Mary Agnes Edsall

title.none: Wada, ed., Ancrene Wisse (Mary Agnes Edsall)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.019 04.12.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Agnes Edsall , Bowdoin College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Wada, Yoko, ed. A Companion to Ancrene Wisse. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. xii, 258. $110.00 0-85991-762-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.19

Wada, Yoko, ed. A Companion to Ancrene Wisse. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. xii, 258. $110.00 0-85991-762-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary Agnes Edsall
Bowdoin College

Ancrene Wisse is a landmark text for studies of the history of the English language, for the study of medieval religion, and for medieval gender studies. Yet it is a text upon which relatively few book-length studies have been published; furthermore, to my knowledge, A Companion to Ancrene Wisse is the first collection of essays to have been devoted to it. This and the quality of many of the essays it contains make it a timely and important contribution to the field of anchoritic studies.

Yoko Wada's opening essay, enigmatically entitled "What Is Ancrene Wisse?" offers overviews of the contents of Ancrene Wisse, the evidence for locating its place of composition in the West Midlands, the still vexing problem of the date of composition, and the questions of authorship and audience. Wada does yeoman's service in sketching the various theses proposed, correcting them as needed, and showing where questions remain to be answered. Also welcome is a reproduction of Eric J. Dobson's 1962 stemma and a summary of his reasoning for it that has been updated to include his later findings even if (as Wada points out) we are soon to have a new variorum edition with a stemma including all texts. It is, however, to be regretted that the only full list of manuscripts occurs in a footnote and that the list of sigla and manuscripts accompanying the stemma does not indicate the French and Latin versions (although this can be gleaned from the accompanying text).

The second essay in the collection, "The Genre of Ancrene Wisse," is yet another of Bella Millett's contributions to the field of anchoritic studies that clarify hitherto murky areas of research and offer new perspectives for future work.[[1]] Here, Millett takes on the question of how Ancrene Wisse, which identifies itself as a rule, relates to the other rules for religious life drawn upon by the author. In the conclusion, she emphasizes the distinction between the Outer Rule and the Inner Rule, making the welcome suggestion that the Inner Rule might be more usefully studied in the context of other genres of religious writing (42).

Ann Savage provides a similarly important revision of perspective in "The Communal Authorship of Ancrene Wisse." Savage argues that the author modelled the rule on their [the anchoresses'] own practice (52). In other words, rather than being written for these women, it was written both about and with them in the sense that it was the authors' knowledge of their lives that helped shape the text (46; original emphasis). This piece is an important corrective to views of Ancrene Wisse (as well as of other devotional texts) that fail to take into account how devotional texts for women, although certainly prescriptive, are shaped in response to the particular needs and existing practices of their readerships.

The following two essays in the volume take a philological turn. Richard Dance's essay, "The AB Language: the Recluse, the Gossip, and the Language Historian," gives a useful overview of how the dialects in two manuscripts came to be privileged. [The manuscripts are Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 402 (A), containing Ancrene Wisse, and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34 (B), also containing works from the Katherine Group.] Dance carefully maintains the importance of AB while showing how views on it have shifted, and sketching the phonological and lexicographical evidence for current understandings of this dialect. His careful references to fuller treatments of topics that he raises make this essay an invaluable initiation into discussions of the language of Ancrene Wisse. [Those new to Ancrene Wisse should, however, be alerted to one error in Note 3, where earen is translated as "cats" rather than as "ears."]

In "The Anglo-French Lexis of Ancrene Wisse: A Re-evaluation," D.A. Trotter focuses on code-switching, loan-words, and hybrid word forms in the text. Trotter fairly unsurprisingly posits that the author (if not the entire scribal class to which Trotter assigns him) was bilingual (95, 98). While this article successfully reinforces the indisputable importance of Ancrene Wisse for the study of the history of English, it could have situated its argument in the context of the multi-lingualism of the West Midlands in this period to good effect; and it is unfortunate (especially given Ann Savage's and Elizabeth Robertson's contributions to this collection) that no gesture is made towards what Trotter's findings suggest about the multilinguality of the non-scribal audience of the text.

