Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.68v
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
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 'Ladder of Perfection' is one of the great expressions of late medieval religion which was directed toward personal, interior spirituality. In a sense the pages of the Carthusians' manuscript of it reflect that, with their austere appearance completely devoid of ornament or even blank spaces.