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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 8. Walter Hylton

The works of Pecock and Fortescue were destined to appeal rather to later generations than to their own contemporaries, whose tastes were better served by books more directly didactic and less controversial, whether these were of the purely devotional type or pseudo-devotional compilations of tales with arbitary applications. Of this latter sort the most famous example is Gesta Ramanorum Devotional literature, as distinct from the Wyclifite and controversial literature, for nearly a century and a half derived from the school of mystics, the spiritual descendants of Richard Rolle of Hampole. Their great master is Walter Hylton, an Augustinian canon of Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire, whose beautiful Ladder of Perfection supplied both system and corrective to Rolle’s exuberance of feeling.

That English mysticism was practical and missionary was doubtless due to Rolle; and the example he set of copious writing in the vernacular was following by his disciples, whose tracts, sermons and meditiations, whether original or translated from the Fathers, helped to render the languages of devotion more fluent than that of common life. When the life of the recluse had become once more an honoured profession, the phrasseology of mysticism was readily understood by the special circle to which it appealed. Hylton’s works are far more modern than Rolle’, both in matter and expression. They were favourites with the early printers and are still read in modernised form. The lofty thought and clear insight, the sanity, the just judgement of The Ladder of Perfection or The Devout book to a temporal man are not more striking than the clarity of the style. Hylton’s language has not, perhaps, a very wide range, but he renders abstract and subtle thoughts with ease. Careful explanations are made of any fresh term; pairs of words and phrases, though very frequenct, are scarcely ever tautologous, nor is alliteration noticeable. Biblical language occurs less often than might be expected, but illustration is common and ranges from single comparison (“as full of sin as a hide or skin is full of flesh”) to complete mataphor, whose significance he evidently expects his readers to grasp readily. Thus, when he likens the progress of the soul to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he adds, “Jerusalem is as moche as to saye as a syght of peace, and betokeneth contemplacyon in parfyte love of God.” Or he speaks of meekness and love, the prime virtues of the recluse’s life, as two strings, which, “well fastened with the mynde of Jesu maketh good accorde in the harpe of the soule whan they be craftely touched with the fynger of reason; for the lower thou smytest upon that one the hyer sowneth that other.” In almost every respect Hylton presents a contrast to his contemporary Trevisa.