Linguistic “Standards” in Middle English: The Case of the Ancrene Wisse

Shannon Donaldson

copyright 2001



            The Ancrene Wisse[1] is a book of devotional advice written for three sisters by a chaplain in the early part of the thirteenth century.  Composed in a Southwest Midlands dialect, the language has been approximated to Herefordshire of the southwestern region of England.  Though such details have been proposed, they remain the topic of much academic discussion, as so little is certain concerning the origins of the text. As such, the details of its composition and transcription remain to this day the subject of much academic controversy.  An abundance of research has been conducted to determine the original language of the text, its place and date of origin, and the original dialect of composition.  Most recently, studies have taken to challenge previous research, and the dialectal identity of the works continues to be that of widespread philological debate and commentary.

Ancrene refers to “anchoresses” (genitive plural of “ancre”), wisse to “knowledge” (cf. Contemporary German wissen – “to know”), while riwle is the thirteenth century spelling of “rules” as the text details a general “rule” for anchoresses, or female recluses. The text, authored by a local chaplain, was originally written for three sisters, but came to serve as a general monastic order for women.  The rule survives in English, extant in eleven manuscript copies, while of these most are composed in Southern dialects.  The text is divided into eight parts, and though the work is said to have been written for the young sisters, stylistically the text suggests that it will be read by others.  The author assumes that his audience will have knowledge of Latin and French as well as English, a fact, which in itself proves that like the ancren, those addressed, will have received their education in a nunnery, with a background in such prestige languages of religious discourse.

In marked contrast to other texts of similar Southwestern region and dialect (e.g. La3amon’s Brut) which tended to be linguistically more “conservative” and thus retained many Old English forms, the Ancrene Wisse contains a significantly high proportion of loanwords, and markedly less stylistic similarity to Old English poetic form.  Typical Old English vocabulary are absent, as are the compounded forms so frequent in Old English poetry.  The text appears as much more consistent, as words are repeated frequently throughout the text, and the variety which was so characteristic of Old English is absent.

Loanwords are employed freely, and the origins of these help to anchor the geographic origins of the text.  Merja Black notes that the occurrence of Welsh loanwords, otherwise rare in Middle English texts, such as baban, babanliche, and cader (“baby, babyish”, “cradle”), point towards the western origins of the text and to the southwestern dialect of the surviving early manuscripts (Black 168 n. 26).  In the case of French loanwords, the incidence is considerable.  The use of Scandinavian vocabulary items is also high, and this has led scholars to falsely speculate that the text had northern influences.  For as Zettersten notes, in the Corpus MS although there are approximately 100 Scandinavian words recorded, there are over 500 French vocabulary items which, more importantly, occur often throughout the text.  The implications of which, point to Southern Middle English linguistic strategies.  As well, Zettersten notes French influence over the phrasing of the text, further evidence for a Southern place of origin.

It has come to be generally agreed that the text could not have been written much before 1200 (Dobson 181).  Of the earliest manuscript copy J.R.R. Tolkien concluded that its language was so “pure” and consistent – an anomaly in Middle English textual practice- that it must be assumed the scribe of the manuscript wrote in the same textual dialect as the author.  Tolkien argued that in such a period of great linguistic change and orthographic instability as that of Early Middle English, such uniformity in transcription must represent a narrow time interval. Since the Corpus MS has been dated to approximately 1225, the original text could not have been composed much before 1200 (181). 

The Ancrene Wisse is notable for both its style as well as the orthographic regularity in which many of the texts were reproduced (Blake 129).  Though numerous manuscripts are extant of the Ancrene Wisse and related prose texts, two are of particular prominence: Corpus Christi 402 MS A, and Bodley 34 MS B, perhaps known better as manuscripts ‘A’ and ‘B’ respectively.  These two manuscripts display remarkable formal similarity and because of this are believed to be evidence of a regional standardized Early Middle English literary dialect or lexeme, which Tolkien termed the “AB language”.  Though transliterated by different scribes, there is formal evidence of orthographic and phonological consistency between the two manuscripts.  Tolkien claimed that such scribal uniformity, so unusual to Middle English textual practice, in turn must reflect a regionally “standard” orthographic system, created to reflect a particular local authoritative Southwest Midland dialect.  This dialect has been located to Wigmore Abbey, in north Herefordshire where there existed a “centre of literary culture…which presumably included a school in which various scribes were trained to reproduce the spelling system devised by a master or director of the scriptorium” (Blake130). 

