A short note on Ancrene Riwle, a middle English religious prose

Ancrene Riwle ( also known as Ancrene Wisse or Guide for Anchoresses)  is perhaps, the most notable work in English prose, after the great days of Alfred and Aelfric. Produced in the earlier part of the thirteenth century, it remains the best specimen of the English prose of the time.

The work is a non-popular, devotional treatise, containing instructions and guidelines to a woman, intended for embracing the secluded and sacred life of an anchoress. It consists of the rules for an ascetic life, given by a prelate to three anchorites, who have decided to dwell in a solitary place, near a church.

About the authorship of this work, there is controversy, but it is now generally accepted that Bishop Poware wrote it. It is also held that the book was written particularly for the nuns who dwelt in a religious house in Terrent in Dorsetshire.

The whole book contains prose homilies and prescribes the rules which every anchoress is to follow in her private life as well as the public. The structure of the book is skillfully organized. The work is divided into eight parts, dealing with different ethical matters-five senses, physical and spiritual temptations, confession and penitence, and external rules in regard to food, clothing, visits, etc. Parts 1 and 8 deal with what is called the “Outer Rule” (relating to the anchoresses’ exterior life), while Parts 2–7 deal with the “Inner Rule” (relating to the anchoresses’ interior life).

The motive of the work is certainly instructive. The author’s tone is also richly devotional. But his mode of presentation of dry and ecclesiastic subjects is quite-refreshing. An element of humour is also perceptible in this purely religious discourse. A broad Christian view, a lofty idealism, and a purely spiritual sentiment are manifested here. A pleasant mingling of piety and humanity, of common sense and wisdom, of devotion and dutifulness, endows the work with an abiding charm.

The prose style, followed in the work, is simple and dignified, pure and free. Its graceful and graphic presentations are truly attractive. In the development of the religious prose works, which reached a great height in the great Elizabethan age, Ancrene Riwle occupies a conspicuous position. Its importance, as a document of the changing approach of religious literature, is truly admirable. It also distinctly bears out the growth of a simple, precise, clear prose style from Old English to Middle English.

Also read: A short note on Cursor Mundi