Walter Hilton Essay - Critical Essays

Walter Hilton


Walter Hilton c. 1343-1396

English treatise writer and translator.

Hilton is best known as the author of Scala Perfectionis [The Scale of Perfection] (c. 1380-96), a classic of English mystical writing from the fourteenth century. In this two-book treatise, Hilton maps out the steps an individual must take to achieve a spiritual life. Beginning with the initiate stage, he details the requirements of spirituality through the demanding and painful levels of growth until, after death, the soul may understand the nature of the angels and achieve union with God. Although the first book of The Scale is addressed to an individual anchoress, or religious recluse, Hilton apparently intended the work for a wider audience. A methodical writer, he imparted gentle but clear advice that was always tempered by an understanding of the difficulties his readers faced. Apart from Hilton's religious message, his handling of Middle English prose in The Scale is considered exemplary.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Hilton's early life. He was proficient in canon law and biographers suggest that he may have attended the University of Cambridge. He spent an unknown period of time, perhaps a number of years, in the 1380s as a solitary, or religious recluse. After abandoning that life, possibly in the mid- to late-1380s, Hilton became a canon, joining the Augustinian Priory in Thurgarton, near Southwell, in Nottinghamshire. Critics have also inferred that Hilton must have been involved in some of the religious controversies occurring in England in the 1380s and 1390s since some of his treatises argue against such heretical groups as the Lollards and defend orthodox religious doctrine. He died at the Priory in 1396.

Major Works

Hilton wrote and translated numerous religious works, commentaries, and epistles—most in Middle English and some in Latin. He himself did not give titles to his works; the titles by which they are known today were assigned by later editors. Each of the two books of The Scale is about 40,000 words long. The first book, which consists of ninety-two chapters, was probably written between 1380 and 1382 and circulated on its own before the second book was written sometime between 1385 and 1396. In the first book Hilton explains the difference between an active and a contemplative life, followed by considerable detail about the latter. After treating such topics as “How you are to know when the showings to the bodily senses, and the feeling of them, are good or evil” and “How for lack of humility heretics and hypocrites exalt themselves in their own hearts above all others,” Hilton discusses types of prayers and various remedies to fight temptations presented by “the devil of hell.” Next Hilton explains how to seek Jesus, the nature of sin, and how to deal with one's pride, wrath, and envy. The forty-two chapters of the second book of The Scale are more theologically oriented than those of the first and are considered a more mature work. Hilton describes the long and difficult journey the pilgrim must make on the way to heaven and the “virtues and graces a soul receives through the opening of the inner eye into the grace-given beholding of Jesus, and how this cannot be acquired through human labor alone, but through special grace, and labor as well.” On the Mixed Life (c. 1378), one of Hilton's earlier works, is a letter addressed to a wealthy layman. In it Hilton urges his subject to combine the active and contemplative lives, trying not to neglect one for the other. The Prycking of Love (c. 1385-95), also known as The Goad of Love, is a translation and abridgement of the Stimulus Amoris, a portion of which was originally written by James of Milan. It is a devotional work which examines such topics as “How a man in the Passion of Christ may be stirred to the seven deeds of mercy” and “How a man shall stir himself to love God and to kindle his heart in His love.”

