Ancrene Wisse: A Modern Lay Person's Guide to a Medieval Religious Text

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This paper is, in part, an account of a personal journey; I approached the study of Ancrene Wisse from a training in modern literature and philosophy via study of feminist critical study. How was a late twentieth century feminist agnostic to deal with a thirteenth century text written initially for the guidance of three sisters who were leading a religious life in solitude? How could I give a modern lay person's reading of a medieval religious text?

In order to formulate an approach to a coherent reading, I had first to clarify the terms that would be used. The two major problems encountered, those of definition and anachronism, were, I realized, interlinked. Terms I was dealing with, such as "spirituality" and "lay," had to be understood in the historical context in which they (or their Middle English/Latin equivalent) were used, while other terms, most notably "misogyny," were anachronistic and as such had no historical context.

While it may not always be possible to follow the exhortation of John Bossy that "a historian writing about an earlier period should not use a key word, such as religio, except in the sense it had in the period about which he is writing,"(1) it is often useful to look at the way key terms were used in the period in question. Jacques Le Goff points out that "Every idea is embodied in words, and every word reflects some reality. The history of words is history itself."(2)

An investigation of terms used can provide an insight into the text being read. What is meant by "text," is, of course, also problematic especially when, as with Ancrene Wisse, the original version is no longer extant and the versions that do exist exhibit variations. It is a modern prejudice that the "original" version, or that which most closely conveys the author's intentions, is the "best" in some quasi-moral sense. Bella Millett, herself in the final stages of preparing an edition of Ancrene Wisse, is not attempting to produce a "reconstructed definitive authorial version," but rather to come to terms with mouvance, that is, the "textual instability or fluidity." She points out that:

Editors have been preoccupied with the loss of "une authenticité perdue" the hypothetical perfection of the completed work as it left the author's hands, rather than coming to terms with the "une authorité generalisée" of medieval vernacular works which might be revised and rewritten indefinitely, both by their original authors and by others.(3)

The variability and complexity of Ancrene Wisse needs to be kept in mind in any reading of it. Readers also needs to be clear about the sort of category in which they are placing it in any reading. Categories tend to be supplied by the departmentalized structure of academic studies, a structure which can be at best unhelpful and at worst damaging. There has recently been a move towards cross-disciplinary study, but in the case of reading a medieval work such as Ancrene Wisse, the desire to compartmentalize, or put things in boxes and label them so they can be more easily handled, remains. What sort of thing is Ancrene Wisse? Into what sort of box can it be put? Is it to be studied as literature or as history? Is it misogynistic? Is it mystical?

Ancrene Wisse has traditionally been studied by English students as an example of early Middle English prose, as literature that is, but now many historians turn to it for evidence of anchoritic lifestyles in the Middle Ages. In his 1997 study of the current state of Ancrene Wisse group studies, Roger Dahood points out that the study of Ancrene Wisse and its associated works is on the rise among historians and literary critics with particular interests in the roles of women in late twelfth and early thirteenth century English society.(4) But what would it mean to study Ancrene Wisse as literature?

When this author was first studying literature at university in the late 1970s, literature departments were still under the influence of New Criticism. …