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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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Mystic writings for women in England.

THE last chapter, in dealing with some of the women who distinguished themselves in the cause of charity and philanthropy, has suggested in what direction the determining feature of the religious life of women in the 13th century must be sought. Outward events, stirring political changes, and awakening confidence in national strength, had largely increased human sympathies and widened the mental horizon. In regard to women, who sought their vocation outside the circle of home, this had led on the one hand to efforts for alleviating human want and human suffering, on the other to a stirring of the imagination in the direction of speculation on the value and the help afforded by religious belief.

The different beauties of the active and the contemplative life had all along been realized, and were currently represented by the figures of Mary and Martha, types of divergent tendencies which were attractive in different ways. The busy Martha with her charitable devotion was the ideal of many women, since rescuing the needy, assisting the helpless, and ministering to the sick constituted the vocation of women in a special sense. But a peculiar charm of a different kind hung at all times round the thoughtful and studious Mary, who set the claims and realities of life at nought compared with the greater reality of the eternal   [p. 306]   life hereafter. At the beginning of the 13th century, when the increase in religious enthusiasm deepened yearnings for the apprehension of the divine, men in their individual capacities began to seek a personal and closer communion with God. The absorption by things spiritual as contrasted with things material took a new departure. On one side was the learned thinker who, trained in the knowledge of the schools, sought to fathom his own powers and through them the powers of mankind so as to transcend the limits of sensible existence, and who gave a new development to mysticism in its technical sense. On the other side was the large number of those who, no longer satisfied with the mediation of appointed ministers of the Church, sought a personal relation to God, the effect of which on themselves would be moral regeneration. It was in connection with these that a number of writings were composed which represent mysticism in its popular sense: the steps by which the divine can be approached, set forth under the form of an allegory.

The allegorical mysticism of the Middle Ages culminates in Dante (1260--1321). It is well to bear this in mind in the presence of minor lights. For while there is much that is strangely fascinating in the 13th century mystic, and touches of simple good faith and of honest directness of purpose abound, the conditions under which he works and the language in which he expresses himself cannot pass without criticism. Cloistered seclusion, estrangement from the outside world, the cult of asceticism, and insistence on the emotional side of life, if judged by the standard of to-day, are not conducive to mental and moral welfare. Moreover a later age always finds it difficult to understand that an earlier one had its own notions in regard to the fitness and beauty of the surroundings it made for itself. But productive genius at all times freely makes for itself surroundings that cannot be called absolutely healthy. It needs a certain effort to realise on what ground the 13th century mystic stands. But when once we are able to follow him, moving in his world is like walking in an enchanted garden, --enchanted to us, but real to him, where each growing sentiment and each budding thought has its peculiar charm.

It is the same with regard to the language in which the mystic expresses himself The close communion he seeks with the Godhead leads him to use terms which are directly adopted from those which express the experiences and feelings of ordinary life. There is in him no shrinking from holding God and the saints   [p. 307]   as personalities, and no hesitation in expressing desire for things spiritual in language currently used for expressing the promptings of desire for things of this world; for he is a realist in the view he takes of God and the saints. The old interpretation of the Song of Solomon supplied him with a model after which to form his conceptions, and by a further adaptation it led every nun to greet her bridegroom in Christ and every monk to greet his bride in the Virgin. Outside the convent the age of romance had brought a new element into the relations of the sexes and had accepted years of service and continued wooing as the steps which led to the consummation of desire. This idea transferred to spiritual relations now caused the mystic to dwell on the steps by which the Divine can be approached. The poetry of romance and the poetry of mysticism have much in common; both appear to have been the outcome of the same sentiments differently applied in convent and court. And as the language of real life made it possible for the mystic to formulate his feelings, so his religious aspirations in their turn helped to spiritualise the relations of real life.

It deserves special attention that some of the writings of these early mystics are in the vernacular and include some of the most beautiful productions in Middle English and in early German. Their philological interest has recently led to their publication, but their social importance is equally great. For in them we see how the high estimation of virgin purity, which was in the fore-ground of the moral consciousness of the age, was advocated by the leaders of thought and came to influence the lives of individual women, and how the asexual existence which hitherto had been accepted as praiseworthy was extolled as virtue in itself.

Again it is difficult for a later age to rate this conception at its just value, for the depreciation of the relationship of sex is to the modern mind not only misplaced but misleading. It is only when we think of the gain this depreciation has helped to secure in self-control and self-respect that it appears at all reasonable.

Of the early productions of the mystic school, which are distinctly moral in tendency and personal in tone, none offer greater attractions than works written in England during the first half of the 13th century for the use of women who were vowed to religion. All these writings, some of which will here be considered, are in the vernacular, and owing to their measured grace and tone of delicate refinement are among the most attractive   [p. 308]   monuments of Middle English. They are chiefly productions of the south of England where the Saxon element had been preserved in its integrity. Scholars have remarked how a certain roughness of diction and a heroic element opposed to softness of sentiment lingered on in the north and precluded the utterance of gentler strains, while the south used a language of combined vigour and grace and became the cradle of lyric poetry. Moreover the south at this period cultivated the qualities which give to a movement its moral stamina. We find loyalty to the king coupled with distaste for court pleasures, and strong religious feeling combined with that insistence on nationality which precluded servile submission to the Pope. The south was also in connection with the best intellectual forces of the age as represented by the growing schools at Oxford, and Oxford in its turn was in direct touch with Paris, which remained throughout the 12th century the most important centre of learning and education in Europe.

A few words must be given to this connection and its results, for it was in Paris that the master-minds of Oxford acquired that enthusiasm for study which, applied to the realities of life, became zeal for reform and desire for moral regeneration.

