The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English

§ 9. Ancren Riwle

Besides these, there are certain works in which definite instruction as to the secluded life is given for the guidance of those who had already entered upon that career. Early in the thirteenth century the Latin Rule of St. Benet (516) was adapted for the nuns of Winteney. The version is clearly based on some masculine text, for occasional masculine forms are inadvertently retained in the feminine version. A chapter is also added “concerning the priests admitted to a convent” (LXII). The aim of the Ancren Riwle (anchoresses’ rule) is of a similar kind; but this is a work which, owing to its greater originality, its personal charm and its complete sympathy with all that was good in contemporary literature, stands apart by itself as the greatest prose work of the time, and as one of the most interesting of the whole Middle English period. It may, in the first place, be assumed that the English version is the original one, though French and Latin forms are found, and that it appeared in the south of England in the first quarter of the century. The question of authorship is still unsolved. Richard Poore, bishop of Salisbury (1217–29) and founder of its cathedral, is credited with it, and Tarrent in Dorsetshire is regarded as the site of the anchorhold. The aim of the work is to provide ghostly counsel for three anchoresses, i.e religious women, who, after a period of training within a nunnery, dedicated themselves to a secluded life outside. These recluses often lived in a slight dwelling attached to a church; and such may have been the conditions of these “three pious sisters.” The work incidentally throws much light upon the life within an anchorhold, upon the duties of the inmates, the out-sisters and maids, and their sundry difficulties, whether of a business, domestic, or spiritual kind. The admonition imparted was not without precedent. As early as 709 Aldhelm, in his De Laudibus Virginitatis, had depicted the glories of the celibate life, and about 1131–61 a letter (De vita eremitica) was written by Ailred of Rievaulx to his sister, dealing with similar matters; since this latter work is quoted in the Ancren Riwle, while the general arrangement of both is the same, there can be little doubt of a certain degree of indebtedness. The treatise opens with a preface, which summarises the contents; sections I and VIII refer to external matters, to religious ceremonies and domestic affairs; sections II-VII to the inward life. The work has much that is medieval commonplace, an abundance of welldigested learning, borrowings from Anselm and Augustine, Bernard and Gregory, and illustrations which reveal a considerable acquaintance with animal and plant lore. The author also betrays those learned tendencies which gloried in subtle distinctions. There is the ancient delight in allegorical teaching: Biblical names are made to reveal hidden truths: a play upon words can suggest a precept. And, alongside of all this, which is severely pedantic, there is much that is quaint and picturesque. Traces are not wanting of a vein of mysticism. Courtly motives occasionally receive a spiritual adaptation, and here and there are touches of those romantic conceptions which were elsewhere engaged in softening the severity of religious verse. The writer, then, is possessed of the learning of the age, its methods of teaching, its mystical and romantic tendencies. And yet these facts are far from altogether explaining the charm of the work, its power of appeal to modern readers. The charm lies rather in the writer’s individuality, in his gentle refinement and lovable nature. The keynote of the whole work seems to be struck in that part of the preface where the sisters, belonging as they did to no order of nuns, are instructed to claim for themselves the order of St. James. The work is animated by the “pure religion and undefiled” of that apostle, and is instinct with lofty morality and infinite tenderness. The writer’s instructions as to ceremonies and observances are broad-minded and reasonable; his remarks on love reveal the sweetness and light which dwelt in his soul. The prose style from the historical standpoint is of very great merit. The ancient fetters are not quite discarded; there is still constraint and a want of suppleness; but there are also signs that the limping gait is acquiring freedom. The style, moreover, is earnest, fresh and touched with the charm of the sentiment it clothes. Above all it is naïve: the writer occasionally reaches the heart, while provoking a smile.