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Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.108r

Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.108r

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1450

Shelfmark: Harley MS 6579

Item number: f.108r

Length: 20.6

Width: 13.5

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.

Walter Hilton describes in detail the totally spiritual experience of contemplation. The upward climb on the ladder means refining the soul of all faults in order to duplicate the mystical image of Jesus, the 'Perfection' of the title. This page provides a snippet of his discussion on becoming spiritually perfect. The intensity of his discussion is also a good example of the level and kind of ascetic mysticism that was prominent in late medieval Christianity in England, in total harmony with the ideals of the Carthusians.

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