Walter Hilton, like Rolle, is one of the ‘English Mystics’ of the fourteenth-century and his spiritual writings proved popular in his own time and in generations since then. Hilton’s date and place of birth are not known, but he died at Thurgarton Priory on 24 March 1396. Hilton was an Augustinian Canon, which would have involved him in undertaking pastoral work and teaching. Much of his own personal study involved reading Scripture and spiritual writings, which included those of Richard Rolle. The important place that scripture held for Hilton may be seen in his Letters to a Layman, in which he encourages his readers to lead a ‘mixed life’ of contemplation and active Christian service, and to read the books of the Bible in English.* He also used the Bible in his writings, and his work Scale of Perfection appears to be based upon Ephesians 4, 1 John 4, and Hebrews 6.
The Scale of Perfection was written in two sections, and originally written for an anchoress to help her to begin her solitary, contemplative life and to continue to grow spiritually. However, Book 1 soon became very popular and read by many people other than its original recipient, and there are still many extant manuscripts, one of which is in Worcester Cathedral Library in F.172, ff.72v-116.
Edden points out that the initial greeting in the Worcester manuscript has been altered so that the greeting is to a brother rather than sister as in the original.
The book’s title, Scale of Perfection, is not used in the text but was attributed to it, based upon the bible story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis, which had its foot on Earth and its top in Heaven. Jeffrey thinks that the title Coming to Perfection is a better title, and one that he bases on Hebrews 6:1. Hilton’s spiritual advice concerns relocating the image of God in the human soul, which involves self-forgetfulness by focussing on Jesus, meekness, and being open to the work of the Holy Spirit. He considers that this spiritual awareness is available for anyone, and not only to those in religious orders.
Some of Hilton’s work is still available in modern translations, such as Hilton, Walter, Toward a Perfect Love – The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans., David L. Jeffrey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), which was the basis of the information about Hilton in this blog. Many people continue to find Hilton’s advice about leading a balanced life of prayer and service to others very useful as they try to juggle the demands of a busy modern life-style.
*The bible was usually read in Latin (The Vulgate) by the clergy.
Edden, Valerie, The Index of Middle English Prose. Handlist XV. Manuscripts in Midland Libraries (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000).
Hilton, Walter, Toward a Perfect Love – The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans., David L. Jeffrey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001).
Thomson, R. M., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library (D. S. Brewer on behalf of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral, 2001).