Critical Reception

The Scale of Perfection was the most popular of all English devotional works of the fourteenth century. It circulated widely in manuscript form, was translated into Latin, and first printed in 1494. Scholars have frequently written about Hilton in the twentieth century, with a major resurgence of interest in his work since the 1970s. Critics praise Hilton's keen psychological insight and his writing skills, many declaring The Scale a masterpiece of its kind. William Ralph Inge deems it “among the best specimens of devotional literature.” He outlines Hilton's advice on overcoming hindrances and temptations, one of the greatest of which is seeking to grasp Divine truth before one is ready. In his essay on Hilton, T. W. Coleman praises his “facility in the use of the vernacular.” He adds: “Such a placid and sober style does not lend itself to the epigrammatic; but at times, by the turn of a phrase, the choice of a fitting word, and the use of an apt metaphor, he does achieve some striking results.” David Knowles points out that The Scale, unlike some other religious treatises of the time, is a methodical work that follows a deliberate plan. Knowles further credits Hilton with abandoning “arbitrary divisions of the soul” and exchanging allegorical interpretations of Scripture for “homely and practical analysis.” Scholars often write of Hilton in the context of medieval mysticism. In his comparative study of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Scale of Perfection, Alastair Minnis contends that Hilton is much more concerned with the average man, the man who is not spiritually advanced, than the Cloud author. Barry Windeatt also offers an overview of medieval writing on mysticism and notes numerous cross influences. Although The Scale receives by far the majority of the attention directed to Hilton's works, Walter H. Beale emphasizes the importance of On the Mixed Life and uses it to examine certain historical conceptions of Christianity. David G. Kennedy explores Hilton's early works and discusses the change from theocentric to Christocentric—a focus on God changing to a focus on Jesus—and the likely influences that precipitated this change, most notably the writings of St. Paul. This topic also interests J. P. H. Clark, who examines the second book of The Scale, noting that it is far more Christocentric than the first book, and discusses its concern with perfect and imperfect humility. While many researchers in previous decades were hindered by incomplete or paraphrased editions of Hilton's works on which to base their discussions, students now have several highly regarded new translations available to them.

Principal Works

“Benedictus” Commentary (treatise) c. 1378

On the Mixed Life (treatise) c. 1378

“Bonum Est” Commentary (treatise) c. 1379

De Imagine Peccati (treatise) c. 1379

Scala Perfectionis [The Scale of Perfection] Book I (treatise) c. 1380-82

Eight Chapters on Perfection [translator; written by Louis de Fontibus] (treatise) c. 1383-95

Of Amgels' Song (treatise) c. 1383

“Qui Habitat” Commentary (treatise) c. 1383

The Prycking of Love [Stimulus Amoris, The Goad of Love; translator; portion written by James of Milan] (treatise) c. 1385-95

The Scale of Perfection Book II (treatise) c. 1385-96

Walter Hilton's Latin Writings 2 vols. (treatises) 1987

*Minor Works of Walter Hilton (edited by Dorothy Jones) 1929

The Goad of Love (translated by Clare Kirchberger) 1952

The Stairway of Perfection (translated by M. L. del Mastro) 1979

The Scale of Perfection (translated by John P. H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward) 1991

The Scale of Perfection (edited by Thomas H. Bestul) 2000

*This collection contains “Benedictus” Commentary, “Bonum Est” Commentary, On the Mixed Life, “Qui Habitat” Commentary, and Eight Chapters on Perfection.


William Ralph Inge (lecture date 1905)

SOURCE: Inge, William Ralph. “Walter Hylton.” In Studies of English Mystics: St. Margaret's Lectures 1905, pp. 80-123. London: John Murray, 1906.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1905, Inge examines Hilton's treatment of sin, desire, fear; metaphorical language; and the nature of God's love and grace in The Scale of Perfection.]

The picture of human life as a spiritual Jacob's ladder, on which angels are for ever ascending and descending, and which we all have to climb step by step, is as old as the rule of St Benedict. The idea of a gradual ascent, not in time or place, but from stage to stage of reality, leaving behind us the vain...

(The entire section is 8488 words.)

T. W. Coleman (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Coleman, T. W. “Walter Hilton.” In English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century, pp. 106-30. London: Epworth Press, 1938.

[In the following essay, Coleman presents an overview of Hilton's life, works, and influence, noting his prevalent qualities of charity and humility.]

The Scale of Perfection first appeared towards the end of the fourteenth century.1 During the next one hundred years it was often copied, and it circulated in many manuscripts. In 1494 it was printed by Caxton's successor, Wynkyn de Worde; by 1533 eight editions had been published. Almost from its first issue it became a devotional classic. People of most diverse religious...

(The entire section is 8620 words.)

David Knowles (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Knowles, David. “Walter Hilton.” In The English Mystical Tradition, pp. 100-18. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

[In the following essay, Knowles explains Hilton's views on contemplation, the Holy Ghost, and grace, illustrating his descriptions with numerous excerpts from The Scale of Perfection.]

The distinguished and nameless author of The Cloud was followed, within a very few years, by a spiritual writer of different temper but of equal distinction, and with a very similar outlook upon the life of the spirit. When reading The Cloud and its companion treatises we feel the impact of a strong, original, masterful and independent...

