Cate Gunn, Ancrene Wisse: From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2008. 

Cate Gunn, Ancrene Wisse: From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2008.  ISBN-13: 978-0-7083-2034-1 (hardback), pp. vii + 243.

Reviewed by: Katharine Sykes, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, June 2009

The Ancrene Wisse, a spiritual and devotional manual composed in English for a group of anchorites in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, has attracted considerable scholarly interest over the past century, and occupies a firm place within both undergraduate and postgraduate literature courses. Dr Cate Gunn is an independent scholar who has published widely in the field, and this book, designed to provide an introduction to the text, brings together a range of sources to illustrate her central thesis: that the text should be studied not as a ‘static’ snapshot of a particular moment in religious and literary history, but as a ‘dynamic’ entity participating in a period of considerable flux, in which people, texts and ideas flowed out of monasteries and universities into the parishes, and from Latin into the vernacular.

After a brief introduction setting out the debates concerning the provenance and dating of Ancrene Wisseand summarising its contents, Gunn sets out to chart the first of its two tributaries, namely the religious changes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which are explored in five chapters. The first chapter is an admirably concise survey of the new currents which helped to shape the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, traditionally seen as a watershed in religious history. Individual decrees of the council and their impact are explored in more detail in subsequent chapters: chapter two, for example, considers eucharistic theology, the subject of the first decree; whilst chapter three, on female religious movements, addresses the impact of the thirteenth decree, which prohibited the foundation of new religious orders. Chapter four explores the development of ‘a new religious sensibility’, expressed in affective language and eucharistic devotion, upon which anchoritic texts drew. The fifth chapter, on lay piety, examines the ways in which affective piety spread out from monastic and theological circles into the parishes.

Part two explores the second stream which feeds into the Ancrene Wisse, and the literary currents which influenced its contents and structure. Chapters six and seven, on pastoraliaand the rhetoric of preaching, are concerned with Latin texts and traditions; chapters eight and nine, on beguine sermons and pastoral literature, explore the development of vernacular traditions in France, the Low Countries and England, and the extent to which these derived or departed from Latin models.

These two streams are brought together in the third section of Gunn’s book, which focuses on the text itself. Starting with a detailed analysis of the text and its rhetorical structures in chapter ten, she moves on to compare its contents with other ascetic and contemplative works of vernacular spirituality, such as Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, in chapters eleven and twelve.

Of the three sections, the first is the weakest. Gunn provides an overview of a complex historiography, and locates theAncrene Wissefirmly in a European, rather than a more narrowly English context. However, she has a tendency to cite rather than to evaluate the historiography, and with the exception of a few specific works on anchorites and anchoritic texts, there is little reference to any work published in the past decade. This is not to suggest that older, classic studies such as those of Grundmann or McDonnell have lost their value; rather that this section might have been strengthened by analysis of recent work by Tom Licence on English recluses[1]; or by Walter Simons’ Cities of Ladies, which brings and develops his earlier work (some of which is cited here) on the beguines, groups of women religious who lived together in a variety of formal and informal settings in Northern France and the Low Countries, and to whom Gunn, quite rightly, draws attention.[2]

The second and third sections are stronger, and although the structure of the book, in which themes and influences are introduced in the first two sections and developed in the third, can be a little repetitious in places, this also serves to reinforce one of Gunn’s key points, that the Ancrene Wisseis a product not simply of the second quarter of the thirteenth century, but is part of debates and trends which originated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and which continued to evolve in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In terms of presentation, there are a few typographical slips and errors, most notably in the notes and bibliography. I would also question the confusing decision to include references not as either footnotes or endnotes but as notes at the end of each section, which breaks up the flow of the text and, initially at least, makes them difficult to locate.

[1]T. Licence, ‘Evidence of recluses in eleventh-century England’, Anglo-Saxon England  36 (2007), 221–34.

[2]W. Simons, Cities of ladies: Beguine communities in the medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565(Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press; 2001).