1

What is Ancrene Wisse?

YOKO WADA

Ancrene Wisse is a beginner's guide for female recluses, which was probably written in or around the second quarter of the thirteenth century. 1 The guide is very likely to have been composed originally for three young sisters of a wealthy family. 2

The word ancrene is a noun meaning 'anchorites' or 'recluses' (of either sex) in the genitive plural form, and wisse, 'a guide', which derives from the Old English verb wissian. 3 This title appears in the invocation on folio 1r of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402, in the hand of the scribe who copied the text. No title is found in any other extant manuscript. Ancrene Riwle, 'a rule for anchoresses', which has been used as a title for almost the same work for many years, has no medieval authority, being just an editor's invention, and therefore is not at all appropriate, although the Early English Text Society has published all versions (including a few variorum editions) in eleven volumes under the title Ancrene Riwle. 4

As far as we know, there are seventeen versions of the work, nine in English, four in French, and a further four in Latin. 5 The manuscripts date from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, 6 and the texts seem to have

____________________
1
See pp. 16―19, below.
2
See p.4, below.
3
Cf.OE wissian 'to direct, instruct, guide'.
4
As to how that title, Ancrene Riwle, came to establish squatter's rights, see Wada, 'Temptations', pp.xiii―xvii. A title-page given on the front cover of the edition of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402, by the Early English Text Society, is 'Ancrene Wisse, MS Corpus Christi College 402', but the title reads 'The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, Ancrene Wisse, Edited from MS Corpus Christi College Cambridge 402' (Tolkien, The English Text).
5
Manuscripts of Ancrene Wisse in English are: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402; Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 234/120; Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS Pepys 2498; London, British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra C.vi; London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv; London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus D.xviii; London, British Library, MS Royal 8.C.i; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a.1 (S.C. 3938―3942); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. th. c.70. French texts are in: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.7 (883); London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius F.vii; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 90 (S. C. 1887); Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS français 8276. Manuscripts of Ancrene Wisse in Latin are: London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius E.vii; London, British Library, MS Royal 7.C.x; Oxford, Magdalen College, MS Latin 67; Oxford, Merton College, MS C.1.5 (Coxe 44). As for editions, all the vernacular texts have been printed separately; the Latin version has been published in a variorum edition and the French in two editions including the variants; all of these are publications of the Early English Text Society. See the Select Bibliography at the end of this volume. A critical edition, based on all texts of Ancrene Wisse, is being made by Bella Millett and Richard Dance.
6
Texts written in the thirteenth century are in: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402;

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