Two lines of study are apparent in Paris. There is the mysticism of the school of St Victor, represented by men of such mental calibre as Hugo († 1141), a native of Germany, and his pupil Richard († 1173), a native of Scotland. The combined influence of these two men on the English mind was very great, for many productions of the English mystical school were inspired by or adapted from their Latin mystical works. The writings of Richard translated into English are frequently found in manuscripts by the side of the works of the later English mystics, Richard Rolle († 1349), and Walter Hylton († 1395).

On the other hand Paris was the first to experience the vivifying influence of the renewed study of Greek philosophy, especially of the Aristotelian corpus, together with its comments by Arabian philosophers, especially with those of Averroes (fl. 1150). Jews from the south of France had introduced these writings, which, repeatedly condemned but as often advocated, had the effect on speculative minds of the introduction of a new science.[1*] Christian theology, rising to the occasion, adopted their metaphysical views, though so radically divergent from its own, and the result was the   [p. 309]   birth of scholastic philosophy. But where the incompatibility of the union was felt scholars left the halls of discussion and turned their energies to grappling with the problems of active life.

In Oxford as early as 1133 Robert Pullen, who had studied in Paris, was lecturing on week days and preaching on Sundays to the people, and during the course of the 13th century a number of men who had won the highest distinctions at the university,-- such as Edmund Rich († 1240), Adam Marsh († 1257--8), and Robert Grosseteste (afterwards bishop of Lincoln, † 1253), followed in his footsteps. Their efforts fell in with those of the newly founded orders of friars, and they greeted as brothers in the spirit the twelve Dominicans who arrived at Oxford in 1221 and the Franciscans who came in 1224. These maintained an utter distrust of learning, which led to much argument between them and the students, but all alike were zealous in working for the welfare of the uneducated classes.

We are indebted to Thomas de Hales[2*] for one of the earliest and most beautiful poems written for the use of a nun. He was a native of Hales in Gloucestershire, studied both at Oxford and Paris, and was under the influence of the Franciscan movement. Wadding says in his annals of the Franciscan order that 'Thomas de Hales, created a doctor of the Sorbonne, was most celebrated and is known not only in England, but also in France, Germany, and Italy.' Thomas was on friendly terms with Adam Marsh who had become a Franciscan friar, and he joined this order himself as is apparent from the superscription of his English poem.[3*] Various facts suggest possibilities as to his career, for Hales in Gloucestershire was the home also of Alexander de Hales († 1245) who went to Paris and spent his energies in compiling a work on scholasticism which secured him the title of doctor irrefragabilis. Moreover in 1246 Hales became the seat of a Cistercian monastery founded by Henry II Is brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall, who was intimately connected with the circle of men at Oxford and a friend and patron of the Franciscans. It is possible that Thomas owed encouragement to the learned Alexander or to Earl Richard. The year 1250 is accepted as the date when he flourished, but his English poem was probably written somewhat earlier. This is suggested by the praise bestowed in it on King Henry and his   [p. 310]   wealth, which could hardly have been accorded later than 1240, for it was then that the king began to alienate his people's affection by tampering with the coinage and by countenancing foreign influences at court and in the Church, in compliance with the wishes of his wife, Eleanor of Provence.

The poem of Thomas is called a Luve Ron, that is a love song; it consists of twenty-six rhymed stanzas with much alliterative assonance. Falling in with the tendencies of the age it treats of the happiness in store for women who accept Christ as their spouse. Thomas describes how he came to advise a nun in her choice of a lover. As the translation of the poem into modern English rhyme sacrifices much of its directness, the stanzas which follow have been rendered as prose.

'A maid of Christ bade me earnestly to make her a love-song,
That she might best learn how to take a faithful lover,
Most faithful of all, and best suited to a free woman;
I will not refuse her, but direct her as best I can.
Maiden, thou must understand that this world's love is rare,
In many ways fickle, worthless, weak, deceiving,
Men that are bold here pass away as the winds blow;
Under the earth they lie cold, fallen away as meadow grass.
No one enters life who is certain to remain,
For here man has many sorrows, neither repose nor rest;
Towards his end he hastens, abiding but a short time,
Pain and death hurry him away when most he clings to life.
None is so rich nor yet so free but he soon must go;
Gold and silver, pomp and- ermine give him no surety;
Swift though he be, he cannot escape, nor lengthen his life by a day,
Thus, thou seest, this world as a shadow glides past.'

The poet then enlarges on the transitoriness of terrestrial love. Where are Paris and Helen, Amadis, Tristram, and others famous for their love? 'They have glided from this world as the shaft that has left the bow-string.' Wealth such as King Henry's, beauty such as Absalom's availed them nought. But the poet knows of a true king whose love abides.

'Ah sweet, if thou knewest but this one's virtues!
He is fair and bright, of glad cheer, mild of mood,
  [p. 311]   Lovely through joy, true of trust, free of heart, full of wisdom;
Never wouldst thou regret it if once thou wert given into his care.
He is the richest man in the land as far as men have the power of speech,
All is given into his hand, east, west, north and south.
Henry the king holds of him and bows to him.
Maiden, to thee he sends the message that he would be beloved by thee.'

The beauty of this lover, Christ, is thus described, and the fairness of his dwelling, where hate, pride and envy enter not, and where all rejoice with the angels. 'Are not those in a good way who love such a lord?' the poet asks. In return for the bliss Christ grants, He asks only that the maiden keep bright the jewel of maidenhood which He has entrusted to her. The poem ends thus:

'This poem, maiden, I send thee open and without a seal,
Bidding thee unroll it and learn each part by heart,
Then be very gracious and teach it faithfully to other maidens.
Who knows the whole right well will be comforted by it.
If ever thou sittest lonely, draw forth this little writing,
Sing it with sweet tones, and do as I bid thee.
He who has sent thee a greeting, God Almighty, be with thee,
And receive thee in his bower high up in heaven where He sits.
And may he have good ending, who has written this little song.'

