Ancrene Wisse

Ancrene Wisse (also known as the Ancrene Riwle[1] or Guide for Anchoresses) is an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) for anchoresses written in the early 13th century.

The work consists of eight parts. Parts 1 and 8 deal with what is called the "Outer Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' exterior life), while Parts 2–7 deal with the "Inner Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' interior life). The didactic and devotional material is supplemented by illustrations and anecdotes, many drawn from everyday life.[2]

The community

The adoption of an anchorite life was widespread all over medieval Europe, and was especially popular in England. By the early thirteenth century, it was considered distinct from hermits. The hermit vocation permitted a change of location, whereas the anchorites were bound to one place of enclosure, generally a cell connected to a church.

Ancrene Wisse was originally composed for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life. In the early twentieth century, it was thought that this might be Kilburn Priory near the medieval City of London, and attempts were made to date the work to the early twelfth century and to identify the author as the Godwyn who led the house until 1130.[3] More recent works have criticised this view, however. Most notably, this is because the dialect of English in which the work is written clearly originates from somewhere in the English West Midlands, not far from the Welsh border.

An important step forward was taken by Geoffrey Shepherd in his edition of parts six and seven of the work, in which he showed that the author's reading was extensive. Shepherd linked the author's interests with those of a generation of late twelfth-century English and French scholars at the University of Paris, including Peter the Cantor and Stephen Langton. He was a scholarly man, though writing in English in the provinces, who was kept up to date with what was said and being written in the centres of learning of his day.

EJ Dobson produced the most influential modern reassessment of the origins of the work, however. Dobson argues that the anchoresses were enclosed near Limebrook in Herefordshire, and that the author was an Augustinian canon at nearby Wigmore Abbey in Herefordshire named Brian of Lingen.[4] Bella Millett has subsequently argued that the author was in fact a Dominican rather than an Augustinian, though this remains controversial.

The revision of the work contained in the Corpus manuscript (used by most modern translations) can be dated between 1224 and 1235.[5] The date of the first writing of the work is more controversial, and tends to depend upon one's view of the influence from the pastoral reforms of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council. Shepherd believes that the work does not show such influence, and thinks a date shortly after 1200 most likely. Dobson argues for a date between 1215 and 1221, after the council and before the coming of the Dominicans to England.

The general contours of this account have found favour in modern textbook assessments of the text.[6]

Language and textual criticism

The version of Ancrene Wisse contained in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402 was written in an early Middle English dialect known as 'AB language' where 'A' denotes the manuscript Corpus Christi 402, and 'B' the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34. Manuscript Bodley 34 contains a set of texts that have become known as the "Katherine Group": Seinte Katerine, Seinte Margarete, Seinte Iuliene, Hali Meiðhad and Sawles Warde.[7] Both manuscripts were written in the AB language, described by J.R.R. Tolkien as "a faithful transcript of some dialect...or a 'standard' language based on one' in use in the West Midlands in the 13th century." [8] The word Ancrene itself still exhibits a plural genitive inflection descended from the old Germanic weak noun declension; this was practically unknown by the time of Chaucer.

Ancrene Wisse is often grouped by scholars alongside the Katherine group and the Wooing group—both collections of early Middle English religious texts written in AB language.

Surviving manuscripts

There are seventeen surviving medieval manuscripts containing all or part of Ancrene Wisse. Of these, nine are in the original Middle English, four are translations into Anglo-Norman French, and a further four are translations into Latin. The shortest extract is the Lanhydrock Fragment, which consists of only one sheet of parchment.[9] The extant manuscripts are listed below.

Version[9][10] Approx. date Location Manuscript
C – Cleopatra 1225–1230 British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra
B – Nero 1225–1250 British Library Cotton MS Nero A.xiv
C – Titus 1225–1250 British Library Cotton MS Titus D.xviii
A – Corpus 1225–1240 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 402
Lanhydrock Fragment 1300-1250 Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Eng. th.c.70
P – Pepys 1375–1400 Magdalene College, Cambridge MS Pepys 2498
V – Vernon 1375–1400 Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Eng. Poet.a.1
G – Caius 1350–1400 Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge MS 234/120
R – Royal 15th century British Library MS Royal 8 C.i
V – Vitellius (French) early 14th century British Library Cotton MS Vitellius F.vii
S – Trinity (French) late 13th – early 14th century Trinity College, Cambridge MS 883 (R.14.7)
L- Latin 1300–1350 Merton College, Oxford MS c.i.5 (Coxe 44)

Although none of the manuscripts is believed to be produced by the original author, several date from the first half of the 13th century. The first complete edition edited by Morton in 1853 was based on the British Library manuscript Cotton Nero A.xiv.[11] Recent editors have favoured Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 402 of which Bella Millett has written: "Its linguistic consistency and general high textual quality have made it increasingly the preferred base manuscript for editions, translations, and studies of Ancrene Wisse."[12] It was used as the base manuscript in the critical edition published as two volumes in 2005–2006.[13] The Corpus manuscript is the only one to include the title Ancrene Wisse.[7]

The Ancrene Wisse was partly retranslated from French back into English and reincorporated in the late 15th-century Treatise of Love.[14] The fifteenth century Treatise of the Five Senses also makes use of material from the work.



Further reading

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ancrene Wisse


  1. This is a modern title for the work, perhaps derived from Morton's 1853 translation.
  2. Daiches & 1979 48
  3. Allen 1929, pp. 635–40
  4. Eric Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse, (1976)
  5. Ancrene Wisse, trans. Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, (1991), p42
  6. A view originating from EJ Dobson, The Origins of the Ancrene Wisse, (Oxford: OUP, 1976). See Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p332. See also Anchoritic Spirituality, trans Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, (1991), who follow Dobson's account of the origins of the text.
  7. 1 2 Millett 1996, p. 5
  8. Tolkien 1929
  9. 1 2 Hasenfratz 2000 Introduction
  10. Wada 2003, p. 10
  11. Morton 1853
  12. Millett 1996, p. 49
  13. Millett 2005–2006
  14. Allen, Emily Hope (1940), "Wynkyn de Worde and a second French compilation from the Ancrene Riwle with a description of the first (Trinity Coll. Camb. MS.883)", in Long, P.W., Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, New York: New York University Press, pp. 182–219.
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