Ancrene Wisse

Ancrene Wisse, also known as Ancrene Riwle, is a 13th-c. manual for the anchoresses, i.e. women who chose to live their lives in solitary confinement in order to pursue the contemplative religious life. The manual was intended for three anonymous sisters who were going to embark on such a course of life. The excerpt picked for the NAEL is characteristic because it incorporates the conventions of romance and courtly love for exploring the relationship between human soul and God. In the allegorical story told in this excerpt the human soul is a lady and Jesus is the king madly in love with her. The lady has many enemies and the king keeps on pursuing her by sending her numerous expensive presents and offering to help her. Finally he goes to visit her himself so she can see that he is indeed very handsome. But the lady (rather foolishly) is still playing hard-to-get. Then the king seeing that nothing can convince her, says that he is going to fight her enemies in order to save her. However, he is sure that he is going to be killed in the battle and he asks the lady just to love him after his death. And in fact, he dies, but after his death he is miraculously resurrected. “Would not this lady have a base nature, if she did not love him after this above all these things?”, asks the author (or, in the words of the original, “Nere theos ilke leafdi of uveles cunnes cunde, yef ha over alle thing ne luvede him her-efter?)

This is followed by another elaborate allegory in which the crucifix is compared to a knight’s shield: the wood of the shield is the wood of the cross, the leather covering it is Christ’s body and the signs painted on the shield are his blood. Moreover, as after knight’s death in a battle his shield is hung up high in the church in his memory, so is the crucifix, to remind the faithful about his death, But couldn’t God, being omnipotent, save us with less suffering? No, the author answers, and the reason for this is he pays the highest price for people’s salvation so that they can have no excuse for not loving him.

This excerpt shows how much the cultural conventions of the times we live in shape our language. This is a religious texts for the women who are as unworldly as they can be: sworn to a life of celibacy and solitude, miles away from the sinful queens Guinevere and Isolde or the sexy fairy lover of Lanval. But the romance (in the medieval sense of the word) is all-pervading and makes its way even into a religious text. Of course, the boundary between sexual love and spiritual love of God has always been a blurry one – viz. Song of Songs and the whole story of reading the bride as the Church/Israel and the bridegroom as God. And there are lots of examples throughout history, some of the much more explicit than Ancrene Wisse, which led many contemporary critics, influenced by psychoanalysis, to interpret the mystical experience as simply the expression of frustrated sexual desires. (Putting it very bluntly, if you can’t get laid, you start hallucinating about sex with various divine figures.) But to revert the logic, it could be simply that people fall on thinly-veiled sexual metaphors when describing intense religious experience because sex is simply the source of the strongest feelings known to men and women. So it’s quite natural that when describing the love of the Divine – what can give you a bigger high than that? – writers resort to the kind of language used normally to write about the earthly love.

Crucifixion, Berthold Sacramentary (Web Gallery of Art)

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