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Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.46v

Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.46v

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1450

Shelfmark: Harley MS 6579

Item number: f.46v

Length: 20.6

Width: 14.1

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Manuscript

Walter Hilton (died 1396), an Austin monk at Thurgarton (Nottinghamshire), was one of several influential late medieval English mystics. Considered a masterpiece of Middle English literature, his 'Ladder of Perfection" ('Scala Perfectionis') instructs in the destruction of vices and directs the soul's upward journey by contemplation of "the perfect love of God". This copy of it belonged to the Charterhouse of the Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a community of Carthusian monks founded in 1371. Located near a plague pit (mass burial of plague victims) in Smithfield, the brothers prayed for the thousands who died in the Black Death. Carthusians reside in communities but practice the strictest spiritual discipline, living as hermits in separate small houses with gardens, their material needs attended to by lay brothers. The monks would have read this manuscript as an aid to their rigorous spiritual contemplation. When Cranmer, in 1534 under Henry VIII, dissolved the Charterhouse, a number of them were sent to the Tower and killed.

The manuscript's very plain pages reflect the asceticism of the lives of the Charterhouse brothers. Lacking any decoration or even blank spaces, the manuscript must have been difficult to use. A later reader or librarian marked divisions of sections in the text using signs in red with titles added in the margins, and a list of chapter titles was added at the end. The two words at the lower corner of the page are 'catchwords', the first two words of the next page, added to aid assembly of the pages.

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