The Middle English mystics are five spiritual writers from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries:1 the hermit Richard Rolle (c. 1300–1349); the anchoress Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–c. 1416); Walter Hilton, an Augustinian canon (c. 1343–1396); an anonymous Carthusian, writing in the 1380s; and an illiterate laywoman, Margery Kempe (c. 1373–c. 1438). Rolle and Hilton wrote works in Latin as well as English; the others wrote only in English. Their works fall into two broad classes, though each presupposes the other: works of spiritual direction, often addressed to particular (sometimes named) individuals; and records of spiritual experiences. The most important of the former are Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, in English, and The Cloude of Vnknowyng by the anonymous Carthusian; of the latter, Julian’s revelations on the Passion of Christ — surviving in short and long versions (ST, LT) — and Margery’s spiritual autobiography, the first of its kind in English. These writers and their readers (now as then) are beneficiaries of programmes of spiritual instruction for religious and lay people that were started in the thirteenth century and developed exponentially thereafter up to, and including, the Reformation. The present essay, a literary introduction to their writings, principally considers the ambiguous and provisional nature of the authority they claim for themselves and their work, an issue complicated by the religious model of authorship which underpins their literary practice2 and brought most clearly into focus in their readiness to rework their materials, characteristically by adding to them, so as to suggest that their literary project is always work in progress.
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