The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group

The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group

by Susannah M. Chewning

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The Wooing Group is a collection of texts in English written by an unknown author in the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, almost certainly aimed at a group of women living as anchoresses and recluses who were literate in English and interested in guidance on both spiritual and worldly issues. This volume brings together our most current interpretations


The Wooing Group is a collection of texts in English written by an unknown author in the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, almost certainly aimed at a group of women living as anchoresses and recluses who were literate in English and interested in guidance on both spiritual and worldly issues. This volume brings together our most current interpretations of these texts from scholars currently working in the fields of medieval spirituality, gender, and the anchorite tradition, providing new literary, theological, linguistic, and cultural context for the works and situating them within the larger continuum of medieval culture.

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University of Wales Press
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University of Wales Press - Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group

By Susannah Mary Chewning

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2009 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2033-4



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In a review of W. Meredith Thompson's 1958 edition of Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd, the anonymous reviewer from the Times Literary Supplement describes the edition as possessing a 'disciplined competence and a judicious enthusiasm'. This description amounts to the only fully positive comment about the edition written by this reviewer, one who seems mainly to draw from other reviews rather than to make constructive criticism of her own. Other reviews comment on problems now very well known to readers of the Wohunge in Thompson's edition, missed opportunities to cross-reference in the glossary, for example, and the diplomatic nature of the edition, which G. V. Smithers notes is intended for 'those experienced in reading ME MSS ... [and] scholars who cannot lay hands on any sort of reproduction of the MS', but which, as a result, is more difficult for 'all other classes of readers'. Smithers, Phyllis Hodgson, Beatrice White, Elizabeth Salter and the anonymous TLS reviewer all reviewed Thompson within about eighteen months of the appearance of the edition, and none of the reviews is particularly surprising, although one major issue is left out of each review, and that is that the appearance of Thompson's edition began a new chapter in early English medieval scholarship which has come to its fruition with the present volume (and with forthcoming new editions of texts within the Wooing Group and its associated works). Until the EETS volume was published, few scholars knew Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerde or even of its existence, and fewer still knew that there was such a thing as the Wooing Group. However, once the edition became available, a whole generation of new students and scholars was able to read and discuss these works within the context of Ancrene Wisse and beyond. Besides Thompson, the other names that have made scholarship of the Wooing Group possible for current scholars are Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson, who in their 1991 edition of what they called Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Related Works, brought about a revolution in scholarship of the Wooing Group, the Katherine Group and, for many scholars, Ancrene Wisse itself, which until then had not been published in a scholarly, affordable paperback edition of any kind. As a result, the majority of scholarship (with some important exceptions) on the Wooing Group has been produced since 1991, a momentous year for me as it was the first year of my own doctoral studies and the year I encountered the English anchoritic works for the first time. Since that time, there have been several books devoted to English anchoritic subjects, including three very useful collections: Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs: Intersections of Gender and Enclosure in the Middle Ages, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy and Marie Hughes-Edwards (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005); Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts, ed. Dee Dyas, Valerie Edden and Roger Ellis (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005); Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within Discourses of Enclosure, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008); these will shortly be followed by Anchoritic Spirituality: Enclosure, Authority, Transcendence, ed. Susannah Mary Chewning (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming). These collections represent a growing scholarly awareness of the significance of the anchoritic tradition in medieval English theology, literature, archaeology, linguistic studies and cultural studies, and represent only the beginning of what will certainly continue to be a growing scholarly focus on these works, authors and figures and their world.

Scholarship of the Wooing Group has grown into a very strong and enthusiastic enterprise, with five recent doctoral dissertations devoted to it, as well as a number of high-profile medieval scholars writing and publishing frequently about these works. Considering the brevity of the works, which in Thompson amount to fewer than forty pages in all, the vast number of scholars and students whose interest has turned to these works is remarkable and is, indeed, a tribute to the editions of 1958 and 1991, as well as to the rise in interest in female subjectivity, gender studies, Early English and anchoritism in general since the late 1980s. Ancrene Wisse has been the subject of a large body of scholarship, beginning with James Morton's 1853 edition and translation and maintaining a steady stream of scholarship throughout the twentieth century (although it, too, did not become as important or frequent a scholarly choice until the last two decades). This volume, then, although devoted to specific works defined as the Wooing Group, represents a response to and participation in the growing circle of scholars whose focus includes the anchoritic tradition, female authorship and reception of medieval works, and hagiographic works such as those found in associated anchoritic works as well as the lives and works of such figures as Christina of Markyate, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