From this poem we turn to the prose works written at this period for religious women, which are inspired by the same spirit of earnest devotion, and contain thoughts as tender, refined, and gentle as the poem of Thomas de Hales. The prose treatise known as the Ancren Riwle,[4*] the rule for recluses, is by far the most important of these works, and from the present point of view deserves close attention, for it gives a direct insight into the moral beauties of the religious attitude, and enables us to form some idea of the high degree of culture and refinement which the 13th century mystic attained.

A few words of criticism on the purpose of the book and on its authorship are here necessary. We have before us a work written not for the regular inmates of a nunnery, not for nuns who lived   [p. 312]   under the rule of a prioress or abbess, but for religious women who, after being trained in a nunnery, left it to continue a chaste and secluded life outside. The Church at all times gave most honour to those monks and nuns who were members of a convent and lived under the rule of a superior, but it did not deny the credit of holy living, or the appellations monk and nun, to those who either alone or with a few companions devoted themselves to religion, and dwelt sometimes near a chapel or sanctuary, sometimes in a churchyard. From the earliest times the people had held such male and female recluses in special reverence, and the Church, yielding to popular feeling, accepted them as holy, and in some instances countenanced their being ranked as saints.

With reference to the distinction made from the earliest period between the different classes of those who professed religion, and their respective claims to holiness, it seems well to quote from the introductory chapter of the rule of St Benedict. The following passages occur in all the prose versions of the rule known to me, whether written for the use of men, or adapted to the use of women.

The Anglo-Saxon version of the rule of St Benedict made in the 10th or 11th century, which is based on the version written by Aethelwold about the year 961, runs thus:[5*] There are four kinds of monks, muneca; the first kind are those in monasteries, mynstermonna, who live under a rule or an abbot. The second kind are the hermits, ancrena, that is settlers in the wilds (westensetlena), who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of others to fight against the devil, and going forth well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the wilderness, are able without the support of others to fight by the strength of their own arm and the help of God against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts. A third and most baneful kind of monk are the self-appointed ones, sylfdemena, who have been tried by no rule nor by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace, but being soft as lead and still serving the world in their works, are known by their tonsure to lie to God. These, in twos or threes or even singly without a shepherd, not enclosed in the Lord's sheepfold, follow the enjoyment of their will instead of a rule; whatever they think fit or choose to do they call holy, and what they like not they condemn as unlawful. There is a fourth   [p. 313]   kind of monk called wandering, widscrithul, who spend all their life wandering about, staying in different cells for three or four days at a time, ever roaming, given up to their own pleasures and the evils of gluttony, and worse in all ways than the self-appointed ones.

In the English versions of the rule for women, two of which, drafted respectively in the 13th and in the 15th century, are extant, the same distinctions are drawn between different kinds of nuns. The 13th century version states[6*] that there are the nuns living in a monastery under an abbess, mynecene,-- a kind of nun called ancre or recluse,--the self-appointed nuns,--and the wandering nuns who are declared altogether evil.

The difference between the nun and the ancre is made clear by these passages. The ancre or recluse, called in Latin inclusa, is the nun who after receiving a convent education lives a holy life away from the nunnery, and it is for ancren or nuns of this kind that the book we are about to discuss was written. Fortunately the work does not stand alone as an exhortation to women recluses. We are in possession of a letter from Ailred of Rievaulx, written between 1131 and 1161, and addressed to his sister (sic), which was written for a similar purpose though covering very much narrower ground, and contains advice analogous to that contained in the Ancren Riwle. The original is in Latin,[7*] and in this form it was probably known to the author of the Ancren Riwle, who refers to it, saying how Ailred had already insisted that purity of life can be maintained only by observing two things, a certain hardness of bodily life and a careful cultivation of moral qualities.

The letter of Ailred is in the form of a series of short chapters and is divided into two parts, the first of which (c. 1--20) treats of the outward rule. It gives advice as to whom the inclusa should converse with, and whom she should admit into her presence; it tells her that she should not own flocks, which leads to buying and selling; that she should live by the work of her hands, not accepting as a gift more food than she needs for herself and her servants; and that she must not do as some recluses do, who busy themselves with 'teaching girls and boys and turn their cells into a school.' It also directs her about divine service, and about her food and clothes.

Having so far dealt with outward things Ailred (c. 21--46)   [p. 314]   dwells on the inward life, on virginity, on the dangers of temptation and on the beauties of humility and love. His sentences are short and are illustrated by quotations from scripture, by reference to the holy virgin St Agnes, and by remarks on the respective merits of Mary and Martha. The concluding chapters (c. 47--78) are found also in the works of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury († 1109),[8*] and appear to have been borrowed from him.

The letter of Ailred proves that the conduct of the recluse was attracting attention in the 12th century. Part of his letter was translated into Middle English by one Thomas N. in the 13th century, about the same time when the Ancren Riwle was drawn up, and in its superscription it is designated as the 'information' which Ailred, abbot of Rievaulx, wrote for his sister the inclusa.[9*] In this translation, however, the opening parts of the work which treat of the outward rule (c. 1--20) are omitted, evidently because the translation was intended not for recluses but for nuns, to whom directions about domestic matters, such as buying, selling, clothing and eating, would not apply.

