The work consists of eight parts: Parts 1 and 8 deal with what is called the "Outer Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' exterior life), Parts 2–7 with the "Inner Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' interior life). The didactic and devotional material is supplemented by illustrations and anecdotes, many drawn from everyday life.
The adoption of an anchorite life, while spread all over medieval Europe, was especially popular in England. By the early thirteenth century, it was considered distinctly from hermits – while the hermit vocation allowed for a change of location, the anchorite were bound to one place of enclosure, generally a cell connected to a church.
Ancrene Wisse was originally composed for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life. In the early twentieth century it was thought that this might be Kilburn Priory, near the medieval City of London, with attempts being made to date the work to the early twelfth century, and to identify the author as the Godwyn who led the house until 1130. More recent works have criticised this view, however. Most notably, this is because the dialect of English in which the work is written clearly originates from somewhere in the English West Midlands, not far from the Welsh border.
An important step forward was taken by Geoffrey Shepherd, who in his edition of parts six and seven of the work showed how extensive the author's reading was. Shepherd linked his interests with those of a generation of late twelfth-century English and French scholars at the University of Paris, including Peter the Cantor and Stephen Langton. Though writing in English in the provinces, he was a scholarly man who was kept up-to-date with what was said and being written in the centres of learning of his day.
EJ Dobson produced the most influential modern reassessment of the origins of the work, however. Dobson argues that the anchoresses were enclosed near Limebrook in Herefordshire, and that the author was an Augustinian canon at nearby Wigmore Abbey, in Herefordshire, named Brian of Lingen. Bella Millett has subsequently argued that the author was in fact a Dominican, rather than an Augustinian, though this remains controversial.
In terms of the date of the work, the revision of the work contained in the Corpus manuscript (from which modern translations tend to work) can be dated to between 1224 and 1235. The date of the first writing of the work is more controversial, and tends to hang on whether it is believed that the work shows influence from the pastoral reforms of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council. Shepherd believes the work does not show such influence, and thinks a date shortly after 1200 most likely. Dobson argues for a date between 1215 and 1221, after the council and before the coming of the Dominicans to England.
The general contours of this account have found favour in modern textbook assessments of the text.
Language and textual criticism
The version of Ancrene Wisse contained in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402 was written in an early Middle English dialect known as 'AB language' where 'A' denotes the manuscript Corpus Christi 402, and 'B' the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34. Manuscript Bodley 34 contains a set of texts that have become known as the "Katherine Group": Seinte Katerine, Seinte Margarete, Seinte Iuliene, Hali Meiðhad and Sawles Warde. Both manuscripts were written in the AB language, described by J.R.R. Tolkien as "a faithful transcript of some dialect...or a 'standard' language based on one' in use in the West Midlands in the 13th century."  The word Ancrene itself still exhibits a plural genitive inflection descended from the old Germanic weak noun declension; this was practically unknown by the time of Chaucer.
There are seventeen surviving medieval manuscripts containing all or part of Ancrene Wisse. Of these, nine are in the original Middle English, four are translations into Anglo-Norman French, and a further four are translations into Latin. The shortest extract is the Lanhydrock Fragment, which consists of only one sheet of parchment. The extant manuscripts are listed below.
|C – Cleopatra||1225–1230||British Library||Cotton MS Cleopatra C.vi|
|B – Nero||1225–1250||British Library||Cotton MS Nero A.xiv|
|C – Titus||1225–1250||British Library||Cotton MS Titus D.xviii|
|A – Corpus||1225–1240||Corpus Christi College, Cambridge||MS 402|
|Lanhydrock Fragment||1300-1250||Bodleian Library, Oxford||MS Eng. th.c.70|
|P – Pepys||1375–1400||Magdalene College, Cambridge||MS Pepys 2498|
|V – Vernon||1375–1400||Bodleian Library, Oxford||MS Eng. Poet.a.1|
|G – Caius||1350–1400||Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge||MS 234/120|
|R – Royal||15th century||British Library||MS Royal 8 C.i|
|V – Vitellius (French)||early 14th century||British Library||Cotton MS Vitellius F.vii|
|S – Trinity (French)||late 13th – early 14th century||Trinity College, Cambridge||MS 883 (R.14.7)|
|L- Latin||1300–1350||Merton College, Oxford||MS c.i.5 (Coxe 44)|
Although none of the manuscripts is believed to be produced by the original author, several date from the first half of the 13th century. The first complete edition edited by Morton in 1853 was based on the British Library manuscript Cotton Nero A.xiv. Recent editors have favoured Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 402 of which Bella Millett has written: "Its linguistic consistency and general high textual quality have made it increasingly the preferred base manuscript for editions, translations, and studies of Ancrene Wisse." It was used as the base manuscript in the critical edition published as two volumes in 2005–2006. The Corpus manuscript is the only one to include the title Ancrene Wisse.
The Ancrene Wisse was partly retranslated from French back into English and reincorporated in the late 15th-century Treatise of Love. The fifteenth century Treatise of the Five Senses also makes use of material from the work.
- This is a modern title for the work, perhaps deriving from Morton's 1853 translation.
