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Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.110r

Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.110r

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1450

Shelfmark: Harley MS 6579

Item number: f.110r

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.

Written without decoration and with very little variation in size or style of letters, the manuscript reflects the austerity of the brothers' ideals as well as Hilton's belief that sensory experience of any kind was beside the point. The aim was a totally mystical climb to spiritual perfection. While Hilton wrote in english, he sometimes quoted latin from the Bible or theological writers. These latin quotations are underscored in the manuscript, rather than writing them in red or decorating their first letter, as might have been done in other manuscripts.

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