Further evidence can be adduced to show that women recluses in the 13th century occupied public attention to an increasing degree. Hitherto they had been left to dwell where they pleased, supported by chance gifts from the people, but in the 13th century it became usual to leave them legacies. A mass of information on the subject has been collected by Cutts,[10*] who describes how women recluses occupied sometimes a range of cells, sometimes a commodious house; and how they kept one or more servants to run on their errands. In 1246 the bishop of Chichester issued an injunction which shows that his attention had been drawn to these women, and that in his mind there was a distinct difference between them and regular nuns. Under the heading 'On recluses (inclusis) it says:[11*] 'Also we ordain that recluses shall not receive or keep any person in their house concerning whom sinister suspicions may arise. Also that they have narrow and proper windows; and we permit them to have secret communication with those persons only whose gravity and honesty do not admit of suspicion. Women recluses should not be entrusted with the care of church vestments;   [p. 315]   if necessity compels it, we command it to be done with caution, that he who carries them may have no communication with the recluses.'

Taking these various remarks into consideration and comparing them with what is said in the Ancren Riwle itself, the author of which keeps clear in his mind the difference between recluse and nun, I think the idea that this work was originally written for the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent in Dorsetshire, as is usually alleged,[12*] will be abandoned. This assumption is based on the superscription of a Latin copy of the book, which states that Simon of Ghent wrote it for his sisters the anchoresses near Tarent (apud Tarente). But the theory that the book was originally in Latin, and that it was written by Simon, archdeacon at Oxford in 1284, and bishop of Salisbury between 1307--1315, has long been abandoned. The idea that it was written for the nunnery at Tarent may also be discarded, for Tarent was a house founded by Ralph de Kahaines in the time of Richard I. Therefore at the time when Simon lived, and doubtless also at the time when the book was written (1225-- 1250), the settlement must have consisted of more than three women recluses and their servants. Women recluses might be living at Tarent as elsewhere, since Simon forwarded the book to recluses there, but they would not be members of the Cistercian convent. It may be noticed in passing that the other Latin copy of the rule, which was destroyed by fire in 1731, had a superscription saying that Robert Thornton, at one time prior, gave it to the recluses (claustratibus) of Bardney, which is a Benedictine abbey for men in Lincoinshire.

To relinquish the idea that the Ancren Riwte was written originally for the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent is to relinquish also the supposition[13*] that it is the work of Richard Poor, dean of Salisbury, and afterwards bishop successively of Chichester and Durham († 1237), for the theory of his authorship rests only on his interest in this nunnery, to which he added a chapel and where his heart lies buried. A fuller knowledge of the English writings of the time may reveal by whom and for whom the book was written. The dialect proves it to be the production of a native of the south-western part of England, while its tone reveals a connection with Paris and Oxford. The writer must have had a high degree of culture, and was familiar with French, with court poetry,   [p. 316]   and with the similes so frequent in the stories of romance. He had a sound theological training, with a knowledge of the works of Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, and notably of Bernard, from whom he frequently quotes. He had strong religious sympathies, but imperfect sympathy with the established church,-- these latter facts tend to prove that he was in some measure connected with the friars. His references to 'our lay brethren,' and his description of the 'hours' as said by them, may serve as a clue to his identification.[14*]

The Ancren Riwle or rule for recluses, fills a moderately sized volume and is extant in eight manuscript copies, of which five are in English, that is four in the dialect of the south and one in that of the north,--two in Latin, and one in French. The work is divided into eight parts, a short analysis of which will give an idea of the importance of the book and of the wide range of its author's sympathies. As he says himself the book was written for three sisters who in the bloom of their youth had forsaken the world to become anchoresses, but he expects it will be read by others. He assumes that his readers know Latin and French as well as English, a fact which in itself proves that like the ancren referred to above, the ancren here addressed had received their education in a nunnery.

In the short introduction which precedes the work the author says he will accede to the request of the women who have importuned him for a rule.

'Do you now ask what rule you recluses should observe?' he asks (p. 5).[15*] 'You should always keep the inward rule well with all your might and strength for its own sake. The inward rule is ever alike; the outward varies.... No recluse by my advice shall make profession, that is promise to keep anything commanded, save three things, obedience, chastity and stedfastness; she shall not change her home save by need, such as compulsion, fear of death or obedience to her bishop, or her master (herre). For she who undertakes anything and promises to do it at God's command, is bound to it and sins mortally in breaking her promise by will or wish. If she has not promised she may do it and leave it off as she will, as of meat and drink, abstaining from flesh and fish and other like things relating to dress, rest, hours and prayers. Let her say as many of these as she pleases, and in what way she   [p. 317]   pleases. These and other such things are all in our free choice to do or let alone whenever we choose, unless they are promised. But charity, that is love, and meekness and patience, truthfulness and keeping the ten ancient commandments, confession and penitence, these and such as these, some of which are of the old law, some of the new, are not of man's invention.'

He then goes on to tell them that if asked to what order they belong, they must say, to the order of St James, who was God's apostle (and who wrote a canonical epistle). He dilates upon early Christian hermits and recluses, saying that they were of the order of St James, for in his mind St James the apostle is identical with St James the hermit.

He then describes the contents of his work, saying the first part only shall treat of the outward rule, all the others of the inward.

The first part accordingly (pp. 15--48) is on religious service, and in it the women are advised what prayers they shall say and at what time of the day: 'Let everyone say her hours as she has written them,' and as a guide take what 'hours' are kept by 'our lay brethren.' The sick, the sorrowful, prisoners, and Christians who are among the heathen shall be called to mind. The tone which the author occasionally takes has the full personal ring of 13th century mysticism. (p. 35) 'After the kiss of peace in the mass, when the priest consecrates, forget there all the world, and there be entirely out of the body, there in glowing love embrace your beloved spouse (leofman) Christ, who is come down from heaven into the bower of your breast, and hold him fast till he have granted all that you wish.' Several prayers follow, one in Latin on the adoration of the cross, and several in English which are addressed to the sweet lady St Mary.

