Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses)

[Click on image to enlarge] In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was a movement toward a more solitary religious life and a more personal encounter with God. The monastic rule is designed to dissolve personal identity within the community. The monks dress alike, eat, sleep, work, and pray together on a fixed daily schedule. They own no personal property. Obedience, humility, and strictures against grumbling are not just authoritarian injunctions but aim at the suppression of the personal will to conform with communal will, which is God's will for salvation. New orders founded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries . the Cistercians, for example . emphasized a more actively engaged and individual spirituality. The Dominicans and Franciscans were not confined to their houses but were preaching and teaching orders whose members staffed the newly founded universities.

Along with the new orders an increasing number of both men and women chose to become what St. Benedict had classified as the second kind of monk . anchorites or hermits:

They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God's help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.

Benedict's battle imagery anticipates the affinities between this solitary kind of spirituality and the literary form of romance, which were both developing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The individual soul confined in its enclosure fights temptation as Sir Gawain rides out alone in the wilderness to seek the Green Chapel and encounters temptation along the way (NAEL 8, 1.160-213). The wilderness in romance often contains hermits, who may be genuinely holy men, or enchanters like Archimago, disguised as a holy hermit, in the Faerie Queene (NAEL 8, 1.726-28, lines 253.315). The influence of romance on religion and of religion on romance is also strikingly seen in the portrayal of Christ as a knight who jousts for the love and salvation of human souls in Ancrene Riwle and Piers Plowman (NAEL 8, 1.333-35, lines 7.86).

Anchoress (the feminine form of anchorite, from the Greek anachoretes, "one who lives apart") refers to a religious recluse who, unlike a hermit, lives in an enclosure, attached to a church, from which she never emerges. The enclosure symbolizes the grave, and the funeral service was celebrated at the time of enclosure as a sign that the anchoress was dead to the world. Anchoresses and anchorites might live singly, like Julian of Norwich (NAEL 8, 1.372-82) or in small groups. Ancrene Riwle (c. 1215) was originally written for three young sisters, who, the author says in an aside in one manuscript, came from a noble family with ample means to support them. The rule came to serve as a general rule, although in his preface the author makes fun of people who are particular about the superficial differences among orders and rules. The author draws upon a variety of sources, especially on the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091.1153) and on St. Ailred of Rievaulx (1100.1167), who wrote a manual for a sister who became an anchoress. But the author of Ancrene Riwle has a highly individual, urbane, and humane personality and style, which distinguish his guide both as a book of religious instruction and as a literary achievement.

From the Introduction >> note 1

Those who are right love you; so says the bride to the bridegroom in the Song of Songs >> note 2 [1.3]. . . . "Lord," says God's bride to her precious bridegroom, "those who are right love you." Those who live according to a rule are right/righteous, and you my dear sisters have many times begged me to give you a rule. There are many kinds of rules, but in answer to your request and with God's grace, I will speak of two among them all. The first rules the heart and makes it even and smooth without lump and pit of crooked and accusing conscience that says, "Here you sin," or, "This is not yet amended as well as it should be." This rule is always within and makes the heart right. If your conscience, that is the inward moral sense of your thought and your heart, bears witness within yourself against yourself that you are unconfessed in sin and that you do wrong in one thing and another and have this vice and that, such conscience, such inward moral sense is crooked and uneven and lumpy and pitted. But this rule makes her even and smooth and soft. The second rule is altogether external and controls the body and fleshly acts. She teaches fully how one ought to conduct oneself outwardly: how to eat and drink, dress and sing, sleep and keep vigil. And the purpose of this rule is solely to serve the first. The first is like a lady, the second is like a maidservant; for whatever one does in a proper way outwardly is only for the sake of governing the heart within.

Now, you ask what rules you achoresses should have. You shall always with all might and strength keep well the inner, and for her sake the outer. The inner is ever same; the outer is variable. For each one shall maintain the outer according to how she may best serve the inner with her.

Now, it must be that all anchoresses shall indeed hold to one rule regarding the purity of the heart with which all religion is concerned. That is, all can and ought to hold one rule regarding purity of the heart, that is, a clean and clear inward moral sense, that is conscience, which neither knows nor is witness to any great sin within herself that is not atoned for through confession. This comprises the "lady" rule, which governs and smoothes and rights the heart and the conscience against sin; for nothing makes the conscience crooked, jagged, and uneven except sin alone. To correct and smoothe her is the virtue and strength of every order and every rule. This rule is not of man's invention but is of God's commandment. Therefore, she is always one without change, and all ought to hold to her in the same way forever.

