A Companion to Ancrene Wisse

A Companion to Ancrene Wisse

A Companion to Ancrene Wisse

A Companion to Ancrene Wisse


The thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse is a guide for female recluses. Addressed to three young sisters of gentle birth, it teaches what truly good anchoresses should and should not do, offering in its examples a glimpse of the real life women had in England in the middle ages. It is also important for its evidence for the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of prose writing, being produced in the West Midlands where Old English writing conventions continued to develop even after the Norman conquest. The Companion addresses the cultural and historical background, the affiliations of the versions, genre, authorship and language; the various approaches also include a feminist reading of the text. Contributors ROGER DAHOOD, RICHARD DANCE, A. S. G. EDWARDS, CATHERINE INNES-PARKER, BELLA MILLETT, CHRISTINA VON NOLCKEN, ELIZABETH ROBERTSON, ANNE SAVAGE, D. A. TROTTER, YOKO WADA, NICHOLAS WATSON.


The Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century practical guide for female recluses, offers a glimpse of the real life which women led in England in the Middle Ages. It addresses three young sisters of gentle birth, who were admitted to a convent to live each in an individual cell, teaching them in considerable detail what truly good anchoresses should and should not do. In Part 3 of Ancrene Wisse, for example, we are told that noble people do not carry packs or travel strapped with bundles or purses, although female beggars wear bags on their backs and women in town carried purses; these are all worldly things and possessions, therefore anchoresses must not have them. In Part 8, the author forbids the female recluses to keep any animal, except for, we are happy to know, a cat!

One of the reasons why Ancrene Wisse has been considered such a very important work in the history of English literature is that it continues the Anglo-Saxon tradition of prose writing, as R. W. Chambers argued in On the Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (London, 1932). Although we now know that Latin also had much influence on the style, we cannot deny that Ancrene Wisse owes much to Old English prose writing; after all, it was composed in the West Midlands where Old English writing conventions were retained and developed, even after the Norman conquest when English writing was on the decline. Worcester is the most notable place: Wulfstan the homilist (d. 1023) was bishop there and perhaps founded or extended an extensive English library. Throughout the eleventh century the scriptorium produced copies of a good number of English writings, particularly of the abbot and homilist Ælfric (c. 955 ― c. 1020). Even into the twelfth century and beyond English was used as a written medium there. The literary style of Ancrene Wisse is known to have similarities in alliteration and rhythm to the works of Wulfstan and Ælfric.

As well as the issue of continuity of English prose, as I shall mention in Chapter 1 there are many other interesting questions to be answered, including the authorship, the original language, and so on. However, when compared with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, Ancrene Wisse appears neglected; it has always lacked attention from students of Middle English literature. The aim of this Companion is to introduce Ancrene Wisse to those who are interested in Middle English language and literature and to provide them with various approaches to the work. I hope this book will help the reader to find out what made Ancrene Wisse a best-seller of its day and that it will promote further study.

Yoko Wada January, 2003 . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.