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§ 37. English Mystics.

England, in the fourteenth century, produced devotional writings which have been classed in the literature of mysticism. They are wanting in the transcendental flights of the German mystics, and are, for the most part, marked by a decided practical tendency.

The Ancren Riwle was written for three sisters who lived as anchoresses at Tarrant Kaines, Dorsetshire.530530    The Ancren Riwle, ed. by J. Morton, Camden series, London, 1853. See W. R. Inge, Studies in Engl. Mystics, London. 1906. p. 38 sqq. It was the custom in their day in England for women living a recluse life to build a room against the wall of some church or a small structure in a churchyard and in such a way that it had windows, but no doors of egress. This little book of religious counsels was written at the request of the sisters, and is usually ascribed to Simon of Ghent, bishop of Salisbury, d. 1315. The author gives two general directions, namely, to keep the heart "smooth and without any scar of evil," and to practise bodily discipline, which "serveth the first end, and of which Paul said that it profiteth little." The first is the lady, the second the handmaid. If asked to what order they belonged, the sisters were instructed to say to the Order of St. James, for James said, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep one’s self unspotted from the world." It is interesting to note that they are bidden to have warm clothes for bed and back, and to wash "as often as they please." They were forbidden to lash themselves with a leathern thong, or one loaded with lead except at the advice of their confessor. Richard Rolle, d. 1349, the author of a number of devotional treatises, and also translations or paraphrases of the Psalms, Job, the Canticles and Jeremiah, suddenly left Oxford, where he was pursuing his studies, discontented with the scholastic method in vogue at the university, and finally settled down as a hermit at Hampole, near Doncaster. Here he attained a high fame for piety and as a worker of miracles. He wrote in Latin and English, his chief works being the Latin treatises, The Emendation of Life and The Fervor of Love. They were translated in 1434, 1435, by Rich Misyn. His works are extant in many manuscript copies. Rolle exalted the contemplative life, indulged in much dreamy religious speculation, but also denounced the vice and worldliness of his time. In the last state of the contemplative life he represents man as "seeing into heaven with his ghostly eye."531531    C. Horstman, Richard Rolle of Hampole, 2 vols. The Early Engl. Text Soc. publ. the Engl. versions of Misyn, 1896. G. G. Perry edited his liturgy in the vol. giving the York Breviary, Surtees Soc. The poem, Pricke of Conscience, was issued by H. B. Bramley, Oxford, 1884. See Stephen, Dict. Natl. Biog. XLIX. 164-165.

Juliana of Norwich, who died 1443, as it is said, at the age of 100, was also an anchoress, having her cell in the churchyard of St. Julian’s church, Norwich. She received 16 revelations, the first in 1373, when she was 30 years old. At that time, she saw "God in a point." She laid stress upon love, and presented the joyful aspect of religion. God revealed Himself to her in three properties, life, light and love. Her account of her revelations is pronounced by Inge "a fragrant little book."532532    The Revelations of Divine Love has been ed. by R. F. S. Cressy, London, 1670, reprinted 1843; by H. Collins, London, 1817, and by Grace Warrack. 3d ed. Lond., 1909. See Inge and Dict. of Natl. Biog.

The Ladder of Perfection, written by Walter Hylton, an Augustinian canon of Thurgarton, Nottinghamshire, who died 1396,533533    Written in English, the Ladder was translated by the Carmelite friar, Thomas Fyslawe, into Latin. Hylton’s death is also put in 1433. depicts the different stages of spiritual attainment from the simple knowledge of the facts of religion, which is likened to the water of Cana which must be turned into wine, to the last stages of contemplation and divine union. There is no great excellency, Hylton says, "in watching and fasting till thy head aches, nor in running to Rome or Jerusalem with bare feet, nor in building churches and hospitals." But it is a sign of excellency if a man can love a sinner, while hating the sin. Those who are not content with merely saving their souls, but go on to the higher degrees of contemplation, are overcome by "a good darkness," a state in which the soul is free and not distracted by anything earthly. The light then arises little by little. Flashes come through the chinks in the walls of Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is not reached by a bound. There must be transformation, and the power that transforms is the love of God shed abroad in the soul. Love proceeds from knowledge, and the more God is known, the more is He loved. Hylton’s wide reputation is proved by the ascription of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation to him and its identification in manuscripts with his De musica ecclesiastica.534534    The Ladder of Perfection was printed 1494, 1506, and has been recently ed. by R. E. Guy, London, 1869, and J. B. Dalgairns, London, 1870. See Inge, pp. 81-124; Montmorency, Thomas à Kempis, etc., pp. 138-174; and Dict. of Natl. Biog., XXVI. 435 sqq.

These writings, if we except Rolle, betray much of that sobriety of temper which characterizes the English religious thought. They contain no flights of hazy mystification and no rapturous outbursts of passionate feeling. They emphasize features common to all the mystics of the later Middle Ages, the gradual transformation through the power of love into the image of God, and ascent through inward contemplation to full fellowship with Him. They show that the principles of the imitation of Christ were understood on the English side of the channel as well as by the mystics of the Lowlands, and that true godliness is to be reached in another way than by the mere practice of sacramental rites.

These English pietists are to be regarded, however, as isolated figures who, so far as we know, had no influence in preparing the soil for the seed of the Reformation that was to come, as had the Pietists who lived along the Rhine.535535    Montmorency, p. 69, makes a remark for which, so far as I know, there is no corroborative testimony in the writings of the English Reformers, that "in this English mystical movement—of which a vast unprinted literature survives—is to be found the origin of Lollardism and of the Reformation in England."


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