Particular features of this “AB” orthography support the notion of a localized, standardized literary discourse, and as such they demand further attention (see Blake 130-31, Zettersten for details).  Many scholars argue that since AB orthographic practice did not reflect the scribes’ own spoken dialects, that this uniform written dialect must reflect an artificial form, or “literary standard” learned or imposed upon them (Blake 130)[2].  The language of both the Corpus manuscript (“A”) and the texts of Bodley 34 MS (“B”), represents a highly consistent form of a Southwest Midland dialect, one which suggests an early example of a standardized literary language, to which local scribes must have been trained to conform.

The Ancrene Wisse belongs to a set of usages that may be seen as representative of a standardized (rather than “standard”) language, those which represent merely “a partially shared set of conventions, reproduced and adapted by a large number of scribes” (Smith 1996: 68; Black 166).  Black further states that “the work of the scribe producing A is shown to be no different in kind from that of Orm, in that both were adapting the available conventions for a particular, local context.  It is only the systematic way in which both scribes carried out the work that sets them apart from the majority of EME [Early Middle English] scribes” (Black 166).  To accredit this local form as “standard” would be to falsely grant authority to a particular set of shared conventions.  That local scribes were taught to conform to such regional forms rather represents the standardization of a specific set of linguistic practices, in the edification of a regional dialect.


Primary Texts and Manuscripts:


Seventeen manuscripts, whole or partial survive, with eleven in English (the original language of composition), four in Latin, and two in French. 


There are numerous editions of the Ancrene Wisse composed in various languages.  


English Editions:


J.R.R. Tolkien (Early English Text Society no. 249, 1962); Frances M. Mack (EETS no. 252, 1962); A.C. Baugh (EETS no. 232, 1956); R.M. Wilson (EETS no. 229, 1954); Mabel Day (EETS no. 225, 1952); J.H. Fisher (EETS no. 223, 1945); J. Pahlsson (Lund: 1911).


French Editions:


W.H. Tretheway (EETS no. 240, 1958) and J. A. Herbert (EETS no. 219, 1944).


The Latin text has been edited by Charlotte d’Evelyn (EETS no. 216, 1944).


Contemporary Transliterations:


The Nun’s Rule, trans. James Morton.  London: Chatto and Windus, 1907.


The Ancrene Riwle, trans. M.B. Salu.  Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1955.



For Further Reading:


Lexical Studies of Ancrene Wisse:


Black, Merja.  “AB or Simply A?: Reconsidering the Case for a Standard.”  Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 

100: 2, 1999, 155-74.


Diensberg, Bernhard.  “Lexical Change in the Ancrene Riwle, with Special Consideration of the Romance

and Scandinavian Loanwords.”  In:  Symposium on Lexicography V: Proceedings of the 5th International Symposium on Lexicography.  Karl Hyldgaard-Jensen and Arne Zettersten, eds.  Lexicographica, Series Major 43, 1992, 295-313. 


Hulbert, James R.  “A Thirteenth-Century English Literary Standard.”  Journal of English and Germanic

Philology.  45:4, 1946, 411-14.


Ladd, C.A.  “A Note on the Language of the Ancrene Riwle.”  Notes and Queries.  206 (August 1961),



Zettersten, Arne.  The Dialect and Vocabulary of the Ancrene Riwle.  Lund: Hakan                                

Ohlssons Boktryckeri, 1965.



General Resources:


Allen, Hope Emily.  “The Origin of the Ancren Riwle.”  Publications of the Modern Language Association

of America.  33, 1918, 474-546.


Blake, N.F.  A History of the English Language.  New York: NYU Press, 1996.


The Cambridge History of the English Language: v. 2. 1066-1476.  Edited by Norman Blake.  Cambridge:

Cambridge Univ. Press, Volume 2, 1992.


Chambers, R.W.  “Recent Research upon the Ancren Riwle.”  Review of English Studies.  1 (1925), 4-24.


Dobson, E.J.  “The Affiliations of the Manuscripts of the Ancrene Wisse.”  In:  English and Medieval

Studies.  Presented to J. R. R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday.  Norman Davis

and C. L. Wrenn, eds.  London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.  1962, 128-63.


Macaulay, G.C.  “The Ancren Riwle.”  Modern Language Review.  IX, 1914.


Tolkien, J.R.R.  Ancrene Wisse and Hali Mei  had.”  Essays and Studies, xiv (1929), 104-26.




Bibliographic Resources:


Burnley, David and Matsuji Tajima.  Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature Volume I: The Language of Middle English Literature.  Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994.


Millett, Bella.  Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature Volume II: Ancrene Wisse,

The Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group.  Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996.































[1] authoritative title, though most often referred to as the Ancren(e) Riwle

[2] However, it is problematic to construct such an artificial connection between speech and orthography, as both oral and written forms comprise separate discourses and are not homogenous forms.