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The “Rule for Anchoresses” was composed between 1225 and 1240 by a religious man who was brought up in the old West Saxon kingdom in west or south Worcestershire in the West Midlands of England. It was written in Middle English for the spiritual instruction of three young women, sisters, well-born but with restricted educational opportunities compared to men, and it was composed in a region which valued English literary culture.We know this as the language does not show late West Saxon features or verb endings of more northerly dialects. It cannot come from the Eastern Midlands because of the distinctive way it spells OE y and eo. It is a unique record not only of anchorite’s way of life but also of medieval Christian spirituality. The author was possibly a Dominican friar (the order was founded in 1216 and reached this area around 1230) considering the practices put forward in the document, although E. J. Dobson speculated that the author might have been Brian of Lingen, based on an anagram, who is thought to have been an Augustinian canon of Wigmore Abbey, who might have been the brother of the original three readers. This is unproven.
There seventeen manuscripts, nine versions containing all or part of the text in its original English, four versions in Anglo-Norman French, and four Latin translations.
The “Ancrene Riwle/Wisse” MS. are:
N Nero. (British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.xiv.) 139 parchment leaves.
A Corpus (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 402.) 117 parchment leaves.
T Titus (British Library, Cotton MS. Titus D.xviii.) Southern Cheshire, c. 1225-50
C Cleopatra (British Library, Cotton MS. Cleopatra C.vi.) 203 parchment leaves.
H The Lanhydrock Fragment (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Eng. th.c.70) One page.
P Pepys (Magdalene College, Cambridge, Pepys 2498) Essex, late 14th century.
V The Vernon Manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Eng. Poet.a.1) W. Midlands, late 14th century. Illustrated volume.
G Caius (Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, MS 234/120.) Hereford? c. 1350-1400
R Royal (British Library, Royal 8 C.i.) Fifteenth century.
Our translation is from the original Nero edition collated with Editions T and C. The Corpus edition is a copy written by a scribe from north-west Herefordshire which was in Anglian territory. The name is changed to Ancrene Wisse - ‘The Guide for Anchorites’ and the inscription on the first folio indicates that the manuscript was given to St. James Priory in Wigmore, which is about forty kilometres north-west of Worcester. By the time of this revision, there was a group of twenty or more anchoresses spread over the west of England, and the scribe added the line: You are the anchoresses of England, so many together, twenty now or more. Also the language has moved on. In the last lines Nero uses mid for ‘with’ and inouh for ‘enough’ whereas the Corpus copy uses wiđ and inoh.
Later versions include those adapted for audiences including male and female monastic houses and devout lay people. It was read throughout the Middle Ages, adapted several times for different audiences, translated into Latin and French and exchanged, quoted and copied into the sixteenth century.
The Latin version Magdalen College MS 67 has a preface which says the anchoresses lived at Tarente “Hic incipit prohemium venerabilis patris magistri Simonis de Gandavo, episcopi Sarum, in librum de vita solitaria, quem scripsit sororibus suis anachoritis apud Tarente.” although it’s unlikely that Bishop Simon of Ghent, who died in 1315, could have written the book, if it dates from around 1240.
The profession of these anchoresses or recluses, who later became nuns, was to lead a pious Christian life, following the rule of charity, as laid down by St. James; the group consisted of the three ladies with their domestic servants or lay sisters. There was a well-known abbey at Tarente, in Dorsetshire, near the present village of Tarrant Crawford south-east of Blandford Forum. The original founder was Ralph de Kahaines, whose father, Ralph, came from Normandy with William the Conqueror. In the time of Richard I, he built near his mansion at Tarente Kaines “a little monastery for nuns, which his son William increased; and, among other gifts, gave all the tithe of the bread made in his house, wherever he might be in his demesne, except the king's bread, and all the tithe of salt pork, and of cattle killed in his house every year.” [Dugdale]. Bishop Richard Poor was born at Tarrant and he refounded and endowed the nunnery around 1230 when it became Tarrant Abbey under the rule of the Cistercians. Tarrant Abbey was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539 and all traces of the buildings had disappeared long before 1661, when Dugdale published the second volume of his Monasticon. The abbey church may have been the present St Mary’s.