Exploring The Ancrene Riwle

There is virtually no one on my side of the screen who will appreciate this book the way I do.  Don’t get me wrong, there are people in my world who will appreciate aspects of it.  Some will appreciate that it’s just an old book. Some will appreciate the smell of it.  But I’m curious to see who will do the full-on fan flail with me and who will respect the tome itself for what it is.  That’s a lot of unnecessary buildup, isn’t it?  Yeah, it probably is.  Don’t care.  I’ve been in awe over this book since it arrived in the mail today.

Let me set this up for you.  I found this book rather inexpensively through a third party seller on Amazon.  It arrived via Royal Mail to my own American post office, and then to my waiting paws around lunch time.  Even through the protective wrappings, I could smell the book.  It’s infused with the smell of whichever wooden shelf it’s been waiting upon, probably for decades, no doubt alongside other interesting books.  Once the wrappings were gone, the aromatic book scent took over.  I carefully removed the dust of ages.  It’s a plain medium-dark green book with a gold embossed crest on the cover.  Simple, but elegant.

The book itself is a relatively modern English translation of a Latin manuscript dating to the early-to- mid 13th century.  Some versions of the texts were written in Middle English or Anglo-Norman.  Sometimes called the Ancrene Wisse, it’s an anonymous rule manual for anchoresses.

Wait a second… what’s an anchoress?  This is the 21st century!

Simply put, the anchorites were an extreme type of monastic dedicants who, in order to place themselves closer to God, took both “marriage vows” to God and last rites — a wedding and a funeral at the same time — and had themselves entombed in a small cell, usually adjacent to a church where the congregation would see their example up close and personal.  For all intents, they were otherwise dead to this world, save for one meal a day that was passed through a hole in the door by another of the local clergy everyday until the smell confirmed the expiration of the corporeal body.  Surprisingly, it was an extremely popular practice for centuries.  Essentially, this is the rule book for the female members of that order so as to get the most out of it.

Why is this important to me?

First, there’s Hildegard von Bingen.  Saint Hildegard was something of a rock star in her time, a prophet who wrote revelatory tomes and went on tour with the pope.  More than that, she is the first person in western culture whose music lives on to our own time wherein we actually know who wrote it.  Hers is beautiful music, absolutely groundbreaking in its own time for a number of reasons.  As a young girl, she was forced into taking anchoress vows, declared dead, and walled up.  Scary stuff, isn’t it?  She ultimately escaped her fate through her faith, becoming against all odds one of the most famous people of her age and many others.  Regardless of how you feel about any of it, it’s quite a story, one that defies all convention and logic in much the same way as that of Joan of Arc, though on a very different path.  Hildegard’s own life predated this text by a couple hundred years, but this book will serve as an insight for me into her life and her world.  The medievalist in me geeks out about that despite the fact that the entire anchorite ideal freaks me out a bit.

But there’s another side to the geekery, one much closer to our own time.  Take a look at this:

Did you feel it too?

This particular book was published less than a year after The Lord of the Rings, while Professor Tolkien was at his height of medieval and linguistic scholarship.  To think that his fingerprints were on that manuscript, that he was asked to write this preface because he very likely had a hand in helping out with the translation… I get chills just thinking about it.  Learning about this sort of thing the past couple of decades, reading these old texts… this is what has helped me to understand his fictional works and to better appreciate his expertise.

Combine all that knowledge and insight with the scent of bygone ages… this book has an aura all its own.  I had to share.  I had to.  I tried to at work, and people gave me empty stares in return.  No one even understood why that old book smell is awesome.



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