But all persons cannot abide by one rule, nor need nor ought to keep in one way the outer rule, regarding corporeal observances, that is, regarding bodily observances . the outer rule, which I called the servant and which is man's invention, established for nothing other than to serve the inner. This outer rule, that is at the end of this book the eighth and final section, ordains fasting, holding vigil, wearing clothes cold and harsh, and such other austerities that the flesh of many can endure and that of many others cannot. Therefore, this rule may change variously, according to each anchoress's condition and ability, as her master tells her, for he bears this rule within his breast; and accordingly as anyone is either sick or well, he will change this outer rule as he judges necessary to suit each one's ability. For one is strong, another weak and cannot very well be released and satisfy God with less. One is educated and another not and must labor the more and say her prayers differently. One is old and feeble and is the less to be feared for; another is young and strong and has need of closer watch. Therefore, each anchoress shall maintain the outer rule in keeping with her confessor's advice and do obediently whatever he asks and enjoins upon her, for he knows her condition and strength. He may alter the outer rule according to his judgment, as he sees how the inner may best be held.

* * *

But charity, which is love, and humility, and fortitude, faith and the keeping of all the Ten Commandments, confession and penitence: these and such others, of which some are of the old law, some of the new, are not man's inventions but are God's commandments, and therefore everyone must necessarily keep them, and you above all. For these rule the heart.

If any ignorant person inquire of what order you are, as you tell me some do, men who strain out the gnat and swallow the fly, >> note 3 reply, "Of the order of St. James," >> note 4 who was God's apostle and, because of his great holiness, called God's brother. If such an answer seems to him remarkable and strange, ask him what is an order, and where in Holy Writ he might find religion most openly explained and made clear. That is in St. James's Epistle. For he says what religion is and what true order is: Religion pure and spotless before God, etc. [James 1.27]. That is, pure religion without spot is to visit and help widows and fatherless children and keep oneself pure and unspotted from the world. Thus St. James describes religion and order. The latter part of his statement pertains to recluses, for the two parts correspond to the two kinds of religious. To each of the two belongs his own, as you may hear. Some religious in the world are good, especially prelates and true preachers, referred to in the first part of what St. James said. They are those, as he said, who go to help widows and fatherless children. The soul is a widow who has lost her husband, that is, Jesus Christ, because of any mortal sin. That one also is fatherless who, through sin, has lost the high Father of heaven. Go visit such people and comfort and help them with the food of holy teaching. This is true religion, as St. James says. The latter part of his statement pertains to your religion, as I said before, which protects you from the world beyond other religious, pure and unspotted. Thus St. James describes religion. He speaks of neither white nor black >> note 5 in connection with his order, but many strain out the gnat and swallow the fly, that is make great effort in the least things.

Paul, the first anchorite, Anthony and Arsenius, Macarius, >> note 6 and the other holy men of the past, were they not religious and of St. James's order? Also St. Sarah and St. Sincletia >> note 7 and many other such, both men and women, with their coarse mattresses and hard hair shirts, were they not of a good order? And whether white or black, as the foolish ask you, who believe that order resides in the kirtle, God knows, nevertheless, they were indeed both; not, however, with regard to clothing, but just as God's bride sings by herself, I am black but fair [Song of Solomon 1.4]. "I am black and yet white," she says, uncomely without, fair within. In this manner reply to those asking about your order: that you are as is said of St. James's order; and, from the same passage, reply what he wrote later, to keep oneself unspotted from this world. That is what I said to you before: to keep oneself pure and unspotted from the world. Herein is religion, not in the wide hood nor in the black, white, or gray cowl. Where many are gathered together, there for oneness of thought one ought to stress uniformity of clothing and of other things concerning external matters, so that the uniformity without betokens the uniformity of one love and one will that they all have in common within. By their habit, which is uniform, in which each is just as the others, and also by uniformity of other things, they proclaim that they all together have one love and one will, each one as the others. Take care that they do not lie.

So it is in the convent. But wherever a man or woman lives alone by himself, a hermit or an anchoress, external considerations matter little, so long as no scandal comes about.

* * *


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home