A.S.G. Edwards' "The Middle English Manuscripts and Early Readers of Ancrene Wisse" is, in essence, a description of the manuscripts, of the types of extracts made and where they circulated, and of the types of annotations made by sixteenth-century clerical and antiquarian owners. One detail, however, links back to the minor problems with the stemma as presented by Wada. Edwards chooses the siglum E for the fragment in Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. th. c.70, f. 61r-v. Wada, meanwhile, chose O. It seems to me that a simple conferral with Millett and Dance (editors of the forthcoming variorum edition and contributors to this volume) could have brought agreement on the siglum H that they propose in their edition and might have eliminated some potential confusion.[[2]]

In "Savoring Scientia: the Medieval Anchoress Reads Ancrene Wisse" Elizabeth Robertson offers a nuanced meditation on the type of devotional reading demanded by Ancrene Wisse and the texts of the Katherine Group. Attentive to what the material book used by anchoresses may have been like, from its size, weight, and binding to the layout of the page and the divisions of the text, Robertson carefully situates reading within the other ascetic and liturgical activities of the anchorhold, stressing how it both regulated and stimulated the senses as it engaged the body and mind. Especially fruitful is her discussion of reading as a form of dying. This is an essay that repays re-reading and that has implications for medieval reading practices that go far beyond the walls of the anchorhold.

Catherine Innes-Parker's article, "The Legacy of Ancrene Wisse : Translations, Adaptations, Influences and Audience, with Special Attention to Women Readers," is likely to become essential reading for students and scholars interested in women's literacy and women's sense of reading communities in the later Middle Ages, not to mention the contribution that it makes to our understanding of how devotional texts circulated and influenced each other. This article coherently structures a wealth of information both on the inscribed and actual audiences of Ancrene Wisse and on how it was adapted and excerpted in other devotional treatises. Most valuable, however, is how Innes-Parker lays out the patterns of ownership and transmission of these texts among women and within groups of women.

"The Recluse and its Readers: Some Observations on a Lollard Interpolated Version of Ancrene Wisse," by Christina Von Nolken, draws attention to a seldom-discussed late-fourteenth-century redaction of Ancrene Wisse. Von Nolken argues, suggestively, that reading the text through a Wycliffite lens (191) reveals coherence in a text that can otherwise defy understanding.

Nicholas Watson's essay "Ancrene Wisse, Religious Reform and the Late Middle Ages," focuses on the text's importance to vernacular writers and readers in the period c. 1370-1450, when most of the surviving Middle English religious prose was written (197). With his usual perspicuity, Watson demonstrates that Ancrene Wisse's vernacular re-articulation of monastic ascetic ideals for extra- monastic religious made it a particularly fruitful text for later reformist authors who sought to translate its spiritual ambition into terms accessible to the devout laity (222). This is yet another of the pieces in this collection that should become an important reference point for scholars of late-medieval devotional literature in England.

The final essay in the volume, "Ancrene Wisse and the Identities of Mary Salome," by Roger Dahood, situates the reference to Mary Salome in Ancrene Wisse within the larger patristic and early scholastic debates about the authenticity, let alone the identity, of a third woman at the tomb of Jesus.

Aside from any minor problem mentioned above and the annoyance of an occasional typographical error, the only qualifications to my praise of A Companion to Ancrene Wisse arise from its title. The book is labeled as a companion, suggesting it contains a series of essays that introduce the text, convey necessary background, and survey the state of research in the field. This impression is reinforced when editor Yoko Wada writes in her Preface that the aim of this Companion is to introduce Ancrene Wisse to those who are interested in Middle English language and literature and to provide them with various approaches to the work. The collection certainly includes various approaches. Yet it does not include some that might be expected in an introductory companion to a text. For example, given the title, one might have expected an essay on English anchoritism and at least one on the texts spirituality.

Furthermore, are these essays, in fact, introductory? The individual contributions to this collection tend to reinforce my only real reservation. This can be summed up as follows: the essays offer much- needed overviews of important areas of research on Ancrene Wisse and provide new insights as well as indications for further inquiry; yet many of them presuppose a level of familiarity with Ancrene Wisse, its literature, and medieval studies that would only make this volume introductory for an upper-level graduate student or a medievalist. Nevertheless, the fact that the title is slightly misleading scarcely detracts from the overall quality of this collection. The fact is that many of these essays will be important influences on Ancrene Wisse research for some time to come.


[[1]] In particular, Bella Millett, "The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions," Medium Aevum 61 (1992), 206-228; and "Ancrene Wisse and the Book of Hours," in Writing Religious Women, ed. Denis Renevey and Christiana Whitehead (Cardiff, 2000), 21-41.

[[2]] See Millett and Dance's web edition of the Preface to Ancrene Wisse at .