here proposed for it, yet this subject should not be concluded without an influence being mentioned which would give sufficient explanation for any deviations in the Riwle from the forms occasionally found in documents written in London at the time of the settlement of Kilburn. Local usage may sometimes war with convention in any documents of the time, with inconsistent results; for the use of a “Schriftsprache” seems proved for this period by the existence of West-Saxon legal documents written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the North.54 With this fact should be connected the statement of Giraldus Cambrensis, of a slightly later date, where, after declaring that the Southern English of his day (especially towards Devon) was more “incomposita,” and at the same time more archaic than that of the North, he goes on to add: “Originalis linguæ proprietatem et antiquum loquendi modum magis observat. Cujus etiam rei non solum argumentum, sed et certitudinem inde habere potes, quod omnes libros Anglicos Bedæ, Rabani, regis Æluredi vel aliorum quorumlibet, sub hujus idiomatis proprietate scriptos invenies.”55

This statement might seem to imply that in Giraldus's day the continuity of English composition from Anglo-Saxon times had never been broken, and this impression is borne out when he says that the English, “like the Welsh,” use alliteration “in omni sermone exquisito” (p. 187). It is here of interest to compare the statement of Mr. Macaulay that “in a certain part of the Southern dialect-region the language of the ‘Katherine-group’ seems to have attained for the time almost to the position of a literary standard” (p. 150). The Katherine-group is written in alliteration, and it may therefore be that this Southern and alliterative literature represents the very same development in English literary history as that of which Giraldus is speaking—and may even make part of the work he had in mind. The fact that the Ancren Riwle, which is no less “elegant” than the Katherine-group, is not written in alliteration, is perhaps due to the original's having been French. Other alliterative works of the Southern dialect region existing in manuscripts of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century are the ecstatic rhapsodies so often connected with the Riwle by similarity of spirit as well as of form.56 It is of interest that one of these has been shown to be a translation of a poem by Marbodius of Rheims, who had addressed another poem to “good Queen Maud.”57

Whether or no the Middle English composition still extant from the earliest period can be identified with that which is referred to by Giraldus, it is evident that his statements would assist any hypothesis putting English composition in the twelfth century, and some other facts should be noted in this connection. It may be that the extreme conservatism as to inflections, which has been noted as a striking characteristic of the Southern dialect of the earliest period, by comparison with Northern and Midland,58 is due in part to the fact that Southern works have been dated too late. Just what Giraldus means when he calls the Southern dialect “incomposita” is not clear, but it is just possible that we should connect with this remark a phenomenon of the Southern dialect which gives a contrast to its syntactical conservatism, namely its abundance of Romance words. This characteristic is most marked in the Ancren Riwle, and for this fact the present hypothesis, by connecting the work with the court circle, where the French influence was strong even before the Conquest, would give a reason.59

In general, it is probable that many of the Middle English characteristics of the language of the earliest monuments after the Conquest existed before that time in spoken speech, and only appeared when they did in literature, because the discontinuance of schooling in English had torn away “the veil which literary conservatism had thrown over the changes of the spoken tongue.”60 The fact that this earliest Middle English, affected by French orthography, has been thought to show in its phonology the influence of the large element in the population of England after the Conquest who did not know English, would support assigning it to an early date; for, as I have shown in an earlier article,61 the aliens of the Conquest seem to have been assimilated by the latter part of the twelfth century. The fact that the present hypothesis would put in the twelfth century a large part of the English compositions usually ascribed to the thirteenth need not alter our conclusion; for, as I have shown in the earlier article, though the thirteenth century was a time when English was probably more strongly entrenched in familiar use than ever before, this was also the period of the international use of French in literature, due to the international influence of the University of Paris. This was a time when English composition was much less likely to flourish than in the years immediately following the English revival in the time of Henry I; for, in the latter period, the continuity with Anglo-Saxon culture was not yet lost, and the court was less cosmopolitan than in the days of the Angevins. The very breadth of the Angevin Empire must have been an influence operating to extinguish local usages, especially since the international ideal was animating the intellectual world at that time. It would be natural that revival of composition in English could not be more than a flash in the pan until the international ideal had passed its zenith. The conditions making for the use of a universal vernacular were too easy in England in these years to be neglected when the desire for such an institution was in the air all over Europe.


The Ancren Riwle shows special and even minute reminiscences of the preoccupations of the decade of the foundation of Kilburn. One of the strongest links connecting the Riwle with Kilburn is the relation which that work can be proved to bear to the controversy between the Cistercians and the older Benedictines, which was one of the most outstanding incidents of this time. In this connection the Riwle is always to be found on the side of the older Benedictines, as would be natural to a treatise written for the cell of a Benedictine house.

Vincent of Beauvais, in the Mirror of History which became the standard reference book of the Middle Ages, notes for the period with which we are here concerned the rise of the new orders as a striking characteristic of the time (27, vii). Most of these new orders made settlements in England during the last years of the reign of Henry I, and in the reign of Stephen William of Newburgh tells us that “many more monasteries were built in that short time than in the hundred years previous.” He compares the strength thus manifested by the Heavenly King, with the weakness of the earthly sovereign.62

We have already seen that the enthusiasm of the time for rules and orders was such that, for the sake of a settled connection, many old houses at just this period were assuming the Augustinian rule, and that even the Pope was recommending such action. The eagerness for a rule which the author of the Ancren Riwle tells us that the sisters of the anchorage have shown, is a similar sign of the times, as is also the identical desire which St. Aelred met from his recluse sister. Many of the new orders had developed from hermitages, and we can see the contemporary expectation in the fact that the three ladies of the anchorage are receiving enquiries from others as to “of hwat ordre” they are (p. 8). The author, as we shall see, belonged to a liberal minority in his generation who took a very spiritualized view of orders and of the differences in material usages on which they were built up, and he therefore gives the anchoresses the ironical reference to the “order of St. James,” with which to meet their enquirers. Nevertheless, he proceeds to give—in his own spiritualized form—a rule for the anchorage, though he has denied them an order. Perhaps he does this because he recognizes the very real paucity of rules for women, which is noted by Heloise when, in this very decade, she writes to Abelard for a rule for the Paraclete.63

At the time of the foundation of Kilburn the most aggressive and successful order in Christendom was the Cistercian, which, to use the words of William of Malmesbury (p. 380), then seemed the “surest way to heaven.” It had originated in a secession from the monastery of Molême by monks who had come under condemnation of conscience because the Benedictine rule was no longer observed in minute accuracy.64 The essence, therefore, of the Cistercian idea was the meticulous observance of the Rule, and the assumption of superiority that it carried with it aroused the ire of the older Benedictines, who were especially irritated because the Cistercians had changed the black Benedictine habit for a white one.65 When in 1122 Peter the Venerable became Abbot of Cluny, a quarrel was raging between his house and the Cistercians because of one Robert (a monk whom both claimed), a relative of Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who had written the young man a miraculous letter condemning the laxness of Cluny, which he had dictated—“in medio imbre sine imbre”—to the Englishman William, already mentioned as the first abbot of Rievaux.66 Peter, who was the great peacemaker of his generation, entered the controversy with a letter to the Cistercians soon after his accession in 1122. This letter echoes the argument in terms similar to those found in the Ancren Riwle: since the treatise uses a metaphor strikingly employed by Peter, it would appear that his letter was known to the author, at least by hearsay. In any case it gives the best possible setting forth of the older Benedictine side of the controversy, and will be summarized here very briefly on that account.

After a discussion of many particular observances—many of them matters of costume—in which the Cistercians make a great point of differing from the Cluniacs, the abbot sarcastically describes the scorn felt by the black monk for the white, and vice versa, and he condemns the puerility of the procedure. “Corporalis exercitatio ad modicum utilis est” (I Tim. iv, 8; c. 151); it was the very essence of the Rule of St. Benedict to leave matters such as food, drink, clothing, to be decided according to time, place, manners, and other accidents (c. 126). “Hoc tamen reducere ad mentem charitas vestra debet quod divina mandata, partim mobilia, partim sunt immobilia. … De immobilium numero dicimus esse … illud maximum et primum dilectionis Dei mandatum, secundum quoque huic simile de proximi dilectione; sed et humilitatis, castitatis, et veritatis præcepta” (c. 148). He repeats several times over the words of St. Augustine: “Habe charitatem, et fac quidquid vis.” “Haec est quæ plenitudo legis et finis præcepti est (Rom. xiii, 10). … diversis temporibus per diversos sanctos diversa loquens, ipsa non varia, non divisa, non multiplex, sed simplex, stabilis, inconcussa, semper eadem perduravit. Ut enim materfamilias, tota domus propriæ utilitati intenta, quosdam famulorum ad bobus exercendam, quosdam ad fodiendam vineam, alios in silvam ad ligna cædenda mittit … ipsa (charitas) tamen, quamvis diversa sint quæ præcipit, diversa non efficitur, nec diversitas jussionis diversitatem facit utilitatis, quoniam ad unum quiddam et simplex, hoc est ad domum utilitatem, omnis illa officiorum varietas se colligit, et illud unum innumera ministeria operantur. …” (c. 154).

In the introduction to the Riwle the scheme is laid down for the whole work, and it seems to echo the ideal expressed by Peter the Venerable. There are two kinds of rule which the author will describe. The one is the rule of charity, the other that concerning material observances,—all of which may be changed for good reason, provided the rule of charity be preserved. Charity is the “Lady Rule” who makes “all things smooth”—to whom the other is only the “hand-maiden.” This general scheme is again mentioned just before the summary (p. 410). The three crucial texts used by Peter above quoted, appear prominently in the Riwle (pp. 4, 386). The appearance (pp. 2-6) of some sentences in Latin would seem to show that the author is using some definite source, which we may hope to trace when manuscripts can be investigated. …

The account already given of Peter the Venerable's letter will have shown the significance of the discussion in the Riwle of “black” and “white.” Other reminiscences of the differences between the two orders appear in the passage just quoted. The phrase “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” was used commonly in this controversy. Peter applies it (c. 124) to the Cistercians in his letter already quoted, and he says elsewhere of his beloved Carthusians that they do not “strain at the gnat,” etc. (Opera, c. 412). Bernard of Clairvaux, on the other side, applies it to the Cluniacs in his Apologia.67 In the same epistle (c. 913) Bernard mentions (to refute) what are almost the words of the Ancren Riwle: “Cæterum in habitu, inquis, non est religio, sed in corde. Bene. At tu quando cucullam empturus lustras urbes, etc.” However, his epistle to Robert will show how naturally his generation, as it seems, chose this saying for meeting his arguments. In this epistle he attacks many petty details of the life at Cluny, as the following quotation will show (the italics are mine and mark details referred to in the Riwle):

“Si pelliciae lenes et calidae, si panni subtiles et pretiosi, si longae manicae et amplum caputium, si opertorium silvestre et molle stamineum sanctum faciunt; quid moror et ego quod te non sequor? Sed haec infirmantium sunt fomenta, non arma pugnantium.

(c. 77)

“Frocci” (generously made as to materials, with wide hoods, and sleeves),68 furs and “stamins,” were some of the luxuries which the Cistercians discarded, but the anchoress is told that her sin is the same, “however her kirtle be shaped or colored” (p. 200). The argument that raged during this generation as to the shape, size, material, and color of monastic garments certainly echoed in every phase of the declaration of the Riwle that “religion is not in the kirtle or the cowl, or in the wide hood, or in the white, black or grey cowl.” The “grey cowl” is probably a reference to the order of Savigny: their founder and his monks had been received into the fraternity of Westminster, and their greatest house, Furness, had been founded by Stephen of Blois in 1126. The Middle English “Winteney Rule” (Cistercian) rejects “cowls” for “kirtles.”69

