Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hilton f.132v
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.
Describing in detail the contemplative life, Hilton guides the reader on the climb from faults toward shaping the soul into a mystical portrait of Jesus, the 'Perfection' of the title. That the manuscript was studied is obvious from the markings and notes on its pages. Here, part of a sentence has been excised by lining through it. At some point another erasure had been attempted and a word written over where the word had been scraped off the vellum. Below, the word 'Love' has been rewritten over another scraped area.