Medieval Studies The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Texts
by
Christopher M. Roman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0245

Introduction

The Cloud of Unknowing and the other works in the Cloud corpus, The Book of Privy Counseling and The Epistle of Prayer, are unique in the late-medieval mystical canon, as they emphasize an apophatic, or describing what God is not, approach to divine experience over that of the more popular kataphatic, or affective, tradition, which emphasizes the positive traits of God along with Christ’s humanity. The anonymous Cloud of Unknowing was probably written around 1380, and some scholars have situated it within a Carthusian context (see Ellis and Fanous 2011, cited under General Studies). Despite its unclear origins, the Cloud is an important and influential work situated alongside the other mystical and contemplative works of the late Middle Ages, such as the work of Richard Rolle, The Revelations of Divine Love or Book of Shewings of Julian of Norwich, the works of Walter Hilton, and The Book of Margery Kempe. The Cloud-author emphasizes an apophatic contemplative schema, one that rejects sensory experience of God in order to focus on the silence of God, or what God is not. Influenced by the translated works of the 6th-century theologian Pseudo-Dionysus, including his Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchy, the Cloud-author writes a contemplative treatise that places the contemplative on a path that will place a cloud between God and the contemplative in order for the contemplative to lose oneself in God’s love.

Manuscripts, Editions, Excerpts

The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the late 1300s. The Cloud-author’s other works, including The Book of Privy Counseling and translations such as Deonise Hid Divinite, were written after The Cloud of Unknowing and offer up points of clarification and direct lines of influence. There are seventeen known manuscripts of The Cloud of Unknowing and ten of The Book of Privy Counseling. British Library MS Harleian 674 appears to be the earliest of the manuscripts and the manuscript from which the other copies descend. The Latin version of The Cloud of Unknowing, Pembroke College, Cambridge MS 221 and British Library Oxford MS Bodleian 856, are dated later. Each of the Latin manuscripts is translated from different originary Middle English manuscripts. Hodgson 1958a, the EETS edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, is the most scholarly edition. Other works, including Gallacher 1997, provide teachable editions based on Hodgson 1958b. Other editions of the Latin versions, such as Clark 1989 and Clark 2009, exhibit the wider circulation of the Cloud in intellectual and monastic contexts. Finally, Walsh 1988 provides a clear, modern English translation for a modern reader.

  • Butcher, Carmen Acevedeo, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counseling. Boston: Shambhala, 2009.

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    Butcher bases his translation on Gallacher’s edition and offers a modern translation with gender-inclusive language.

  • Clark, John, ed. The Latin Versions of The Cloud of Unknowing. Salzburg: Universitat Salzburg, 1989.

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    Clark provides a Latin edition of The Cloud of Unknowing based on the earliest Latin manuscript, Oxford Bodleian Library MS 856.

  • Clark, John. Introduction and Notes for the Nubes Ingorandi, the Latin Version of The Cloud of Unknowing in Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 856. Analecta Cartusiana 278. Salzburg, Austria: Institut fuür Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universitaüt Salzburg, 2009.

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    Clark gives background and notes for the two Latin translations of The Cloud of Unknowing found in Oxford MS Bodley 856 and a later edition created by the Carthusian Richard Methley at Mount Grace Priory.

  • Gallacher, Patrick J., ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1997.

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    Gallacher’s edition provides a clean teaching text with corrections of Hodgson’s edition.

  • Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling. EETS no. 218. London: Oxford University Press, 1958a.

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    Considered the most scholarly edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and its related works.

  • Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. Deonise Hid Divinite and Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing. EETS no. 231. London: Oxford University Press, 1958b.

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    Hodgson provides a companion to her EETS edition of The Cloud of Unknowing, with texts also found in the same manuscript with the Cloud-author’s main work.

  • Johnston, William, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.

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    This partial translation with modern interpolations has been critically rejected. It is unclear from what manuscript Johnston is working.

  • McCann, Abbot Justin, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing together with The Epistle of Privy Counsel. London: Burnes and Oates, 1952.

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    This is a controversial translation that sanitizes much of the Cloud-author for a pre-Vatican II, conservative, and Catholic audience.

  • Renevey, Denis, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing: Prologue. In The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520. Edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor, and Ruth Evans, 230–233. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

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    Renevey’s edition of the “Prologue” to The Cloud of Unknowing is situated in the context of vernacular theology in this anthology.

  • Walsh, James A., trans. The Pursuit of Wisdom and Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Paulist, 1988.

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    Walsh provides a modern English translation of the works found in Deonise Hid Divinite originally edited in Hodgson 1958b.

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