Spiritual theologian and canon regular of St. Augustine; date and place of birth unknown; d. Thurgarton Priory, Nottinghamshire, England 1395. The day of his death was the vigil either of the Annunciation or of the Assumption. These facts are drawn from various colophons to the MSS of his works. Nothing further is known for certain of his life, though various reasonable conjectures can be made. Among the Latin works ascribed to him is a letter written to a friend, Adam Horsley, an official of the King's Exchequer, who was seriously considering entering religion. In this letter, De utilitate et prerogativis religionis (The Advantages and Privileges of Religious Life), Hilton indicated that he was living as a solitary and implied that he himself would welcome the grace of vocation to the religious life; but meantime he must persevere in his solitary life. It has been suggested, with less likelihood, that the autobiographical references here and in another treatise, De imagine peccati (The Image of Sin), to the life of a recluse are merely metaphorical, since Hilton shortly afterward became a canon regular, thus adopting a less strict form of life. A much more probable conclusion is that Hilton was never officially enclosed as an anchorite or blessed as a hermit. The letter to Horsley appears to have been written between 1375 and 1380, and it is reasonable to conclude that he entered the priory at Thurgarton about this time or a little later. There is also evidence that Hilton studied Canon Law: a MS colophon gives him the title of commencer of decrees, which means that he took the degree but never taught the subject; and his letter to a lawyer, "To one wishing to renounce the world" (Ad quemdam saeculo renuntiare volentem ), also suggests that he was a canonist.
Hilton's fame as a doctor of mystical theology and spiritual director of the first rank rests largely on one book, The Scale of Perfection, though all the other works ascribed to him, particularly The Goad of Love, which is a highly original adaptation into English of the Stimulus Amoris, and his Commentaries on Psalms 90 and 91, add to his reputation. The ancient claim that Hilton is also the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and the other works attributed to that author has never been substantiated; and though the possibility has never been completely excluded, such an attribution seems highly unlikely (see cloud of unknowing, the).
The Scale is probably the most complete, lucid, and balanced treatise on the interior life that the late Middle Ages produced. It was highly prized in English Carthusian houses until the dissolution of the monasteries; it was translated into Latin by the Carmelite Thomas Fysshlake before 1400 and was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1494; more than 90 MS copies of it are still extant, several in Continental libraries. Perhaps the most significant testimony to Hilton's high reputation as a master of the spiritual life is the fact that the legend that he was the author of the Imitation of Christ was so long in dying. It is in the Scale that he shows himself the complete master of the long spiritual tradition (christened by Cuthbert butler, "western mysticism") whose great exponents are Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard. Hilton is equally at home with the Victorines, particularly hugh and richard, and with the Dionysians of the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Scale consists of two separate treatises: the first was originally addressed to an anchoress and has survived in two editions, the second of which contains the famous "Christocentric additions"; by their means Hilton detached himself from the tendency in the 14th century to a dangerous form of Dionysianism akin to pantheism. In the second treatise of the Scale Hilton firmly broke away from the medieval tradition that the perfection of the spiritual life can be attained only in the cloister. In this treatise and in his Letter on the Mixed Life, Hilton showed that the answer to the spiritual difficulties that times of change and violent unrest throw up is to adapt the Church's spiritual teaching to the life of the Christian in the world. He is perhaps the first person in the whole tradition of medieval western spirituality to see that the perfection of the Christian life is not to be restricted to any particular time or place or circumstance but must always be firmly linked to the fullness of charity. One single quotation from his very free adaptation of the Stimulus Amoris will serve to illustrate his preeminent qualities as theologian and spiritual director: "Many seek after Christ by withdrawing and fleeing from all men, in the belief that he cannot be found except in that way. But it is not so. If you would be a spouse of Jesus Christ and would find him whom your soul loves, I shall tell you where Jesus your spouse is, and where you can find him—in your sick brother who is lame or blind or afflicted with any other disease. Go to the hospital and find Christ there."
Bibliography: The Scale has gone through many eds. since 1494, without there being, as yet, a critical text. The best is still e. underhill, ed., Scale of Perfection (London 1923), though g. sitwell's ed. and tr. in the Orchard Ser. (Westminster, Md. 1953), based on Underhill and Wynkyn de Worde, is more immediately available and has a useful introd. d. jones, ed., The Minor Works of Walter Hilton (London 1929), five shorter treatises, including The Mixed Life and the Commentaries on Psalms 90 and 91. c. kirchberger, ed., The Goad of Love (London 1952), an excellent edition. j. walsh and e. colledge, eds., Of the Knowledge of Ourselves and of God (London 1961), extracts from the Scale and the Psalm commentaries (a Westminster Cathedral MS Florilegium). The Latin works are still unpub. Studies. j. m. russel-smith, "Walter Hilton and a Tract in Defence of the Veneration of Images," Dominican Studies 7 (1954) 180–214; see also her article on Hilton in Pre-Reformation English Spirituality, ed. j. walsh (New York 1965). h. l. gardiner, "Walter Hilton and the Mystical Tradition in England," Essays and Studies of the English Association 22 (1936) 103–127. e. colledge, ed., Mediaeval Mystics of England (New York 1961). d. knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961).