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Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005) 117-128

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Spirituality and Devotion in the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials

Loyola University Chicago

Whatever happened to the affect of the Anglo-Saxons? Why were their modes of spirituality omitted from the grand narratives of devotion and mysticism in the Middle Ages? Given the immense body of Latin evidence that attests to the devotional traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, to say nothing of the vernacular, how are we to explain the failure of scholars to integrate early and late medieval piety? Central terms of the later tradition, including "affectivity," "meditation," and "mysticism," seem out of place when used in conjunction with the earlier evidence. But should this be the case? This essay and the two that follow ask questions about the continuity of English spiritual traditions and call attention to the importance of Anglo-Saxon evidence in those traditions.

Studies of medieval spirituality routinely isolate later from earlier traditions. Joan Nuth's God's Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics, includes Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the Cloud-author, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. According to Nuth, "a significant change" took place about 1200 when the vernacular came to be used in spiritual writing, especially in writing by women.1 Nuth seems to be reflecting R. M. Wilson's rather different claim, made in 1956, that mystics who were ignorant of Latin were silent before vernacular became widespread.2 The question relevant both to Wilson's and to Nuth's argument is when the vernacular became widespread, and in England it was not 1200. Not surprisingly, Nuth includes no authors before the fourteenth century in her study and considers no English figure before 1200 a mystic.

Another example is Cultures of Piety, an excellent anthology edited by Anne Clark Bartlett and Thomas H. Bestul. They identify the twelfth century as a period of "marked growth" in mystical writing—reasonably enough—and acknowledge the role of collections of prayers starting already in the eighth century.3 The aim [End Page 117] of this anthology is to enlarge the canon of frequently-taught late medieval texts with mystical works; the book also enlarges another canon by adding less familiar titles—The Gast of Gy, The Fifteen Oes—to the list of often-excerpted texts by Julian, Rolle, Hilton and others. As they undo one set of stereotypes, however, the editors seem to reinforce another common idea, which is that affectivity is a "late" medieval development. Their introduction cites texts by Bernard and Aelred of Rievaulx from the mid-twelfth century. There are no early medieval or Anglo-Saxon authors in a book whose subtitle is "Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation."4

It is rare, as Scott DeGregorio demonstrates in the following essay, to find the contributions of such important figures as Bede, Alcuin, Aldhelm, King Alfred, and Ælfric discussed in the devotional tradition before Anselm. Yet already in 1961 Eric Colledge traced the debt of Bernard to Bede, and in addition to Bede also briefly mentioned Boniface, Alcuin, and the anonymous authors of some Old English poems.5 Colledge based his work on that of Ignazio Bonetti, which, Colledge argued, illustrated "the sources and spread of Anglo-Saxon mysticism and devotion" through collections of private prayer, including The Book of Cerne and The Book of Nunnaminster.6

Colledge himself offered a simple and useful outline of mystical speculation, which "in every great religion of which we have knowledge" followed "the same order, man's observation first of his own self, then of the rest of the visible natural order, leading him to deductions concerning creation's Creator" and ranging beyond those deductions to regions to "which human intellect cannot proceed," that being "speculation upon the divine mysteries."7 Colledge made these arguments in the process of establishing the centrality of St. Paul to Christian mysticism; among those in St. Paul's debt he placed Aelred, whose Mirror of Love Colledge shrewdly positioned as "the middle" of "an account of the mystics of mediaeval England."8 Colledge argued...


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