09.05.08, Gunn, Ancrene Wisse

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Christine M. Rose

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.008


Gunn, Cate. Ancrene Wisse: From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. Pp. vii, 243. ISBN: 978-0-7083-2034-1.

Reviewed by:
Christine M. Rose
Portland State University

In her study of the historical, theological and rhetorical contexts of the Ancrene Wisse, Cate Gunn maintains that it is crucial to understand this early 13th century English work as an influential spiritual document. To counter those who might consider this work--in a difficult Early Middle English dialect, originating from the West Midlands, yet with many versions and audiences--a spiritual text only obliquely connected to the major religious strains of its time and later, Gunn traces its status as "the product of profound social and religious movement" reflected in the doctrine and rhetoric of its various manuscript versions (7). Using as her main reference the Corpus Christi text of the Ancrene Wisse, while acknowledging the work as "evolving and variable" over time (2), Gunn underscores that, like the anchoresses themselves who exist in the interstice between the lay and cloistered religious domains, the Ancrene Wisse (hereafter AW) partakes of a liminal nature, and in this lies its extraordinariness. The work hovers at the intersection between interior faith and outward devotional practices, between audiences of the consecrated anchoresses and the devout laity, and between genres. Indeed, this rule for young anchoresses codified by a male clerical mentor comprises both a work of spiritual guidance of a pastoral nature and an encouragement of individuals towards, "more personal expressions of religious experience" (176). Its spirituality, notes Gunn, is "both affective and incarnational" (11). The AW author was consciously writing in a tradition of making Church doctrines more accessible to the lay audience (10). And, as the history of its transmission evinces, the text remained influential for over 200 years: "its dynamism and variability kept it alive and relevant" (12).

Her account of the genesis of the spiritual and devotional aspects of the work provides an admirable guide to understanding the importance of the AW not only as a cultural marker and potent incitement to living the life of perfection outside of a religious order, but also as an innovative and transitional document in the history of spiritual writing. We are the richer for her careful re-examination of its roots in the eucharistic theology promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), in sermons, and in the Latin pastoralia, those guidebooks for parish clergy on the instruction of their flocks. Gunn urges us to read the work in its contemporary context of post-Fourth Lateran "religious change and linguistic fluidity" (7). She traces the contours of AW's milieu, beginning in Part I with the 4th Lateran Council, which established both the authority and alterity of the clergy as the central power of the Church and defined heresy. Gunn notes that this period saw the growth of a wealthy bourgeois laity with leisure and means to read for pleasure and edification, and it was as well the era of the reform of the monastic orders. The edicts of the Council advanced the image of spiritual teaching as bread that must be broken and fed to the faithful, and promoted the pastoral care of the laity. Increased Eucharistic devotion and the emergence of beguines and anchoresses as female religious paths are part of the atmosphere of "incarnational spirituality" (the imitation of Christ in one's own life) of the period that, as Gunn notes, lies at the heart of the AW. She show how AW compares to some sermon texts of Jacques de Vitry (and others) aimed at spiritual guidance and practical advice for beguines. Because AW's original readers were lay (the sisters for whom it was compiled, while vowed anchoresses, were not likely to have been nuns at some earlier point), its English language and its spirituality were suited to a lay readership and poised "just at the cusp between traditional monastic ideas and images, and their adaptation for late medieval popular devotion" (56). AW's standing as one of the earliest prose religious texts in Middle English reinforces its situation as part of the history of lay piety as well as being important evidence of a new brand of devotional reading that resembled a traditional monastic tract, but was not confined to monasteries (61, 70). Gunn challenges the view that the spirituality of AW has a particularly feminine cast. Rather, citing Barbara Newman's notion of the religious ideal in some monastic instructional texts that transcends gender, Gunn emphasizes the inclusiveness of AW's spirituality (9).

In Part II, Gunn continues from the historical-religious milieu of AW to discussing its connection to the Latin pastoralia, sermon rhetoric, and the pastoral literature on sins that gradually begins to appear in the 13th c. in the vernacular. She traces the roots of AW in Latin works of instruction for clerics, but increasingly in the 13th century such pastoral texts become associated with vernacular instruction of the laity. Part III explores the rhetorical structure of the AW, first in the context of scholastic exegesis, contending that its author intended "to democratize a spirituality that had been the province of monasticism" (139). His use of orderly divisions, as well as exempla as a pastoral rhetorical device, novel in the late 12th and early 13th century, shows him to be conscious of contemporary rhetorical theory and innovative in its use. He composes a clear practical roadmap to perfection "accessible to any devout, literate person wanting to follow a religious life--whether enclosed in a cell or out in the world" (158). The anchoritic goal--the "incarnational embrace" the ecstatic union with Christ--proves less abstract than contemplation, more affective, and thus Gunn finds the AW author writing not about theology and contemplation, but about "devotions and penances that constituted the contemplative life," the conditions for contemplation (165-6). The rejection of the sensual world encouraged by the author can thus be practiced by the devout lay or religious person, male or female, in daily life, in the pursuit of a life of perfection.

This volume provides a fine introduction to AW, anchoresses in general, and to the 13th century spiritual climate for the laity and quasi-religious women that engendered this text, a phenomenon partaking of both monastic and lay piety. Gunn's analysis of the rhetoric of the text illuminates its pastoral-sermon origins, yet emphasizes its divergence from any former pattern. She considers some accepted critical notions about the text and modifies or expands upon them. Her most obvious revision--that of reading AW as a work of "vernacular spirituality"--qualifies Nicholas Watson's notable category of "vernacular theology." Gunn argues that AW and works like it are not expressly concerned with the theory of theology, but with "its practical application in devotional practices and daily life." Thus, such pious guidance of a pastoral nature involves "more personal expressions of religious experience" and involve faith and devotional practices rather than theological tenets (176).

In a book so obviously for scholars and advanced students, not having the AW quotations in Middle English seems injudicious, despite the inclusion of the original language in the endnotes. Some other materials, such as footnote 12, p. 141, deserve to be in the body of the text and not the notes. A few repetitious sections mar the flow of this generally well-crafted volume, as well as a few typos (p. 8, and "bread" instead of "body" on 65). The notes are helpful and the extensive references current, not only displaying the major players in the field on AW, but also providing a daunting and interesting array of primary sources for those interested in medieval spiritual writings in general. There is much to consider about the significance of AW in this volume. This thoughtful and learned study may engage even those who feel they are well acquainted with the work, for while Gunn rehearses much of the scholarship on AW, she adds substantial depth about its connections to its literary/religious moment. The book contains a persuasive case for the AW's innovative design and spirituality stemming from the atmosphere of reform in early 13th century England, and Gunn has validated in many ways the weightiness of the cultural work performed by this captivating text of vernacular spirituality.

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Author Biography

Christine M. Rose

Portland State University