- Daiches & 1979 48
- Allen 1929, pp. 635–40
- Eric Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse, (1976)
- Ancrene Wisse, trans Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, (1991), p42
- A view originating from EJ Dobson, The Origins of the Ancrene Wisse, (Oxford: OUP, 1976). See Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p332. See also Anchoritic Spirituality, trans Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, (1991), who follow Dobson's account of the origins of the text.
- Millett 1996, p. 5
- Tolkien 1929
- Hasenfratz 2000 Introduction
- Wada 2003, p. 10
- Morton 1853
- Millett 1996, p. 49
- Millett 2005–2006
- Allen, Emily Hope (1940), "Wynkyn de Worde and a second French compilation from the Ancrene Riwle with a description of the first (Trinity Coll. Camb. MS.883)", in Long, P.W., Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, New York: New York University Press, pp. 182–219.
- Allen, Hope Emily (1929). "On the Author of the Ancren Riwle". PMLA 44 (3): 635–80.
- Daiches, David (1979). A Critical History of English Literature: from the beginnings to the sixteenth century. Allied Publishers. ISBN 9788170230465. Retrieved 6 September 2012..
- Macaulay, G.C. (1914), "The Ancren Riwle", Modern Language Review 9 (1): 63–78, JSTOR 3713428.
- Millett, Bella (1992), "The Origins of the Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions", Medium Ævum: 206–228. Article available from Periodicals Archive Online. Subscription required.
- Millett, Bella (1996), Annotated Biographies of Old and Middle English Literature: II Ancrene wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, ISBN 0-85991-429-1.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1929), "Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad", Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 14: 104–126.
- Wada, Yoko, ed. (2003), A Companion to Ancrene Wisse, Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, ISBN 0-85991-762-2.
- Baugh, A.C., ed. (1956), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from British Museum MS Royal 8 C.i, Early English Text Society 232, Oxford University Press.
- D'Evelyn, Charlotte, ed. (1944), The Latin Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from Merton College MS 44 and British Museum MS Cotton Vitellius E.vii, Early English Text Society 216, Oxford University Press
- Dobson, E.J., ed. (1972), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from British Museum Cotton MS. Cleopatra C.vi., Early English Text Society 267, Oxford University Press.
- Hasenfratz, Robert J., ed. (2000), Ancrene Wisse, Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, ISBN 978-1-58044-070-7. Full text available online.
- Herbert, J.A., ed. (1944), The French Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from MS. Cotton Vitellius F.vii., Early English Text Society 219, Oxford University Press.
- Mack, F. M., ed. (1963), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from Cotton MS. Titus D.xviii. and Bodleian MS. Eng. th.c.70, Early English Text Society 232, Oxford University Press.
- Millett, Bella, ed. (2005–2006), Ancrene Wisse : a corrected edition of the text in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 402, with variants from other manuscripts. 2 vols., Early English Text Society 325 & 326, Oxford University Press. Volume 1: ISBN 0-19-722328-1, Volume 2: ISBN 0-19-920576-0.
- Morton, James, ed. (1853), The Ancren Riwle; a Treatise on the Rules and Duties of Monastic Life, Edited and Translated from a Semi-Saxon MS. of the Thirteenth Century, London: Camden Society.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., ed. (1962), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Ancrene Wisse: Edited from MS. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 402, Early English Text Society 249, Intro. by Ker, N.R., Oxford University Press. (Reprinted in 2000 ISBN 0-19-722249-8).
- Trethewey, W.H., ed. (1958), The French Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.147, Early English Text Society 240, Oxford University Press.
- Wilson, R.M., ed. (1954), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from Gonville and Caius College MS. 234/120, Early English Text Society 229, Intro. by N.R. Ker, Oxford University Press.
- Zettersten, Arne, ed. (1976), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Edited from Magdalene College, Cambridge MS. Pepys 2498, Early English Text Society 274, Oxford University Press.
- Zettersten, Arne; Diensberg, Bernard, eds. (2000), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, The 'Vernon' text: MS. Bodleian Library Eng. Poet. a.1, Early English Text Society 310, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-722314-1.
- Cannon, Christopher (2005), The Grounds of English Literature, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-923039-0.
- Dobson, John (1975), Moralities on the Gospels: New Source of Ancrene Wisse, Oxford: Clarendon Press, ISBN 0-19-812056-7.
- Gunn, Cate (2008), Ancrene Wisse: From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, ISBN 978-0-7083-2034-1.
- Potts, Jennifer; Stevenson, Lorna (1993), Concordance to Ancrene Wisse: MS. Corpus Christi, Cambridge 402, Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, ISBN 0-85991-395-3.
- Robertson, Elizabeth (1990), Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, ISBN 0-87049-641-7.
- Savage, Anne; Watson, Nicholas, trans. (1991), Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene wisse and associated works, Preface by Benedicta Ward, New York: Paulist Press, ISBN 0-8091-3257-5.
- White, Hugh, trans. (1993), Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses, London: Penguin, ISBN 0-14-044585-4.
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- Liturgy in the Style of the Anchoresses as used today in All Saints' Church, Norfolk
- Ancrene Wisse: a Medieval Guide for Anchoresses on www.hermitary.com