(The entire section is 6521 words.)

Walter H. Beale (essay date December 1975)

SOURCE: Beale, Walter H. “Walter Hilton and the Concept of ‘Medled Lyf’.” American Benedictine Review 26, no. 4 (December 1975): 381-94.

[In the following essay, Beale focuses on An Epistle of Mixed Life and explores its message regarding merging a contemplative life with the an active life.]

Examining texts in the light of their traditions and historical backgrounds is an inherently risky business, because traditions and historical backgrounds are partly defined by the texts themselves. Thus texts that do not conform to the historian's conception of “tradition” are valuable in a special way, because they provide the opportunity for testing and...

(The entire section is 5172 words.)

David G. Kennedy (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Kennedy, David G. “Works before Entering Thurgarton Priory.” In Incarnational Element in Hilton's Spirituality, pp. 167-98. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Kennedy surveys Hilton's works through 1384, including some of his lesser known and unpublished writings.]


This work exists in at least nine MSS and was printed most recently as an edition from most of them in Jones's Minor Works.1Mixed Life was not necessarily the very first of Hilton's works, but was probably one of his earliest...

(The entire section is 15352 words.)

Alastair Minnis (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Minnis, Alastair. “Affection and Imagination in The Cloud of Unknowing and Hilton's Scale of Perfection.Traditio 39 (1983): 323-66.

[In the following essay, Minnis compares the approach taken to spirituality in The Cloud of Unknowing with that taken by Hilton is The Scale of Perfection, particularly concerning the roles of intellectual contemplation and imaginative meditation.]

How can a literary critic best approach texts which are living classics of religious literature? This question is being asked with increasing frequency by modern readers of The Cloud of Unknowing and Walter Hilton's Scale of...

(The entire section is 21879 words.)

J. P. H. Clark (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Clark, J. P. H. “The Trinitarian Theology of Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection. Book Two.” In Langland, the Mystics, and the Medieval English Religious Tradition, edited by Helen Phillips, pp. 125-40. Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 1990.

[In the following essay, Clark examines the second book of The Scale of Perfection, notes that it is more Christocentric than the first book, and explains its concern with perfect and imperfect humility.]

Walter Hilton is a pastor rather than a speculative theologian. His higher education was in Canon Law rather than in Theology as such. But he is familiar with the commonplaces of technical theology, more...

(The entire section is 8825 words.)

Barry Windeatt (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Windeatt, Barry. Introduction to English Mystics of the Middle Ages, pp. 1-13. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Windeatt provides an introduction to Hilton's ideas in the context of medieval mysticism in England.]

For sith in the first biginnyng of holy chirche in the tyme of persecucion, dyverse soules and many weren so merveylously touchid in sodeynte of grace that sodenly, withoutyn menes of other werkes comyng before, thei kasten here instruments, men of craftes, of here hondes, children here tables in the scole, and ronnen withoutyn ransakyng of reson to the martirdom with seintes: whi schul...

(The entire section is 7015 words.)

Thomas H. Bestul (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Bestul, Thomas H. Introduction to The Scale of Perfection, by Walter Hilton, edited by Thomas H. Bestul, pp. 1-19. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 2000.

[In the following essay, Bestul discusses the terminology used in The Scale of Perfection and the manuscript tradition of the work.]

Among the major religious treatises written in fourteenth-century England, The Scale of Perfection of Walter Hilton maintains a secure place. The Scale is a guide to the contemplative life in two books of more than 40,000 words each and is notable not only for the careful exploration of its religious themes, but as a principal monument of Middle...

(The entire section is 7933 words.)

Further Reading


del Mastro, M. L. Introduction to The Stairway of Perfection, by Walter Hilton, translated by M. L. del Mastro, pp. 5–47. Garden City, N. Y.: Image Books, 1979.

Contends that the structural organization of The Scale of Perfection, with its repetition and digressions, is best illustrated by a circular stairway, not a ladder or a standard staircase.

Gardner, Helen L. “Walter Hilton and the Authorship of the Cloud of Unknowing.Review of English Studies 9, no. 34 (April 1933): 129-47.

Evaluation of evidence supporting claims of Hilton being author of The Cloud of Unknowing,...

(The entire section is 303 words.)