Walter Hilton Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.