In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancrene Wisse, and the Katherine and Wooing Groups

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Concordances
  • Introductory Works
  • Anthologies
  • Manuscripts
  • Manuscript and Textual Study
  • Language
  • Readers
  • The Legacy of Ancrene Wisse

British and Irish Literature Ancrene Wisse, and the Katherine and Wooing Groups
Cate Gunn, Ayoush Lazikani
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0033


Ancrene Wisse is an important prose work of early Middle English, probably composed originally in the thirteenth century. Interest in it is due both to the language (Ancrene Wisse being one of the earliest extant prose works in English after the Norman Conquest) and to the light it shines on the lives of religious women in the High Middle Ages. Although often referred to as a single work (also known as the Ancren Riwle), the text appears in various versions in manuscripts dating from the first part of the thirteenth century to the late fourteenth century, and as extracts in later works. Since none of the manuscripts contains the author’s original text, paleography and codicology (not always precise tools) can provide only a date by which the work must have been composed; internal references to religious practices, source material, et cetera provide further evidence of possible authorship and dating. While the dating and location of both manuscripts and the composition of the work itself remain a matter of debate, the generally accepted conclusion is that Ancrene Wisse was written originally in the first half of the thirteenth century at the request of three sisters who required guidance in the vocation of anchoritism they had chosen; that is, they intended to live an enclosed life, probably attached to a church, and adhering to basic vows of obedience, chastity, and stability of abode but without entering a nunnery. A nexus of manuscripts exists that contain Ancrene Wise and/or other texts with a similar readership of women following a religious vocation. The other texts in these manuscripts have been assigned to two groups: the Wooing Group and the Katherine Group. Although these classifications have no medieval authority, they remain useful for handling and classifying material. Interest in these works was mostly philological in the early twentieth century, but they are now crucial for the study of women and sexuality in the Middle Ages. The texts also provide material for those concerned with manuscript studies and reading practices, devotional practices, and anchoritism as an alternative to monasticism; they promote a contemplative life and have been read as mystical. Ancrene Wisse, however, also incorporated advice for a non-religious readership, and the works came to have a wider audience. The works included in the Katherine Group are the lives of Saint Katherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Juliene along with other works found in MS Bodley 34, that is Hali Meiðhad (also known as Epistel of Meidenhad and Hali Meidenhad; in English Holy Maidenhood) and Sawles Warde, see Katherine Group for further details; the Wooing Group comprises “On wel swuðe God Ureisun of God Almihti” (or “On Ureisun of ure Louerde”), “Þe Oreisun of Seinte Marie” (or “On Lofsong of ure Lefdi”), “On Lofsong of ure Louerde,” and the text after which the group is named, “Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd” (“The Wooing of Our Lord”); for the possible inclusion of “On god ureisun of ure lefdi,” see the Wooing Group.

General Overviews

These works are essays in collections that provide wider interest than their particular contributions on Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group and the Wooing Group (collectively sometimes called the Ancrene Wisse Group), allowing them to be placed in their historical and cultural context. Wallace 1999 is an excellent first point of call for any study of medieval English literature. Millett 2004 explains the Ancrene Wisse group as works of literature, while the essays in Strohm 2007 are particularly interesting for their thematic approaches. Morgan and Thomson 2008, which introduces readers to the study of material books, is of value to any study of medieval literature, and some essays specifically address manuscripts containing Ancrene Wisse group texts. The website EM1060: The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 provides a useful entry point for the study of manuscripts as a context to the writing of the Ancrene Wisse group texts. Blake 1992 provides an introduction to the language, while Roberts 2005 is an excellent handbook and guide to vernacular scripts. Hollywood and Beckman 2012 provides a context for the Christian mysticism that is often attributed to Ancrene Wisse; whether Ancrene Wisse and the Wooing Group texts are “mystical” remains a subject of debate, for more on which see Religion and Spirituality.

  • Blake, Norman. “The Literary Language.” In The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 2, 1066–1476. Edited by Norman Blake, 500–541. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Study of the language and style of Ancrene Wisse, the Wooing Group and the St. Katherine Group as the most important prose texts of the early Middle English period.

  • EM1060: The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220.

    Access to articles on early Middle English literature and a catalogue of English manuscripts from 1060 to 1220, some discussed in Treharne 2012 (cited under Language). Particularly useful for its examination of continuity of English writing after the conquest (see also Millett 2004).

  • Hollywood, Amy, and Patricia Z. Beckman, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Does not deal explicitly with works in the Ancrene Wisse group but discussions on themes, especially anachoresis (here defined as “seeking the place of God”) and modern topics such as sexuality are helpful for background study.

  • Millett, Bella. “The Ancrene Wisse Group.” In A Companion to Middle English Prose. Edited by A. S. G. Edwards, 1–17. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

    A clear account of the texts in the Ancrene Wisse group starting with the manuscripts in which the texts are found and explaining the language (“AB”) in which two of them were written. Origins, sources, and influences are dealt with, and the question of the “continuity” of English is addressed.

  • Morgan, Nigel J., and Rodney M. Thomson, eds. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 1100–1400. Vol. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A collection of useful essays by experts; of particular interest is Alexandra Barratt’s “Spiritual Writings and Religious Instruction,” which discusses Ancrene Wisse in its various manuscript forms alongside other works in Latin and the vernacular. Some essays are particularly technical, such as Parkes 2008 (cited under Manuscript and Textual Study).

  • Roberts, Jane. Guide to Scripts Used in English Writings up to 1500. London: British Library, 2005.

    Only contains one example of an Ancrene Wisse group text, from Part 2 of Ancrene Wisse in the Titus manuscript, but a valuable resource for reading scripts of the period, especially for those approaching paleography and manuscript studies for the first time.

  • Strohm, Paul, ed. Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Essays on themes and topics in Middle English literature including three essays of relevance to Ancrene Wisse: “Multilingualism” by Robert M. Stein; “Liturgy” by Bruce Holsinger (see also Religion and Spirituality); and “Learning to Live” by Stephanie Trigg, who sees Ancrene Wisse as a work of instruction.

  • Wallace, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Excellent resource with two relevant essays: Thomas Hahn’s “Early Middle English” (pp. 61–91) mentions Ancrene Wisse group texts in the context of manuscripts and the particular readers they were intended for. Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne’s “National, World and Women’s History: Writers and Readers of English in Post-Conquest England” (pp. 92–121) deals with female readers of Ancrene Wisse group texts.

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