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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 10. Mannyng’s Chronicle

Mannyng’s other work, the Chronicle of England, is of less general importance than Handlyng Synne; though of greater metrical interest. It consists of two parts, the first extending from the arrival of the legendary Brut in Britain to the English invasion, the second from the English invasion to the end of Edward I’s reign. The first part, in octosyllabic couplets, is a close and fairly successful translation from Wace’s version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae; the second, in rimed alexandrines, is taken from an Anglo-Norman poem by Peter of Langtoft.

Langtoft’s alexandrines, which are arranged in sets riming on one sound, seem to have puzzled Mannyng, and his attempt to reproduce them in the fourteen-syllabled line of the Gloucester Chronicle is not altogether successful. Sometimes the line is an alexandrine, but at others, and this is most significant, it is decasyllabic; moreover, though Mannyng tries to emulate the continuous rime of his original, he generally succeeds in achieving only couplet rime. Thus we see dimly foreshadowed the heroic couplet which Chaucer brought to perfection.

When, at the request of Dan Robert of Malton, Mannyng set about his chronicle, it was, probably, with the intention of following Langtoft throughout; but, on further consideration, he judged that, since the first part of Langtoft’s chronicle was merely an abridgment of Wace, it was better to go straight to the original. So, after an introduction which contains the autobiographical details already given, and an account of the genealogy of Brut, he gives a somewhat monotonous and commonplace version of Wace’s poem. Sometimes, he omits or abridges; sometimes, he adds a line or two from Langtoft, or the explanation of a word unfamiliar to his audience, or pauses to notice contemptuously some unfounded tradition current among the unlearned. Once, he digresses to wonder, with Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Gildas and Bede should have omitted all mention of king Arthur, who was greater than any man they wrote of save the saints. In all other lands, he says, men have written concerning him, and in France more is known of the British hero than in the lands that gave him birth. But Mannyng’s characteristic doubt of Welsh trustworthiness leads him to question the story of Arthur’s immortality. “If he now live,” he says contemptuously, “his life is long.”

All through his version Mannyng, as might be expected, shows a more religious spirit than Wace; this is especially exemplified in the passages in which he points out that the misfortunes of the Britons were a judgment on them for their sins, and in the long insertion, borrowed from Langtoft and Geoffrey of Monmouth, of Cadwalader’s prayer; and, as he nears the end of the first portion of his chronicle, he draws freely on Bede, telling at great length the story of St. Gregory and the English boy slaves and the mission of St. Augustine.

The second half of the chronicle is much more interesting than the first, partly because Mannyng adheres less slavishly to his original. Wright, in his edition of Langtoft’s chronicle, has accused Mannyng of having frequently misunderstood the French of his predecessor; but, though instances of mistranslation do occur, they are not very frequent. The version is most literal in the earlier part; later, when Mannyng begins to introduce internal rimes into his verse, the difficulties of metre prevent him from maintaining the verbal accuracy at which he aimed.

But, notwithstanding the greater freedom with which Mannyng treats this part of the chronicle, his gift as a narrator is much less apparent here than in Handlyng Synne. Occasionally, it is visible, as when, for the sake of liveliness, he turns Langtoft’s preterites into the present tense, and shows a preference for direct over indirect quotation. But such interest as is due to him and not to Langtoft is derived chiefly from his allusions to circumstances and events not reported by the latter and derived from local tradition. Thus, he marvels greatly that none of the historians with whom he is acquainted makes mention of the famous story of Havelok the Dane and Aethelwold’s daughter Goldburgh, although there still lay in Lincoln castle the stone which Havelok cast further than any other champion, and the town of Grimsby yet stood to witness the truth of the history.

For the reign of Edward I, Mannyng’s additions are of very considerable importance, and, as the authorities for these can be traced only in a few instances, it is a reasonable conclusion to suppose that he wrote from personal knowledge. He relates more fully than Langtoft the incidents of the attempt on Edward’s life in Palestine, the death of Llywelyn and the treachery of the provost of Bruges who undertook to deliver the English king into the hands of the enemy. It is, however, in connection with Scottish affairs that his additions are most noteworthy. Although he regards the Scots with the peculiar bitterness of the northern English, he follows the fortunes of Bruce, with whom, as we have seen, he had been brought into personal contact, with especial interest.

The fragments of ballads celebrating the victories of the English over the Scots given by Langtoft occur also in Mannyng’s version, and, in some cases, in a fuller, and what seems to be a more primitive, form. They are full of barbaric exultation over the fallen foe, and form a curious link between the battle songs in the Old English Chronicle and the patriotic poems of Laurence Minot.