The Ancrene Riwle : Chivalric Attitudes of the Middle Ages
Cumming, Nancy Ann
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Stereotypes of Mary and Eve dominated medieval chivalric thought concerning women. The author of the Ancrene Riw1e naturally assimilated these chivalric stereotypes in his life. He was influenced by many aspects of chivalry and uses much of its imagery in his rule. The attitudes towards women he presented in the rule perpetuate the chivalric stereotypes he learned. Unfortunately, he discusses men so rarely in his rule that his opinions about them are not revealed. Like other chivalric thinkers, however, he instructed the women to emulate Mary. He believed the anchoresses he wrote for were reaching perfection in their lives and praised them often for their holiness. Yet, his chivalric attitudes also led him to make other assumptions. He believed the sisters, as all women, were physically weak and that their holiness depended on this weakness. Spirituality should be more important to women than physical strength. Therefore, he allows them to lead moderately comfortable lives instead of stressing physical labor and penances. The author also has confidence that the sisters will not take advantage of this allowance and live too luxuriously. Although women did not have a great deal of authority in the church hierarchy at this time, within their community the author has given them responsibility to govern their own lives. As anchoresses no churchman should have control over them. The popularity of the Ancrene Riwle grew due to this moderate approach and the author's beautiful, moving writing. Yet the author made it clear in his rule that those women who were not as pious as the sisters he wrote for would be damned. Nuns and anchoresses could also be accused of following Eve and the author referred to them as such many times. He wrote at great length about the sexual activity of some anchoresses. Like many other medieval men he could not accept that women had a physical nature or any sins whatsoever. Hence, he placed them into very rigid roles. In doing so he reveals that he did not view women as real human beings. He does not allow them human faults and feelings. In denying woman her sexual nature, he denies her a basic part of human life. Thus, he rejects that she is completely human. Many of the holy virtues the author cited in the Ancrene Riwle such as virginity, passivity, patience, and self-sacrifice are today stereotypically feminine virtues. Ideas of chivalry dominated how people viewed one another in the Middle Ages and continue to influence us today.