The Origins of 'Ancrene Wisse': New Answers, New Questions

By Millett, Bella | Medium Aevum, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

The Origins of 'Ancrene Wisse': New Answers, New Questions


Millett, Bella, Medium Aevum


Although it is a book-length work, the early Middle English guide for recluses known as Ascrene Wisse gives us very few clues to its origin. Its author is anonymous. So is its audience: all that we know for certain is that the work was originally addressed to three well-bred (gentile) sisters, who |ine blostme of ower uwede uorheten alle wor[l]ides blissen ant bicomen ancren' (|in the flower of your youth renounced all the joys of the world and became recluses'),(1) and that it was later revised (in the version surviving in the Corpus MS) for a group of recluses which had grown to twenty or more.(2) The only definite indication of its date is the author's assumption in the revised version that the recluses would be visited by both Dominican and Franciscan friars; since the Dominicans arrived in England in 1221 and the Franciscans in 1224, the revised version at least must have been produced sometime after 1224. As for its place of origin, the author writes in a variety of West Midlands English which probably originated in northern Herefordshire or southern Shropshire; but there are no indications of locality in the text itself, apart from a passage in the revised version which praises the community of recluses because, while they have now begun to spread |toward Englondes ende' (|towards the border of England'), they still maintain as much uniformity of observance 'as pah e weren an cuuent of Lundene ant of Oxnefort, of Schreobsburi oder of Chester' (|as if you were a single religious community of London or Oxford, Shrewsbury or Chester')(.3)

There have been man attempts to identify, the author, audience, date, and place of origin of Ancrene Wisse more precisely, but - as Roger Dahood's 1984 survey of the literature makes clear(4) - none of them has been conclusive enough to gain universal acceptance. However, the solutions offered by Eric Dobson in The Origins of |Ancrene Wisse' (1976),(5) although they have been questioned, have not been seriously challenged,(6) and his book remains the fullest and most influential discussion of the problem.

Following up a line of investigation first suggested by Derek Brewer in the 1950s,(7) Dobson explored in detail both the Augustinian and the West Midlands connections of Ancrene Wisse, using a careful accumulation of circumstantial evidence to identify the work's most likely point of origin. In his first chapter, he argued that Ancrene Wisse must have been written by an Augustinian canon. Some earlier scholars had seen the author's obvious interest in pastoral care, and his comparative lack of interest in mystical experience, as evidence that he was a secular cleric rather than a member of a religious order;(8) but Dobson identified three passages in the surviving manuscripts, all likely to be authorial, in which the writer refers to the practice of the religious community to which he belongs. The lack of direct influence ftom the Benedictine Rule, and the enthusiasm for the friars expressed in the revised version, made it improbable that he was a monk; and although Ancrene Wlisse includes some striking parallels with Dominican legislation, Dobson believed that on geographical and chronological grounds (to be discussed more fully below) the author could not have been a friar. The most likely remaining possibility, given the frequent parallels in Ancrene Wisse with Augustinian practice, was that he was an Augustinian canon; this might account for the apparent links with Dominican usage, since the earliest Dominican legislation was based on Augustinian customs. In the second chapter, Dobson argued that the author must have belonged to one of the independent congregations of Augustinian canons, which followed a stricter rule than the ordinary Augustinian communities. He noted in particular the close connections between Ancrene Wisse and the statutes of the Premonstratensian canons; but also some apparent divergences, which he took as indications that its author belonged to an order |greatly influenced by or interested in the statutes of Premontre but not itself Premonstratensian'.

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The Origins of 'Ancrene Wisse': New Answers, New Questions
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