The Wooing Group and its Context

What we now call the Wooing Group is a collection of seven works which are found in five manuscripts. In Thompson there are six works listed: On Ureisun of Ure Louerde, On wel swuðe God Ureisun of God Almihti, On Lofsong of Ure Louerde, On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi, Þe Oreisun of Seinte Marie and Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd. To this list, for the purposes of this collection and as an accepted addition among scholars of the Wooing Group is added A Talkyng of the Loue of God, a fourteenth-century 'pastiche, of which the first part is paraphrased from the Ureisun of God Almihti and the last part from the Wohunge', making the total seven works. The texts appear in six manuscripts: MS Lambeth 487, which contains On Ureisun of Ure Louerde (an incomplete version of On wel swuðe God Ureisun of God Almihti); MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, which contains On God Ureisun of Ure Lefdi, On wel swuðe God Ureisun of God Almihti, On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi, and On Lofsong of Ure Louerde; MS Royal 17 A.xxvii, which contains 'a fragment of the Lofsong of Ure Lefdi there called Þe Oreisun of Seinte Marie'; MS Cotton Titus D.xviii, which contains Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd; and MSS Vernon (Bodleian 3938) and Simeon (Brit. Mus. Add. 22283), both of which contain versions of A Talkyng of the Loue of God. Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd is the longest work (besides A Talkyng) in the Group and thus provides its name. Other works associated with the Wooing Group are, obviously, Ancrene Wisse, versions of which appear in three of the manuscripts, and the works known collectively as the Katherine Group, excerpts of which also appear in several of the Wohunge manuscripts.

The genre of literature into which theWooing Group (and the Katherine Group)16 fit is the English anchoritic tradition, referring to works written by and for anchorites, religious solitaries whose presence in England flourished between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.Anchorites are hermits whose location is fixed and permanent. This provided a geographical focus for the recluse, but also affected the spiritual and physical life of these people, as well.

By a process of internalization, both the physical martyrdom of the earliest Christian centuries and the search for the desert that had followed in its wake (and which was in itself a substitute for bloody martyrdom) became mental states. What had been actual became symbolic ... the virgin, the martyr, the repentant sinner, the ascetic and would-be mystic, the pilgrim, the soldier — all found a desert retreat as well as a deserved or necessary prison in the anchorite's cell of the Middle Ages.

Although other forms of reclusive and solitary life existed throughout Europe in the early medieval period, 'anchoritism evolved into a spatially fixed and physically restricted vocation, whereas the hermit, equally solitary ideologically, was freer to move about ... thus the anchoritic life ... rapidly became imbued with notions of a physically static environment'. The English anchoritic tradition begins, according to all scholarly accounts, with St Guthlac who retreated to rural Lincolnshire in approximately 699, living in a hut in the fens near Croyland (where an abbey was founded in his memory). Guthlac wished to emulate the desert fathers but did so in a particularly English location, choosing his indigenous swamps and fens over the biblical desert. As McAvoy and Hughes-Edwards have argued, his reclusion in Lincolnshire represents 'the caves of the desert fathers being transformed both literally and rhetorically into the nascent English anchorhold of much later tradition'. Two early English female anchoritic figures are Christina of Markyate and Ælfwynn; Ælfwynn is described as an anchorite in Christina's Vita, which notes that Christina (born Theodora in about 1095) lived with Ælfwynn for about two years (1115–16). Christina was enclosed as a hermit from about 1116 to 1122, after which, in about 1131, she entered the monastery at StAlbans.Ælfwynn is always discussed with respect to her having given shelter to Christina, but her presence as an anchorite (the Latin references to her are anachoretam and inclusa) in the first two decades of the twelfth century support the idea that the practice was fairly popular and that the twelfth-century audience of Christina's Vita would have understood what an anchoress (or anchorite) was. Still, whether it is Christina or Ælfwynn who is under discussion, Christina's Vita confirms the presence of women living as anchorites by the early twelfth century. Throughout the twelfth century the presence of anchorites grew in England; the next well-known figure is Wulfric of Haselbury who lived alone as a recluse in the wilderness of Somerset for a few years and officially as an anchorite, enclosed at the church in Haselbury Plucknett, where he died in 1154. Both Christina (and perhaps Ælfwynn) and Wulfric reinforce the data of the growing number of anchoritic cells and anchorites in England in the twelfth century, so the need for texts such as Ancrene Wisse and those of the Wooing and Katherine Groups is clear: as more people sought the enclosure of the anchorhold, guides and texts were necessary to provide them with structure and focus, as well as to reinforce the presence of the larger Church in their daily lives.

The evidence of Christina, Ælfwynn, the De Institutione Inclusarum and Ancrene Wisse certainly supports recent scholarly claims that there was a particular attraction to the anchoritic life among women of the period, and indeed that the English anchoritic tradition was somehow always already feminine, starting with the feminization of enclosure in the Vitae of Guthlac and leading to a feminization that 'heralds the type of imagistic and exegetical development ... of representations of the anchorhold in the later Middle Ages as a womb-like space and of the anchorite, whether male or female, as highly eroticized sponsa Christi'.

