In This Article Walter Hilton

  • Introduction
  • Biography

Medieval Studies Walter Hilton
by
Michael G. Sargent
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0077

Introduction

Walter Hilton was a writer of English and Latin works of spiritual guidance who died as an Augustinian canon (canon regular) at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire on 24 March 1396. In the 1370s and early 1380s Hilton wrote a series of Latin letters to a variety of recipients who had asked his advice on the contemplative life or on whether they should join religious orders. During the same period, he also wrote an English letter “Of Mixed Life” for a wealthy householder who also felt himself drawn to a life of contemplation, and (probably) the first book of The Scale of Perfection, for a woman who had recently been enclosed as an anchoress. The second book of The Scale was probably written considerably later. Although it addresses itself to the same reader as the first (who, its opening lines relate, had further questions about some of the material covered in Scale I), it is a considerably more sophisticated work theologically and appears to be aimed further beyond its original audience.

Biography

Walter Hilton may have been born in the Huntingdonshire village of Hilton in the mid-1340s. The earliest reference to him in documentary records names Hilton as a Bachelor of Civil Law (B.C.L.), a clerk of Lincoln diocese, in 1371. In 1375, still a B.C.L., he was recorded as a witness before Ely Consistory (diocesan) Court, which met in Cambridge; presumably, he got his law degree in the university there (see Russell-Smith 1954, Clark 1985, Clark 1991, Clark 2004). Although there is weak manuscript attestation to a tradition that he was an Inceptor in Canon Law (that is, he had earned the degree, but not taught—without which he could not properly be called a Magister), he became disillusioned with the legal profession and left to try his vocation as a hermit. He was apparently still a hermit c. 1386, when he wrote to Adam Horsley, a former clerk of the King’s Exchequer, encouraging him to become a Carthusian monk. He also translated into English the Eight Chapters on Perfection, which had been left at Cambridge, according to manuscript tradition, by Lluis de Font, an Aragonese Franciscan friar who was assigned to Cambridge in 1383. It was probably after this time that he joined the Augustinian priory at Thurgarton and wrote Scale II. Hughes 1988 suggests that he was one of the northern English clerics attached to Thomas Arundel as bishop of Ely and later Archbishop of York, but this is almost certainly not true.

  • Clark, John P. H. “Walter Hilton in Defence of the Religious Life and of the Veneration of Images.” The Downside Review 103 (1985): 1–25.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thorough discussion of Hilton’s life and career as a writer, in the context of a discussion of “De Utilitate et Prerogativis Religionis” and “De Adoracione Imaginum” that updates Russell-Smith 1954.

  • Clark, John P. H. “Walter Hilton: His Life and Writings.” In Walter Hilton: The Scale of Perfection. Edited and translated by John P. H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, 13–19. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides the same information as Clark 2004, with somewhat more detail.

  • Clark, John P. H. “Hilton, Walter (c. 1343–1396).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    An excellent biographical introduction. Available online by subscription.

  • Hughes, Jonathan. Pastors and Visionaries: Religion and Secular Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Hilton is discussed throughout this historical survey, but the author’s conclusions are not always correct. In particular, there is no evidence that Hilton was, as Hughes repeats constantly, a member of a circle of northern English clerics attached to Archbishop Thomas Arundel.

  • Russell-Smith, Joy. “Walter Hilton and a Tract in Defence of the Veneration of Images.” Dominican Studies 7 (1954): 180–214.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first modern discussion of Hilton’s Latin letter “De Utilitate et Prerogativis Religionis” and “De Adoracione Imaginum,” and of the evidence of Hilton’s career, including particularly the dating of his death.

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