Peter the Venerable, in the letter already quoted, gives us a hint that the Cistercian quarrel was with the size of garments, as well as with the color (grossitudo et color). But he proves that the Cistercians are here the innovators: St. Martin did not go “in albo et curto (the italics are mine), sed quod nigro et pendulo pallio” (c. 116).70 He discusses at length the inhumanity of the Cistercians in refusing to allow their monks to wear furs (cc. 120 ff.), and his statutes show that his monks wore stamins after their reformation (c. 1043). The anchoresses (like St. Aelred's sister, c. 1458, who here received a grudging concession) are allowed both stamins and furs and (unlike the Cistercians) given as many garments as they need (p. 418). …

Here we have again the wide hood, and sleeves which might from their width appear “long,” and the older Benedictine costume may be in question: the Cluniacs, as we have seen, according to Peter the Venerable do not appear to have developed novelties in their costume. At Westminster, according to the Customary (pp. 140, 146 f.), frocks, cowls, stamins, and furs were all worn. The “close cope” was required of all religious persons. It is very possible, therefore, that the author is here in a playful manner elsewhere used directly referring to the monks of Westminster, who, as we know, at a later date probably made a great deal of trouble by trying to see the nuns of Kilburn.71

The Cistercians have been described as the “Puritans of the Middle Ages,”72 and their controversy with Peter bears out this title. He, on the other hand, seems to have found the finest “Via Media” of his generation. It would appear that his eloquence must have made him the spokesman for the “black monks” in general; for the older usages scorned by the Cistercians seem to be those of all older Benedictines, who were all “black monks.” The division between Cluniac and other Benedictine houses was so purely a political one, that in England, at any rate, Cluniac monks were constantly presiding over Benedictine houses,73 and when Henry I made his great foundation at Reading, he settled it with Cluniac monks, though the house was counted Benedictine.74 It is of great interest to the present hypothesis that Peter the Venerable visited England in 1130,75 and, considering that the difference in political organization did not separate the English Benedictines from Cluny, we may feel certain that he came to Westminster, and that discussion of the great differences of usage and of spirit between the “black” and “white” monks took place during his stay there. The monks of Westminster would be able to sympathize with the stand he had taken in the controversy, because the distinction between the “movable and immovable” ordinances, on which it was founded, was to be found in brief but complete form in the statutes which had been drawn up by Lanfranc for the monks of Canterbury,76 and this work we find used later in the Westminster Customary.77 Since Peter took an intense interest in the nunnery of Marcigny (which included anchoresses), there may have been discussion of plans for Kilburn.78

The events which immediately followed Peter's visit were such as to have enhanced the interest of his defence of the “black monks.” In 1132 he reformed his order, somewhat along the lines of St. Bernard's criticism, though the bitterness between the two orders was not assuaged in consequence, and in his famous second letter on the controversy, written in 1143, the “black” and “white” monks are still described as turning the other way when they met.79 In England in 1132, as we have seen, some monks seceded from a Benedictine house to found Fountains Abbey, and the enormous development of the Cistercian power in England had begun. Henceforth, for the next two decades, the material success of the Cistercians in England must have kept their controversy with the older Benedictines very much alive.

Two landmarks of the literature that the controversy must have produced in England can be pointed out and grouped with the Ancren Riwle, and doubtless others can be found in manuscripts. One of these is the work of St. Aelred, one of the greatest English Cistercians. He had been brought up in the family of the brother of “good Queen Maud” (who lived at the English court till 1124), and he was called in by the abbot of Westminster to revise for the canonization the life of Edward the Confessor (which had been prepared by Osbert of Clare),80 as he had been called in by Gilbert of Sempringham to advise as to the affairs of the Gilbertine order. Aelred was a central figure in the life of his time, and it is...

(The entire section is 24370 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien (essay date 1929)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5174 words.)

C. H. Talbot (essay date 1956)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6182 words.)

Linda Georgianna (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 21264 words.)

Robert W. Ackerman and Roger Dahood (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 17891 words.)

Roger Dahood (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 entire section is 13009 words.)

Geoffrey Shepherd (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 16061 words.)

Nicholas Watson (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10957 words.)

Sharon K. Elkins (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3155 words.)

Bella Millett (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9065 words.)