Enclosure and the Anchoritic Experience

The anchoritic life was distinct from the lives of other medieval religious in several ways. Anchorites were seen, by some, as 'spiritual aristocrats'. Within the manuscripts of works like Sawles Warde and the Wohunge are also included the lives of female martyrs such as Margaret and Katherine. As Savage and Watson point out, 'there is a persistent implication in the [works] that anchoresses are the latter-day equivalents of the martyrs.' Like the communities of nuns and beguines, there was no actual order that determined the rules for life within the anchorhold. In the case of the female anchorites, however, informal rules did exist in the form of Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum and, of course, Ancrene Wisse. The earliest English rule, De Institutione, was written in approximately 1160 for a female recluse (possibly Aelred's sister). Aelred is mentioned as a saint in the earliest manuscripts of Ancrene Wisse, indicating that the author knew him and his work, and that his De Institutione may have served as a source for Ancrene Wisse itself. Some scholars see Aelred's work as more open to possibilities for female sanctity and independence, arguing that by the date of Ancrene Wisse possibilities for women had begun to diminish and that the text itself serves as an effort on the part of a (male) author to rein in the potentially unruly behaviour of religious women and reinstate the authority of the Church. In any case, De Institutione and Ancrene Wisse (and thus the Wooing and Katherine Groups) form a continuum of anchoritic experience and literature in the early Middle Ages and provide the basis for the discussions of the anchoritic tradition within the essays presented in this volume.

Ancrene Wisse describes the style of dress, amount of food, schedule of prayers, and contact with the outside world that would be experienced by the anchorite. The life of the anchorite was more confined than that of any other religious of the period. She was, in effect, a hermit.

Within the interior of a convent or attached to a church there was to be a room twelve feet square which communicated with the world through three narrow windows. One window was to look into the church and through it the recluse could watch mass, receive communion, speak with his confessor, and hear confession from others if he were a priest. A second window was for service: through it food and other necessities for his living were provided. A third, to allow light, was to be covered with a horn. If the recluse were a priest the cell might contain an altar. A garden was permitted.

Each anchorite would participate in her own funeral mass in order to be considered dead to her past life and material concerns. This is different from communities of nuns and beguines, for example, for whom much of their time was spent in ministering to the community. The anchorite would have no commerce with the community except through her maidservant (whom she rarely saw), her confessor and any traveller who wished to speak to her. This kind of conversation (like the one documented between Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe) would have taken place through a black curtain with a cross cut into it into which white fabric was inserted.

Þe clað in ham beo two-fald. Blac the clað, þe cross hwit wiðinnen ant withuten. þet blake clað bitacneð þet 3e beoð blake and unwurð to þe world withuten ... þe hwite limpeð ariht to hwit meidenhad ant to cleannesse þet is muche pine wel forte halden.

(Let the cloth in them be of two kinds: the cloth black, the cross white, both inside and outside. The black cloth symbolizes to the world outside that you are black and unworthy ... The white cross is proper to white maidenhood and to purity, which it is very hard to keep well.)

Any contact that the anchorite would have with others (including other anchorites) would be through letters or messages delivered by each woman's maid or spoken through this curtain. Further, leaving the anchorhold was strictly forbidden. It was similar to the vows taken by a nun; if a nun wished to leave the cloister and rescind her vows, contact would have to be made with the pope for permission to be given. It would be much easier for a beguine to leave her community. As Galloway writes, 'in terms of survival of beguine communities, the women could retain the use of private property and work to support themselves. They were free to leave the beguinage at any time to marry or enter an established order.' An anchorite, on the other hand, relinquished all material goods, all personal relationships, and was not expected to leave the anchorhold until her death. Elkins describes the ritual of enclosure, recorded 'near Canterbury in the mid- to late twelfth century':

the ritual of enclosure took place during a mass, over which a bishop normally officiated. The recluse lay prostrate during the office of readings in the western part of the church, 'where it is customary for women to stay' ... After the recluse was sprinkled with holy water and censed with the thurible, she stood to receive two lit candles ... after the gospel reading, the recluse made her petition ... [after a homily or further readings] the choir intoned the funeral antiphon ... and the rites for the dying were begun ... with holy water and incense, the celebrant prepared the recluse's cell, called a 'sepulcher' in the liturgy. She would then enter her 'sepulcher' singing the antiphon, 'Here I will stay forever, this is the home I have chosen.' The bishop would then sprinkle dust over the recluse and the service would end with the 'prayers traditionally said over the body of the deceased in the bier'.


Excerpted from The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group by Susannah Mary Chewning. Copyright © 2009 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Meet the Author

Susannah M. Chewning is assistant professor of English at Union County College. She is the author of Intersections of Sexuality and the Divine in Medieval Culture: The Word Made Flesh.

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