Outward observances being disposed of, the author then advises the women how to keep guard over the heart, 'wherein is order, religion and the life of the soul,' against the temptations of the five senses (pp. 48--117). The different senses and the dangers attending them are discussed, sometimes casually, sometimes in a systematic manner. In connection with Sight we get interesting details on the arrangement of the building in which the recluses dwelt. Its windows are hung with black cloth on which is a white cross. The black cloth is impervious to the wind and difficult to see through; the white of the cross is more transparent and emblematic of purity, by the help of which it becomes safe to look abroad. Looking abroad, however, is generally attended with danger. 'I write more   [p. 318]   particularly for others,' the author here remarks, 'nothing of the kind touches you, my dear sisters, for you have not the name, nor shall you have it by the grace of God, of staring recluses, whose profession is unrecognisable through their unseemly conduct, as is the case with some, alas!'

Speech too should be wisely controlled, talking out of church windows should be avoided, and conversation generally should be indulged in only through the 'house' window and the parlour window. 'Silence always at meals,' says the author, and quotes from Seneca and Solomon on the evil effects of idle prattling. Hearing, that is listening too readily, also has its dangers, for it leads to spreading untruths. 'She who moves her tongue in lying makes it a cradle to the devil's child, and rocketh it diligently as a nurse.' In passages which show a keen insight into human nature and which are dictated by a wise and kindly spirit, the author among other examples describes how anyone seeking the recluse's sympathy for bad ends would approach her in plaintive strains, deploring that he is drawn to her, and assuring her that he desires nothing but her forgiveness, and thus by engrossing her thoughts more and more, would perturb her mind by rousing her personal sympathy.

The sense of Smell also has its dangers; but in regard to the fifth sense, Feeling, there is most need, the author thinks, of comfort, 'for in it the pain is greatest, and the pleasure also if it so happen.' The sufferings of Christ are analysed and it is shown how he suffered in all his senses but especially in feeling.

The next part of the work (pp. 118--177) contains moral lessons and examples. The peevish recluse finds her counterpart in the pelican which kills her own young ones when they molest her. Like the bird, the recluse in anger kills her works, then repents and makes great moan. There are some fine passages on the effects of anger which is likened to a sorceress (uorschuppild) and transforms the recluse, Christ's spouse, into a she-wolf (wulvene). That women devotees often behaved very differently from what they ought is evident from these passages, for false recluses are likened unto foxes who live in holes and are thievish, ravenous and yelping, but 'the true recluses are indeed birds of heaven, that fly aloft and sit on the green boughs singing merrily; that is, they meditate, enraptured, upon the blessedness of heaven that never fadeth but is ever green, singing right merrily; that is in such meditation they rest in peace and have gladness of   [p. 319]   heart as those who sing.' In one passage, where the flight of birds is described, it says, 'the wings that bear the recluses upwards are good principles, which they must move unto good works as a bird that would fly moveth its wings.' From dumb animals wisdom and knowledge can be learnt, says the author, giving as an example the eagle, which deposits in his nest a precious stone called agate, which wards off harm, and thus Jesus Christ should be cherished to keep off evil. In another passage the author plays on the words ancre and anchor, saying that the ancre or recluse is anchored to the Church as the anchor to the ship, that storms may not overwhelm it. The reasons for solitary life are then enumerated under separate headings, and passages from the Old and the New Testament are freely quoted in illustration and corroboration of the statements made.

The fourth part of the book (pp. 178-298) dilates on temptation, in regard to which the writer holds that greater holiness brings increased difficulties. 'As the hill of holy and pious life is greater and higher, so the fiend's puffs which are the winds of temptation are stronger thereon and more frequent.' Patience and meekness are chiefly required to resist the troubles of sickness, and wisdom and spiritual strength must resist grief of heart, anger and wrath. Again the recluses for whom the book is written are assured that they have least need to be fortified against temptations and trials, sickness only excepted.

The imagery in which the author goes on to describe the seven chief sins is graphic and powerful. They are personified as the Lion of Pride, the Serpent of Envy, the Unicorn of Wrath, the Bear of Sloth, the Fox of Covetousness, the Swine of Gluttony, and the Scorpion of Lust, each with its offspring. Of the Scorpion's progeny we are told that 'it doth not become a modest mouth to name the name of some of them,' while the Scorpion itself is a kind of worm, that has a face somewhat like that of a woman, but its hinder parts are those of a serpent. It puts on a pleasant countenance and fawns upon you with its head but stings with its tail. Again, the sins are likened to seven bags (heggen), to whom men who serve in the devil's court are married. The description of these men as jugglers, jesters, ash-gatherers and devil's purveyors, gives interesting details on the characters in real life by which they were suggested. Of the comforting thoughts which the recluse is to dwell upon the following give a fine example.

  [p. 320]  

'The sixth comfort is that our Lord, when he suffereth us to be tempted, playeth with us as the mother with her young darling:she fleeth from him and hides herself, and lets him sit alone, look anxiously around calling Dame, dame! and weep awhile, and then she leapeth forth laughing with outspread arms and embraceth and kisseth him and wipeth his eyes. Just so our Lord leaveth us sometimes alone, and withdraweth his grace and comfort and support, so that we find no sweetness in any good we do, nor satisfaction of heart; and yet all the while our dear father loveth us none the less, but doeth it for the great love he hath for us.

In times of tribulation the recluse is directed to meditate on God and His works, on the Virgin and the saints, and the temptations they withstood, such as are related in an English book on St Margaret. Again and again the writer, who does not tire of this part of his theme, dwells on the various sins separately, and on the best way of meeting them.

