Medieval English Prose for Women: Selections from the Katherine Group and Ancrene Wisse

By Bella Millett; Jocelyn Wogan-Browne | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE texts edited in this anthology are all taken from a single group of religious prose works, written in the West Midlands in the early thirteenth century.

The longest of these works, and the best known both in the Middle Ages and today, is the Ancrene Wisse, a work of guidance for female recluses. The ancre -- the anchorite or anchoress -- was a man or woman who had chosen to be enclosed for life in an individual cell, usually built on to the wall of a church; the author explains, fancifully, that the anchoress is so called because she is 'anchored under a church like an anchor under the side of a ship'.2 The first of the eight sections of his work prescribes the recluses' daily routine of prayers, and the last offers practical guidelines on their dress, diet, and general conduct. But he emphasizes that these recommendations on external behaviour, the 'Outer Rule', should be seen as no more than a handmaid to its lady, the 'Inner Rule' -- the divine commands governing the heart and conscience -- to which he devotes the main body of his work. Unlike some later medieval English writers, he has relatively little to say about the mystical union with God which was the ultimate aim of the contemplative life the recluses had chosen. He is more concerned with their practical problems and spiritual dangers, and although his account of the 'Inner Rule' culminates in a section on the love of God, it deals at much greater length with the custody of the senses and thoughts, and with temptation, confession, and penance.

Ancrene Wisse is anonymous, but it has close links with the tradition of monastic legislation running from the Augustinian canons to the Dominican friars, and recent research is pointing increasingly towards Dominican origin.3 The author himself tells us something about his audience. The first version was written for three women in particular.

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1
For details of editions and translations see Further Reading. Explanations of brief references to particular texts are given in the List of Abbreviations. (Ancrene Wisse references are given both to the MSS (normally Corpus) and the Salu translation, but the translations given in the Introduction are not necessarily Salu's).
2
Corpus MS 39a/3-4; M. B. Salu (tr.), The Ancrene Riwle ( London, 1955), 63. For a discussion of the actual etymology and medieval uses of the word, see the section on "The Medieval Anchorite" in Ackerman and Dahood, pp. 7-16.
3
See D. S. Brewer, "Two Notes on the Augustinian and possibly West Midland Origin of the Ancren Riwle", Notes and Queries, 201 ( 1956), 232-5; E. J. Dobson, The Origins of 'Ancrene Wisse' ( Oxford, 1976) (which follows Brewer in supporting

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