Ancrene Wisse: a Medieval Guide for Anchoresses

Ancrene Wisse (or Ancrene Riwle) is a thirteenth-century English guide for anchoresses composed by an Augustinian canon for three anchorite sisters. As an instructional or didactic work, the author of the Ancrene Wisse was influenced by the standard sources that influenced Aelred of Rievaulx's own guide a century earlier: biblical sources (especially the Psalms and New Testament), Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, Anselm, Bernard, and the Rule of St. Benedict.

The similar structure and content of the Ancrene Wisse to Aelred's work suggests the latter as a clear model. At the same time, Ancrene Wisse develops complex methods of classification that reflect the growing scholasticism of its day. Considering the Ancrene's Old English and Latin texts as a source of criticism and analysis is one of the main interests of modern scholarship. Our interest here, besides description, is the psychology of the anchorite and how the Ancrene Wisse reveals it.

The chapters or sections of Ancrene Wisse are:

  1. Devotions
  2. Protecting the Heart through the Senses
  3. Birds and Anchorites: the Inner Feelings
  4. Fleshly and Spiritual Temptations and Comforts and Remedies for Them
  5. Confession
  6. Penance
  7. The Pure Heart and the Love of Christ
  8. The Outer Rule

1. The first chapter outlines the routine of prayers recommended to the anchorites in general and prayers assigned to hours such as Matins or responses to the Mass. The anchorite living in a dwelling attached to a church, with a window for participating in ecclesiastical services, extended devotional life in a literal way, which was exactly the situation of the three sisters to whom Ancrene Wisse is addressed.

2. This section uses the five senses to illustrate the distractions and bad influences the anchorites must anticipate and why they must be avoided. This practical advice applies to women religious in cloister, but by extension constitutes Christian ethics in general. Today we would substitute the word asceticism for ethics, however. This dichotomy existed in the Middle Ages itself as much as today, but the line is deliberately blurred for the professed religious. The self-discipline of the solitary -- the simplicity and detachment characterizing solitude -- is partly grounded on behavior, namely what psychology would call avoidance behavior, what the Ancrene Wisse calls "protecting the heart."

The anchorhold has a window or windows to the world, and the Ancrene Wisse has as its first bit of practical advice the following admonition: "My dear sisters, love your windows as little as you can." For from sight comes "all the misery that there now is and ever yet was and ever shall be ..."

The author elaborates not on the evils of seeing so much as being seen. Trust not the intentions of men, he warns, be they priests, bishops, or friars, citing the stories of Dinah and Bathsheba, and quoting Augustine, Bernard, and a story of St. Martin of Tours. The withdrawal of the anchoress means familiarity with no male's sight.

As to speech, the anchoress should avoid gossip and conversation as much as the giving of advice or teaching of children. If speech is necessary, a witness should be present, even if discretely distant during confession. Silence, not only in liturgical seasons but as a sensible mien, is enjoined by the author with copious scriptural quotations. Here is a summary passage of the author's guidance re sight and speech:

My dear sisters: If any man asks to see you, ask him what good may come of it, since I see many evils in it and no profit. If he is importunate, trust him the less. If any is so mad as to put his hand out towards the window curtain, quickly straight away shut the window right up and let him be. Likewise, as soon as anyone gets on to any wicked talk that has to do with foul love, fasten the window straight away, and do not answer him at all ...

The status of the anchoress as both professed religious but also physically isolated from the resources of a community highlight the potential difficulties of the anchoress. Like Aelred, the author of Ancrene Wisse is acutely aware of the potential for abuse, her own and from others, aware of seduction by idle men and the despair of isolation and lack of companionship that may plague the anchoress and lead her to temptation. Like Aelred, our author knows of pregnancies, gossip, fraud, of maid-servants who betray or tempt the virtue of their mistresses. Hence his warnings about the anchoress seeing or hearing or speaking to visitors, especially male. On this he is emphatic:

Touching of hands or any contact between a man and an anchoress is a thing so unseemly and a deed so shameful and so naked a sin, so horrible to all the world and so great a scandal, that there is no need to speak or write against it, for without any writing at all the foulness is too apparent. God knows, I would much prefer to see you all, my dear sisters, dearest of women to me, hang on a gibbet so as to avoid sin, than see one of you give a single kiss to any man on earth in the way I mean. I am silent on anything further.

But the author does conjure one image to complement his strong words on "touching of hands" above.

For herself to look at her own white hands does harm to many an anchoress who keeps them too beautiful, like those who have nothing at all to do. They should each day scrape up the earth of their graves, in which they will rot.

Anchorites were often buried in their cells and indeed, the religious ceremony for an anchorite's severe profession carried the words and symbols of death and burial.

3. This chapter set out to make analogies between anchorites and birds. The text frequently falls into lengthy digressions. It enumerates birds that reflect given virtues, according to medieval myth or lore. "True anchoresses are called birds," says the author,

for they leave the earth -- that is, love of all worldly things -- and through yearning in heart for heavenly things fly upwards towards heaven. ... The wings which bear them upwards, they are virtues which they must stir into good deeds as a bird when it wants to fly stirs its wings.

The section begins with the famous "pelican in the wilderness" image from Psalm 101.7, with the translator using "pelicano solitudinis" as a pelican "that lives on its own." The pelican myth is that in its wrathful nature it kills its young but later laments its angry deed by striking its breast until blood runs. The passionate anchoress slays her good works but must lament in confession.