The next part of the book (pp. 298--348) is devoted to an analysis of the use and the manner of confession, the theory and practice of which in the Church of Rome are ancient, but which the religious enthusiasm of the Middle Ages elaborated into a hard and fast system. That self-introspection and analysis are helpful in developing and strengthening conscientiousness no one will deny, but the habitual disclosure of one's thoughts and criticisms of self to another, though it may still afford support to some, has ceased to appear generally advisable. Granted that the practice in the past served a good purpose, the advice given in this book for recluses appears dictated by a strong sense of fitness and moderation. The author considers confession powerful in three directions: it 'confoundeth the devil;' it gives us back all the good we have lost, and it 'maketh us children of God.' Under these headings there is a long and systematic elaboration of the sixteen ways in which confession should be made, viz, it should be accusatory, bitter, complete, candid, and it should be made often, and speedily, humbly and hopefully, etc. Stories out of the Bible and parables of a later age are introduced in corroboration of each injunction. Under the heading of candid confession the words to be used in self-accusation are interesting, because it is obvious that a higher moral standard is claimed from women than from men. The person who has committed sin is to address the father confessor (schrift feder) in these words: 'I am a woman, and ought by right to have been more modest than to speak as I have spoken, or   [p. 321]   to do as I have done; and therefore my sin is greater than if a man had done it, for it became me worse.' From the Gospels and the Fathers the writer adduces strings of wise sayings which bear on the points he would impress upon his readers. This fifth part of the book, he says, belongs to all men alike, not to recluses in particular, and he ends by admonishing the sisters in this way: 'Take to your profit this short and concluding summary of all mentioned and known sins, as of pride, ambition, presumption, envy, wrath, sloth, carelessness, idle words, immoral thoughts, any idle hearing, any false joy or heavy mourning, hypocrisy, the taking too much or too little meat or drink, grumbling, being of morose countenance, breaking silence, sitting too long at the parlour window, saying hours badly or without attention of heart or at a wrong time, any false word or oath, play, scornful laughter, wasting crumbs, or spilling ale or letting things grow mouldy or rusty or rotten; leaving clothes not sewed, wet with rain, or unwashed; breaking a cup or a dish, or carelessly looking after any thing which we own and should take care of; or cutting or damaging through heedlessness.' These in the writer's eyes are the likely sins among the recluses whom he addresses and against which he warns them to be on their guard. If they have committed them they must forthwith confess, but trivial faults should be wiped away by prayers said before the altar the moment the recluse is conscious of them.

Passing from the subject of Confession to that of Penance (pp. 348--383) the author as he says borrows much from the Sentences of Bernard, the general drift of which is in favour of self-discipline and implies mortification of the flesh. In this context comes the reference to Ailred's (Seint Aldret's) advice to his sister, who also was directed to give the body pain by fasting, watching, and discipline, by having coarse garments and a hard bed, and by bearing evil and working hard. But here again the recluses addressed are told that in the eyes of their adviser they incline rather to over-much self-denial than to over-much self-indulgence.

The seventh part of the book (pp. 384--410) treats of the pure heart or of love and is attractive in many ways. The sentiments developed and the pictures described give one the highest opinion of the feelings of which the age was capable, as reflected in this writer's innermost being. The beautiful parable where Christ woos the soul in guise of a king is well worth repeating,   [p. 322]   for there we see the courtly attitude, which the age of romance had developed in real life, receiving a spiritual adaptation.

'There was a lady who was besieged by her foes within an earthly castle, and her land was all destroyed and herself quite poor. The love of a powerful king was however fixed upon her with such boundless affection that to solicit her love he sent his messengers one after the other, and often many together, and sent her trinkets both many and fair, and supplies of victuals and help of his high retinue to hold her castle. She received them all as a careless creature with so hard a heart that he could never get nearer to her love. What would'st thou more? He came himself at last and showed her his fair face, since he was of all men the fairest to behold, and spoke so sweetly and with such gentle words that they might have raised the dead from death to life. And he wrought many wonders, and did many wondrous deeds before her eyes, and showed her his power and told her of his kingdom, and offered to make her queen of all that he owned. But all availed him nought. Was not this surprising mockery? For she was not worthy to have been his servant. But owing to his goodness love so mastered him that he said at last: "Lady, thou art attacked, and thine enemies are so strong that thou canst not without my help escape their hands that thou mayest not be put to a shameful death. I am prompted by love of thee to undertake this fight, and rid thee of those that seek thy death. I know well that I shall receive a mortal wound, but I will do it gladly to win thy heart. Now I beseech thee for the love I bear thee that thou love me at least after my death, since thou would'st not in my lifetime." Thus did the king. He freed her of her enemies and was himself wounded and slain in the end. Through a miracle he arose from death to life. Would not that same lady be of an evil kind if she did not love him above all things after this?'

'The king is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who in this wise wooed our Soul which the devils had beset. And He as a noble wooer, after many messengers and many good deeds, came to prove His love and showed through knighthood that He was worthy of love, as some time knights were wont to do. He entered in a tournament, and as a bold knight had His shield pierced everywhere in the fight for His lady's love.'

The likeness between the shield and Christ's body is further dwelt upon. The image of His crucified form hangs suspended   [p. 323]   in church, as 'after the death of a valiant knight, men hang up his shield high in church to his memory.'

There is more on the theme of love that is very fine. The ideas generated by knighthood are obviously present to the mind of the writer.

Interesting also is his classification of the different kinds of love. The love of good friends (gode iueren) is first mentioned, but higher than that is the love between man and woman, and even higher still that between mother and child, for the mother to cure her child of disease is ready to make a bath of her blood for it. Higher again is the love of the body to the soul, but the love which Christ bears to His dear spouse, the soul, surpasses them all.

'Thy love,' says our Lord, 'is either to be freely given or it is to be sold, or it is to be stolen and to be taken with force. If it is to be given, where could'st thou bestow it better than on me? Am I not of all the fairest? Am I not the richest king? Am I not of noblest birth? Am I not in wealth the wisest? Am I not the most courteous? Am I not the most liberal of men? For so it is said of a liberal man that he can withhold nothing; that his hands are perforated as mine are. Am I not of all the sweetest and most gentle? Thus in me all reasons thou may'st find for bestowing thy love, if thou lovest chaste purity; for no one can love me save she hold by that.--But if thy love is not to be given but is to be sold, say at what price; either for other love or for something else? Love is well sold for love, and so love should be sold and for nought else. If thy love is thus to be sold, I have bought it with love surpassing all other. For of the four kinds of love, I have shown thee the best of them all. And if thou sayest that thou wilt not let it go cheaply and askest for more, name what it shall be. Set a price on thy love. Thou canst not name so much but I will give thee for thy love much more. Wouldest thou have castles and kingdoms? Wouldest thou govern the world? I am purposed to do better; I am purposed to make thee withal queen of heaven. Thou shalt be sevenfold brighter than the sun; no evil shall harm thee, no creature shall vex thee, no joy shall be wanting to thee; thy will shall be done in heaven and on earth; yea, even in hell.'

And in a further development of this idea all imaginable good, Croesus wealth, Absalom's beauty, Asahel's swiftness, Samson's strength, are held out as a reward to the soul who responds to   [p. 324]   the wooing of Christ and gives herself entirely into His keeping. 'This love,' says the author in conclusion, 'is the rule which governs the heart.'

The last part of the book (pp. 410--431) appears to be appended as an after-thought, as it treats once more of domestic matters. 'I said before at the beginning,' says the author, 'that ye ought not, like unwise people, to promise to keep any of the outward rules. I say the same still, nor do I write them save for you alone. I say this in order that recluses may not say that I by my authority make new rules for them. Nor do I command that they shall hold them, and you may change them whenever you will for better ones. Of things that have been in use before it matters little.' Practical directions follow which throw a further light on the position and conduct of the recluse, and which in many particulars are curiously like the injunctions which form the opening part of the letter of Ailred. The recluses shall partake of Communion on fifteen days of the year; they shall eat twice a day between Easter and Roodmass (September 14), during the other half year they shall fast save on Sundays; and they shall not eat flesh or lard except in sickness. 'There are recluses,' says the writer, 'who have meals with their friends outside. That is too much friendship; for all orders it is unsuitable, but chiefly for the order of recluses who are dead to the world.' A recluse shall not be liberal of other men's alms, for housewifery is Martha's part and not hers. 'Martha's office is to feed and clothe poor men as the mistress of a house; Mary ought not to intermeddle in it, and if any one blame her, God Himself the supreme defends her for it, as holy writ bears witness. On the other hand a recluse ought only to take sparingly that which is necessary for her. Whereof, then, may she make herself liberal? She must live upon alms as frugally as ever she can, and not gather that she may give it away afterwards. She is not a housewife but a Church ancre. If she can spare any fragments to the poor, let her send them quietly out of her dwelling. Sin is oft concealed under the semblance of goodness. And how shall those rich anchoresses who are tillers of the ground, or have fixed rents, do their alms privately to poor neighbours? Desire not to have the reputation of bountiful anchoresses, nor, in order to give much, be too eager to possess more. Greediness is at the root of bitterness: all the boughs that spring from it are bitter. To beg in order to give away is not the part of a recluse. From the courtesy of a recluse   [p. 325]   and from her liberality, sin and shame have often come in the end.

This idea, that the recluse shall follow the example of Mary and not that of Martha, occurs also in Ailred's letter, though it is more briefly stated (c. 41 ff).

'You shall possess no beast, my dear sisters,' says the author of the Ancren Riwle, 'except only a cat. A recluse who has cattle appears as Martha was.' She thinks of the fodder, of the herdsman, thoughts which bring with them traffic. 'A recluse who is a buyer and seller (cheapild) selleth her soul to the chapman of hell.' Ailred similarly warned his 'sister' against keeping flocks (c. 5 ff.). But the author of the Riwle allows the recluse to keep a cow if need be. 'Do not take charge,' he says, 'of other men's things in your house, nor of their property, nor of their clothes, neither receive under your care the church vestments nor the chalice, unless compelled thereto, for oftentimes much harm has come from such caretaking.' The clothes the sisters wear shall be warm and simple, 'be they white, be they black; only see that they be plain and warm and well-made.' He warns them against severe discipline by the use of hair-cloth and hedgehog-skins, and against scourging with a leathern thong. He desires them to have all needful clothing, but forbids wearing rings, brooches, ornamented girdles and gloves. The recluse shall 'make no purses to gain friends therewith, nor blodbendes[16*] of silk; but shape and sew and mend church vestments, and poor people's clothes.' The point Ailred in his rule strongly insisted upon, the command that the recluse shall not keep a school as some recluses do, is reiterated by the author of the Ancren Riwle, for the excitement it brings and the personal affection it creates between teacher and pupil are felt to be fraught with danger. If there be a girl who needs to be taught, the recluse shall cause her to be instructed by her servant, for she shall keep two servants, the one to stay at home, the other to go abroad, 'whose garments shall be of such shape and their attire such that their calling be obvious. The recluse shall read the concluding part of this book to her women once a week, but she herself is to read in it daily if she have leisure.

Such in brief outline is the Ancren Riwle, a book which above all others gives an insight into the religious life as appre   [p. 326]   hended in the 13th century in England; a book which, written for women--the number of whom can never have been great, contains much that remains wise and instructive to this day, owing to its wide outlook and liberal spirit. It gives the very highest opinion of the author's gentleness and refinement, and of the exalted sentiments of the women he was addressing.

