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Hilton, Walter (c.1343–1396), religious writer, was born about 1343, a date deducible from his academic career. Neither his birthplace nor the date of his ordination is known. It is presumed that he studied at Cambridge University, on the assumption that he is identical with the Walter Hilton, bachelor of civil law, a clerk of Lincoln diocese, who was granted the reservation of a canonry and prebend of Abergwili, Carmarthen, in January 1371, and with the Walter Hilton, bachelor of civil law, recorded at the Ely consistory court in 1375. He is described in two fifteenth-century manuscripts as inceptor in canon law—that is, as one who qualified for the doctorate but did not take it. Given the exigencies of the academic curriculum, he could have been a bachelor of canon law in 1376, and ready to incept as doctor in 1381–2.

Links have been established between Hilton and various northern clerks employed by Thomas Arundel, bishop of Ely from 1374 to 1388. Some were given preferment at Peterhouse, a college with a strong bias towards canon law. Arundel and his circle at Ely were active in responding to incipient Lollardy; after Arundel's translation to York in 1388, Hilton and others would have been instrumental in the policy of imposing rule and order upon an ‘enthusiastic’ piety that was influenced by the tradition of the hermit Richard Rolle (d. 1349), as well as in the conflict with Lollardy.

Hilton's letters reveal that, having renounced a promising legal career, he spent some time as a solitary, but they show him unfulfilled in this condition; he was at heart a pastor and a ‘community’ man. He joined the priory of Augustinian canons at Thurgarton, Nottinghamshire, presumably c.1386, the year when a correspondent, Adam Horsley, joined the Beauvale Charterhouse, and he remained there until his death on 24 March 1396. In 1388 the prior of Thurgarton was authorized, with others, to examine heretics. But while Hilton's writings are severely critical of ‘heresy’ and of ‘enthusiastic’ piety, his fame as a spiritual writer rests rather on his positive statement of orthodox ascetic and mystical theology, to which contemporary controversy has added precision.

Hilton's greatest work is The Scale of Perfection (the title is editorial), in two books. The first book, datable to his early years at Thurgarton, is addressed ostensibly to an anchoress, and speaks of the renewal of God's image in man as the prelude to contemplation, with practical counsel on meditation and prayer, on humility and charity, and on the conquest of the capital sins. The second, which can only have been completed shortly before his death, is addressed to a wider readership, and views contemplation as an integral aspect of the fulfilment of the baptismal life, to which all Christians are called. His account of the journey towards contemplation through the ‘luminous darkness’, the way of the Cross, develops further the teaching of the first book. There are indications of mutual influence between Hilton and the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who may have been a monk of Beauvale, but Hilton firmly eschews the element of negative, or ‘apophatic’, theology to be found in the Cloud.

Closely associated with the first book of The Scale of Perfection, is Mixed Life, addressed to a devout layman with temporal responsibilities; this prescribes a rule of life appropriate to such men living in the world. The Scale was translated from English into Latin, probably before 1400, by the Carmelite Thomas Fyslake, who had become BD at Cambridge c.1375. The Scale (in English) and Mixed Life were printed in London in 1494 by Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), and continued to be reprinted until the Reformation changed the pattern of English religion. Augustine Baker (1575–1641), an English Benedictine, used the Scale, among other authorities, for the nuns under his direction at Cambrai. A fresh edition of the Scale and Mixed Life, probably prepared by Serenus Cressy, also a Benedictine, was printed in 1659 for sale in London. Since the nineteenth century there has been renewed interest in Hilton, with fresh editions and studies, first among Roman Catholics and then among Anglicans.

Hilton's Latin letters to individuals contain material which is taken up in the Scale within a broader framework. He is also credited with Conclusiones de ymaginibus, defending the veneration of images, and with Of Angels' Song, a response to the enthusiasm of Rolle's followers for this phenomenon. An English commentary on the psalm ‘Qui habitat’ may well be his. He was also responsible for ‘Eight chapters on perfection’, a translation of a work by Luis de Fontibus, an Aragonese Franciscan whose regency in theology at Cambridge may be dated to either 1391–3 or 1392–4. The Prickynge of Love, an expanded English version of the popular Stimulus amoris, compiled by the thirteenth-century Franciscan Giacomo da Milano and later writers, is also attributed quite plausibly to Hilton in some manuscripts.

While Hilton's Latin letters provide some personal details, his English writings are an authoritative statement of doctrine, and partly, though not wholly, veil his own personality. They reflect his clear legal mind and interest in moral theology, as well as his wide grasp of spiritual theology, especially in the tradition of Augustine, Gregory the Great, and the Cistercians. He avoids the appearance of innovation, but can still give fresh applications to old principles. He emerges as a firm yet compassionate pastor, with a sense of moderation in ascetic practices. His openness to people in varying states of life goes beyond the more strictly monastic bias of The Cloud of Unknowing.

J. P. H. Clark

Sources  

Emden, Cam. · J. Russell-Smith, ‘Walter Hilton and a tract in defence of veneration of images’, Dominican Studies, 7 (1954), 180–214 · J. P. H. Clark, ‘Walter Hilton in defence of the religious life and of the veneration of images’, Downside Review, 103 (1985), 1–25 · Walter Hilton's Latin writings, ed. J. P. H. Clark and C. Taylor, 2 vols. (1987) · R. Dorward, The scale of perfection, ed. and trans. W. Hilton and J. P. H. Clark (1991) [trans. from middle Eng., with an introduction and notes] · J. P. H. Clark, ‘Walter Hilton and the psalm commentary Qui habitat’, Downside Review, 100 (1982), 235–62 · J. P. H. Clark, ‘The problems of Walter Hilton's authorship: Bonum est, Benedictus and Of angels' song’, Downside Review, 101 (1983), 15–29 · J. P. H. Clark, ‘Walter Hilton and the Stimulus amoris’, Downside Review, 102 (1984), 79–118 · M. G. Sargent, James Grenehalgh as textual critic, 2 vols., Analecta Cartusiana, 85 (1984) · J. Hughes, Pastors and visionaries: religion and secular life in late medieval Yorkshire (1988)

Archives  

BL, Harley MS 6579 · CUL, Add. MS 6686 · LPL, MS 472