Walter Hilton

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,084 words.)