This is not the place to dwell on the numerous spiritual love-songs which were written in English at this period under the influence of mystic tendencies; but it must be pointed out that those which breathe the love of a woman's soul to Christ were presumably written in the interest of nuns. Among them is one in prose, entitled the 'Wooing of Our Lord,'[17*] written by its author for his 'sister,' which has a certain likeness to the 'Ancren Riwle,' and on this ground has been ascribed to the same author. Probably it is a paraphrase of part of it, but it has none of the harmonious flow of the treatise itself, and its tone is so much more emotional, that it looks like the production of a later age.

The idea of the exaltation of virginity at this period further led to the re-writing in English of the legends of women-saints whose stories turn on the might of virginity in conflict with the evil powers of this world. Among them the legends of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Cecilia, are extant in a manuscript of about the year 1230. Their authorship is unknown, but they were evidently written in the first place for religious women.

In conclusion a few words must be said on a treatise written about the same time called 'Holy Maidenhood' (Hali Meidenhad), the interest of which lies in the fact that while advocating the same cause as the writings discussed above, it is quite untouched by their spirit.[18*] Here also the advantages of the love of Christ over love for earthly things are enlarged on, and the superiority of the 'free' maiden over her who has embraced family life is upheld. But this is done in a broad familiar strain and with repeated fierce attacks on marriage.

The author ornaments his treatise with Biblical quotations, but he possesses none of the courtly grace and elegance of diction of Thomas de Hales and the author of the Ancren Riwle. In form the treatise answers to its drift, for it is written in an alliterative homely style which gives it a peculiar interest from the philological   [p. 327]   point of view. Looked at from the religious standpoint it yields a curious example of what the tone and temper would be of one who, grasping the moral drift of the age, remained a stranger to its tenderer strains. At the same time its author is not without considerable insight into the realities of life and has a sense of humour usually absent in mystic writings. The following passage which dwells on some of the annoyances of married life give a good example of this (p. 37).

'And how I ask, though it may seem odious, how does the wife stand who when she comes in hears her child scream, sees the cat at the fitch, and the hound at the hide? Her cake is burning on the stone hearth, her calf is sucking up the milk, the earthen pot is overflowing into the fire and the churl is scolding. Though it be an odious tale, it ought, maiden, to deter thee more strongly from marriage, for it does not seem easy to her who has tried it. Thou, happy maiden, who hast fully removed thyself out of that servitude as a free daughter of God and as His Son's spouse, needest not suffer anything of the kind. Therefore, happy maiden, forsake all such sorrow for the reward reserved to thee as thou oughtest to do without any reward. Now I have kept my promise, that I would show that to be glozed over with falsehood, which some may say and think of as true: the happiness and sweetness which the wedded have. For it fares not as those think who look at it from the outside; it happens far otherwise with the poor and the rich, with those who loathe and those who love each other, but the vexation in every case exceeds the joy, and the loss altogether surpasses the gain.'

The writer then recommends Christ as a spouse and gives a graphic description of pride, which he considers a power equal to that of the devil. He has such a lively horror of pride and thinks its effects so baneful that, should the maidenhood he has been extolling be touched by it, its prerogative, he says, forthwith breaks down. 'A maid as regards the grace of maidenhood surpasses the widowed and the wedded, but a mild wife or meek widow is better than a proud maiden,'--a distinction which is curious and I believe stands alone at this early period. The saints Catharine, Margaret, Agnes, Juliana and Cecilia are quoted as maidens of irreproachable meekness.

The treatise 'Hali Meidenhad' exists in one copy only, and there is no evidence as to how much it was read. Its obvious purpose is to encourage girls to become nuns, and this not so   [p. 328]   much on account of the beauties of convent life, as because of the troubles in worldly life they would escape by doing so.


[1*] Haureau, Histoire de la philosophie scholoastique,1850, vol. I, pp. 319ff.

[2*] Dictionary of National Biography, article 'Hales, Thomas.'

[3*] 'A luve ron, edit. Morris, Old English Miscellany, p. 93, for the Early EngI. Text Soc. 1872.

[4*] Edit. Morton for the Camden Soc. 1853.

[5*] 'Die angelsachsischen Prosabearbeitungen der Benedictinerregel,' edit. Schroer, 1885 (in Grein, Bibliothek der angels. Prosa, vol. 2), p. 9.

[6*] Schroer, Winteney Version der Regula St Benedicti, 1888, p. 13.

[7*] 'De vita eremetica (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl., vol. 32, by an oversight it is included among the works of St Augustine), p. 145.

[8*] Anselm, Opera (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl., vol. 158), 'Meditationes (nr 15--17), pp. 786 ff.

[9*] Edit. Koelbing, Englische Studien, vol. 7, p. 304.

[10*] Scenes and characters of the Middle Ages, 1872, pp. 93--151.

[11*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 1, p. 693.

[12*] Brink, B. ten, Early English Literature, trans. Kennedy, 1883, p. 205.

[13*] First advanced by Morton, Ancren Riwle, Introd. pp. xii--xv; it is supported neither by tradition nor by documentary evidence.

[14*] Dalgairns, Introd. to Hylton, Scale of Perfection, 1870, thinks it possible that the author was a Dominican friar.

[15*] Comp. throughout Ancren Riwle, edit. Morton for the Camden Soc. 1853.

[16*] That is bands or ligatures to be used after the letting of blood.

[17*] Old English Homilies,First Series, edit. Morris, 1867, p. 268.

[18*] Hali Meidenhad,edit. Cockayne, for the Early English Text Soc. 1866.

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