Black, White and Grey in 'Hali Meidhad' and 'Ancrene Wisse.' (Evidence for Dating from Mention of Religious Orders' Habits)

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Black, white and grey are the shades which more than any other have served to clothe Christian religious. Worn either singly or in carefully specified combinations, they have also served to differentiate one religious order from another. Indeed, their ability to signal religious affifiations was jealously guarded by custom, by legislation, and sometimes by the evident pride of the wearers in the distinctiveness of their particular order's habit, The capacity of a monochrome spectrum to distinguish effectively between the several orders in existence by the year 1215 was increased by the wearing of habits of distinctive cut or composition.(1) Some orders, for example, did not wear the scapular, while others did, and where they did, significant differences might be inferred from whether that scapular was black, white or grey. When, therefore, both Hali Meiohad and Ancrene Wisse evince interest in the distinctions of black, white and grey, it may be of some consequence if we can determine, or even plausibly speculate on, what orders the author, or authors, of these texts had in mind, because these questions may be intimately related to the dating of their compositions. The suggestions made here must be regarded as tentative, but since they have not been made before, and since if correct they imply dates of composition some few years later than those currently credited, they deserve brief notice. I shall begin with Hali Meiohad.

This work has appeared in two recent editions. The first, by Bella Millett, has provided the staple on which the second, a collaborative effort by Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, depends.(2) For the purposes of the argument, it will be sufficient to refer principally to the first of these. Concerning the date of Hali Meiohad, Millett observes that it can |only be fixed within fairly broad limits', and proceeds to review the evidence for what those limits are.(3) The date of what has generally been considered the earlier of the two manuscripts containing it, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 34, which N. R. Ker estimated as belonging to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, was further refined by E. J. Dobson to probably no earlier than 1220.(4) In fact, Dobson thought it might be more appropriately dated to c. 1225, not many years earlier, therefore, than the version of Ancrene Wisse found in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402.(5) However, he also doubted that Hali Meiohad had been composed around this time and, for a reason that will be considered shortly, he was inclined to place its actual composition earlier, perhaps even before 1215.(6)

Millett notes that the latest undisputable source upon which Hali Meiohad draws is the Summa de Arte Predicatoria of Alain de Lille, a work which Alain wrote sometime between 182/3 and his death in 1203; when all possibilities have been weighed, she concludes, |all that can safely be said is that Hali Meiohad was written between roughly 1190 and 1220, probably rather later than earlier in this period'.(7) Evidently, then, Millett accepts Dobson's reason for believing that the composition of Hali Meiohad antedates MS Bodley 34 by a few years.(8)

Dobson had one essential reason for thinking that Hali Meiohad had been composed some few years before its appearance in its MS Bodley 34 copy. This was that since the scribe of this manuscript apparently did not have access to authorial autographs of the texts he was copying, but only to erroneous exemplars, |a matter for some surprise, since the dialectal consistency of the texts must mean that all the pieces were originally written in the same literary and religious centre as produced MS Bodley 34',(9) enough time must have elapsed in which the autographs might have been lost, destroyed or given away. But this reason is not without its difficulties. It unwarrantably assumes that authorial autographs require the lapse of some decent length of time before ceasing to be available. …