Ancrene Wisse

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Ancrene Wisse[needs IPA] (also known as the Ancrene Riwle[note 1] or Guide for Anchoresses) is an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) for female anchoresses written in the early 13th century.

The work consists of eight parts. Parts 1 and 8 deal with what is called the "Outer Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' exterior life), while Parts 2–7 deal with the "Inner Rule" (relating to the anchoresses' interior life).


The adoption of an anchorite life was widespread all over medieval Europe, and was especially popular in England. By the early thirteenth century, the lives of anchorites or anchoresses was considered distinct from that of hermits. The hermit vocation permitted a change of location, whereas the anchorites 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, and attempts were made to date the work to the early twelfth century and to identify the author as a Godwyn, who led the house until 1130.[1] More recent works have criticised this view, most notably 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 in the production of his edition of parts six and seven of the work, in which he showed that the author's reading was extensive. Shepherd linked the author's 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. Shepherd suggested that the author was a scholarly man, though writing in English in the provinces, 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.[2] Bella Millett has subsequently argued that the author was in fact a Dominican rather than an Augustinian, though this remains controversial.[citation needed]

The revision of the work contained in the manuscript held at Corpus Christi, Cambridge (used by most modern translations) can be dated between 1224 and 1235.[3] The date of the first writing of the work is more controversial, and tends to depend upon one's view of the influence of the pastoral reforms of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council. Shepherd believes that 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.[note 2]

Language and textual criticism[edit]

The version of Ancrene Wisse contained in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is known as MS 402. It 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.[4] 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." [5] The word Ancrene itself still exhibits a feminine plural genitive inflection descended from the old Germanic weak noun declension; this was practically unknown by the time of Chaucer.

The didactic and devotional material is supplemented by illustrations and anecdotes, many drawn from everyday life.[6]

Ancrene Wisse is often grouped by scholars alongside the Katherine Group and the Wooing Group—both collections of early Middle English religious texts written in AB language.

Surviving manuscripts[edit]

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, and a further four are translations into Latin. The shortest extract is the Lanhydrock Fragment, which consists of only one sheet of parchment.[7] The extant manuscripts are listed below.

Version[7][8] Approx. date Location Manuscript
C – Cleopatra 1225–1230 British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra
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 1250-1300 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.[9] 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."[10] It was used as the base manuscript in the critical edition published as two volumes in 2005–2006.[11] The Corpus manuscript is the only one to include the title Ancrene Wisse.[4]

The Ancrene Wisse was partly retranslated from French back into English and reincorporated in the late 15th-century Treatise of Love.[12] The fifteenth-century Treatise of the Five Senses also makes use of material from the work.


  1. ^ This is a modern title for the work, perhaps derived from Morton's 1853 translation.
  2. ^ 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), p 332. See, for instance, Anchoritic Spirituality, trans Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, (1991), who follow Dobson's account of the origins of the text.


  1. ^ Allen 1929, pp. 635–40.
  2. ^ Dobson 1975.
  3. ^ Watson & Savage 1991, p. 42.
  4. ^ a b Millett 1996, p. 5
  5. ^ Tolkien 1929
  6. ^ Daiches 1979, p. 48.
  7. ^ a b Hasenfratz 2000 Introduction
  8. ^ Wada 2003, p. 10
  9. ^ Morton 1853
  10. ^ Millett 1996, p. 49
  11. ^ Millett 2005–2006
  12. ^ 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. (ed.), Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, New York: New York University Press, pp. 182–219.



  • 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, 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.

Further reading[edit]

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