Other bird images include:

Not only does the medieval fascination with animals and symbolism reveal itself here but also the penchant for classification. Among the digressions of this section, the author presents a list of eight things that "summon us always to be watching and working in some good deed." They are:

  1. this short life;
  2. this difficult path;
  3. our good, which is so meager;
  4. our sins, which are so many;
  5. death, of which we are certain and uncertain when;
  6. the stern judgment of Judgment Day;
  7. the sorrow of hell;
  8. how great is the reward in the bliss of heaven

And he offers eight reasons to flee the world:

  1. safety: outside the anchorhold a ravaging lion prowls the street
  2. the soul as a brittle container in a crowd; do not carry a precious vial in an unruly mob
  3. gaining of heaven
  4. proof of nobility and generosity
  5. noble men and women are generous with what they leave
  6. to be private with God
  7. to see more brightly in heave God's bright face
  8. to have prayers full of life.

4. The core of the Ancrene Wisse is section four, an enumeration of temptations, remedies, virtues, and vices. This chapter is the heart of Christian ethics for its period, making the anchorite's rule  essentially a more attentive application of morals.

Temptation is considered outer and inner. Outer temptation comes from external displeasures such as "sickness, distress, shame, misfortune and each bodily hardship which troubles the flesh." Internal displeasures are "heart-sickness, wrath and anger, also being in pain." External pleasures are  "health of body, food, drink, enough clothing..." Internal pleasures arise from flattery, praise, false kindnesses, self-deceptions.

Temptation is not evil as such, clear from the fact that temptations can originate with God. Among external displeasures are, for example, "sickness that God sends, not that someone gets through their own stupidity." The author lists positive effects of "sent" sickness: forgiveness of sins, patience and humility among the resulting virtues when sickness is rightly accepted.

The inner temptations, says the Ancrene Wisse, are more complex. They may be of the flesh (lechery, gluttony, sloth) and of the spirit (pride, envy, anger, covetousness). The entire set of capital sins are inner temptations.  Using Jeremiah's image of the wilderness and the image of Jesus' forty days, the author builds the image of inner temptations:

The wilderness is the solitary life of the anchoress's dwelling, for just as in the wilderness there are all the wild beasts, and they will not endure men coming near but flee when they hear them, so should anchorites, above all other women, be wild in this way, and then they will be desirable, above other women, to Our Lord. ...

In this wilderness are many evil beasts: the lion of pride, the snake of poisonous envy, the unicorn of anger, the bear of dead sloth, the fox of covetousness, the sow of gluttony, the scorpion with the tail of stinging lechery, that is, lust.

These, of course, are the seven capital sins.

But the author continues the animal analogies, enumerating a classification of the sins. "The lion of pride has very many cubs," he states, and enumerates them: vainglory, indignation, hypocrisy, presumption, disobedience, loquacity, blasphemy, impatience, contumacy, contention, "airs and graces."

There is an excellent elaboration on the last -- "airs and graces"-- and the Ancrene Wisse offers a thorough treatment of each category, concluding with an enumeration of consolations and remedies. Here, for example, it treats of the sin of lethargy or inertia.

Inertia's remedy is spiritual gladness and the consolation of glad hope, through reading, through holy thinking, or from people's mouths. Often, dear sisters, you must pray less in order to read more. Reading is good prayer. Reading teaches how and what to pray, and prayer obtains it afterwards. ... [Quoting Jerome, Letter 22], "Let there be holy reading always in your hand; let sleep steal away your book from you as you hold it, and let the holy page receive your drooping head." You must read earnestly and long like this. Everything, however, can be overdone: moderation is always best.

It has been estimated that the standard devotions would have taken the anchoresses four hours. Add to this liturgical services, private prayer, meditation, and devotional reading. Though reading has its limited sources, the passages above clearly suggest three things: 1) the ability of the anchoresses to read, which hints at their social status, 2) the availability of material for them, and 3) the author's own sense of the importance of the written word in producing the Ancrene Wisse for the sisters.

5-6. These chapters would not offer new information or counsel to the medieval anchorite, but does highlight the central role of the sacrament of penance in the psychology of the Church.

7. This section describes the reciprocity of Christ to the anchorite who practices the cultivation of a pure heart through adherence to the virtues and practices of the first six chapters.

There is, says the author, a chivalrous sense of love to Christ's wooing of the soul. Love of God is "the rule that rules the heart." Much scholarship has focused on how the Old Testament image of the Song of Solomon identified the role of religious women with Christ -- as well as the role of women in medieval society in general. The Ancrene Wisse certainly provides that sort of first-hand resource.

8. The outer rule governs diet, work, feast days, clothing, visitation, servants, and related mundane aspects of anchoritic life. The outer rule governs moral practices not enjoined by vow. Yet the author recommends the "outer rule" because it helps the anchorite achieve spiritual goals. The author asks the anchoresses to read these outer rules to their servants weekly until the latter have understood them well.

So ends the Ancrene Wisse, a pageant of practical and spiritual, always assuming that the anchoritic life is a superior grace but also an entirely rational one. Despite his personal interest in literary classifications and allegories, and his apparent dependence on the structure and benign attitude of Aelred of Rievaulx, the author of the Ancrene Wisse has composed a unique record not only of anchoritic practice but of medieval Christian spirituality. To the sisters themselves, the author asks of his record, his Ancrene Wisse,

Read from this book daily, when you are at leisure, less or more. I hope that , if you read it often, it will be very profitable to you through God's great grace. ...


Standard editions of the Ancrene Wisse in English translation include Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works, translated and edited by Nicholas Watson and Anne Savage; New York: Paulist Press, 1991, and Ancrene Wisse: Guide for  Anchoresses, translated with introduction by Hugh White;  Harmonsworth, New York: Penguin Classics, 1994. A web-based version edited by Robert Hasenfratz (2000) is available at: