Teaching Anchoritic Texts: The Shock of the Old

Teaching Anchoritic Texts: The Shock of the Old

By Alexandra Barratt

Approaching medieval English anchoritic and mystical texts, edited by Dee Dyas, Valerie Edden and Roger Ellis (D.S. Brewer, 2005)

Introduction: Ancrene Wisse and its associated treatises Hali Meiðhad, Sawles Ward, and the three saints’ lives of Margaret, Katherine and Juliana, have long been hallowed texts in any degree that includes Early Middle English literature. But in other environments they are virtually unknown and, like most medieval texts, have never achieved ‘canonical’ status. We medievalists understandably regard them as extremely important. Not only are they rare and therefore precious examples of Early Middle English prose; they also offer a fascinating insight into the anchoritic life as theorised and presumably practised in thirteenth- century England. Unfortunately, modern students lack easy access to these texts because the language in which they are written is in some ways closer to Anglo-Saxon than to Chaucer’s Middle English. Even more so, the ideologies they embrace – of deliberate solitariness rather than sociability, of contemplation rather than social action, of virginity rather than sexual activity and ‘family values’ – are frequently alien to many contemporary students, even if they happen to be practising Christians.

The fascinations these texts undoubtedly hold for professional medievalists generally bear little relation to features that might attract students. The philologists love to study the AB language but, always few in number, they are a dwindling band living mainly in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Those of a more literary and/or historical bent are preoccupied with such questions as the original language of composition, the complex relationships between the various manuscripts, the mouvance of the text (or texts) and their changing audiences, the possible religious affiliations of the author, and the sources that he used. But our students take little interest in textual matters – the milk is ready packaged, so why worry about the cow? – and would find it as hard to know a Dominican friar from an Augustinian canon as they do to distinguish monks from parish priests when studying Chaucer’s General Prologue.

We cannot ignore the fact that there are big problems in teaching these texts, and our students’ linguistic and theological deficiencies are by no means the worst of them. Even more alienating than the language is the extraordinary content. Why, for instance, are the anchoresses compared to pelicans and ‘night ravens in the wilderness’? In addition, for all the talk of his ‘moderation’, the author is hardly likely to find a sympathetic hearing among modern students. Numerous passages from Ancrene Wisse seem to have no other purpose than to confirm their worst suspicions about the Middle Ages. What, for instance, are they to make of this?

. . . looking at her own white hands does harm to many anchoresses, who have them so fair because they are idle. They should be scraping the earth up every day out of the pit they must rot in! God knows this pit does much good to many an anchoress . . . She who always has her death as though before her eyes remembers that pit . . . she will not lightly follow the flesh’s pleasure after the will’s desire.

Misogynistic; anti-sex; obsessed with death, corruption and hell: why invest time and effort in pursuing such texts any further?

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