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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 9. Mannyng’s Debt to Wadington

His instinct for selecting what he feels will interest the unlearned is at once revealed by his omission of the long and dull section in which Wadington dwells on the twelve articles of faith. Theory attracts him little, and he proceeds at once to the first commandment, illustrating it by the dreadful example of a monk, who, by his love for an Eastern woman, was tempted to the worship of idols. Then comes a notable passage, also in Wadington, against witchcraft, and, in expansion of this, is given the original story of how a witch enchanted a leather bag, so that it milked her neighbour’s cows, and how her charm, in the mouth of a bishop (who, of course, did not believe in it), was useless. Thus he treats of the ten commandments in order, keeping fairly closely to his original, and generally following Wadington’s lead in the stories by which he illustrates them. This occupies nearly three thousand lines, and the poet then enters upon the theme of the seven deadly sins.

Mannyng seems to have found this a congenial subject, and the section throws much light on the social conditions of his time. Tournaments, he says, are the occasion of all the seven deadly sins, and, if every knight loved his brother, they would never take place, for they encourage pride, envy, anger, idleness, covetousness, gluttony and lust. Furthermore, mystery plays—and these lines are highly significant as throwing light on the development of the drama at the beginning of the fourteenth century—are also occasions of sin. Only two mysteries may be performed, those of the birth of Christ and of His resurrection, and these must be played within the church, for the moral edification of the people. If they are presented in groves or highways, they are sinful pomps, to be avoided as much as tournaments; and priests who lend vestments to aid the performance are guilty of sacrilege.

One of the best stories in the book, the tale of Piers, illustrates the wickedness and repentance of one of the hated tribe of usurers. It is also in illustration of this sin that the grotesque story occurs of the Cambridge miser parson who was so much attached to his gold that he tried to eat it, and died in the attempt.

In respect of the sin of gluttony, not only the rich are to be blamed; most people sin by eating too much; two meals a day are quite sufficient, except for children, and they should be fed only at regular hours. Late suppers, too, are to be avoided, especially by serving men, who often sit up and feast till cockcrow. People should not break their fast before partaking of the “holy bread,” or dine before they hear mass.

The seven deadly sins being disposed of, there follows a long section on sacrilege, in which Mannyng departs freely from his original. He says, indeed, that he will deal with some vices coming under this head as William of Wadington teaches him; but the lines following, in which he apologises for “foul English and feeble rhyme,” seem to show that he was conscious of some audacity in taking so many liberties with the French poem. However this may be, the account of the reproof that a Norfolk bondsman gave a knight who had allowed his beasts to defile the churchyard, which is not in the Manuel des Pechiez, and is, evidently, a true story, is very characteristic of the attitude of the Gilbertines to the privileged classes. The order was, as its latest historian has pointed out, essentially democratic in its organisation, and the fearlessness of monk towards prior is reflected in the approval that Mannyng tacitly bestows on the thrall’s behaviour.

The churchyard was not only desecrated by use as a pasture. It was the meeting-place of youths and maidens for games and songs, and this gives occasion for the grim legend, borrowed from a German source, of the dancers and carol singers who, on Christmas night, disturbed the priest in his orisons. Notwithstanding the fact that his own daughter was tempted to join the frivolous company, he punished them with his curse; so that the intruders were doomed to pursue their dance through rain and snow and tempest for ever. There is something very charming in the snatch of song—

  • By the leved wood rode Bevolyne,
  • Wyth him he ledd feyrë Merswyne,
  • Why stondë we? Why go we noght?
  • and very grim is the irony that dooms the dancers to repeat the last line in the midst of their involuntary perpetual motion. These qualities are, of course, inherent in the story, but it loses nothing in Mannyng’s narration.

    The discussion of the sin of sacrilege brings the author to line 9492, and now, following Wadington, he enters on the explanation of the seven sacraments. But, as the French version supplies few stories in illustration of these, Mannyng makes up the deficiency by several of his own. Then follows a passage on the necessity of shrift, the twelve points of shrift and the graces which spring from it, all treated with comparative brevity and with little anecdotal illustration.

    It is impossible for any short account of Handlyng Synne to convey an adequate idea of its charm and interest. Mannyng excels in all the qualities of a narrator. He combines, in fact, the trouvère with the homilist, and shows the way to Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Thus, he differs from the antiquary Robert of Gloucester by being one of the earliest of English story-tellers. He had a vivid imagination which enabled him to see all the circumstances and details of occurences for which his authority merely provides the suggestion, and he fills in the outlines of stories derived from Gregory or Bede with colours borrowed from the homely life of England in the fourteenth century. He delights, also, to play upon the emotions of his audience by describing the torments of the damned, and his pictures of hell are more grim and more grotesque than those of Wadington. He shows a preference for direct narration, and, where the French merely conveys the sense of what has been said, Mannyng gives the very words is full of telling, felicitous metaphors, such as “tavern is the devyl’s knyfe,” or “kerchief is the devyl’s sail,” or “to throw a falcon at every fly.”

    Simplicity is, indeed, one of the most striking features of Mannyng’s style. Writing, as he says, for ignorant men, he is at some pains to explain difficult terms or to give equivalents for them. Thus, when he uses the word “mattock,” he remarks, in a parenthesis, that it is a pick-axe; and, in the same way, the term “Abraham’s bosom” is carefully interpreted as the place between paradise and hell. And, in his anxiety that his hearers shall understand the spiritual significance of religious symbols, he calls to his aid illustrations from popular institutions familiar to all. Baptism, he says, is like a charter which testifies that a man has bought land from his neighbour, confirmation is like the acknowledgment of that charter by a lord or king.

    In dwelling on the personal relations of man to God, Mannyng, like the author of Cursor Mundi, often shows much poetic feeling. While he paints in sombre tones the dreadful fate of unrepentant sinners, he speaks no less emphatically of the love of God for His children and the sacrifice of Christ. His simple faith in the divine beneficence, combined with an intense sympathy for penitent man, lends a peculiar charm to his treatment of such stories as those of the merciful knight and Piers the usurer.

    Apart from its literary qualities, Handlyng Synne has considerable value as a picture of contemporary manners. Much of what is said on these points is borrowed from Wadington, but still more is due to Mannyng’s personal observation. In his attacks on tyrannous lords, and his assertion of the essential equality of men, he resembles the author of Piers Plowman.

    The knight is pictured as a wild beast ranging over the country; he goes out “about robbery to get his prey”; he endeavours to strip poor men of their land, and, if he cannot buy it, he devises other means to torment them, accusing them of theft or of damage to the corn or cattle of their lord. Great harm is suffered at the hands of his officers; for nearly every steward gives verdicts unfavourable to the poor; and, if the latter ask for mercy, he replies that he is only acting according to the strict letter of the law. But, says Mannyng, he who only executes the law and adds no grace thereto may never, in his own extremity appeal for mercy to God.

    But, if Mannying is severe on tyrannous lords, he shows no leniency to men of his own calling. The common sins of the clergy, their susceptibility to bribes, their lax morality, their love of personal adornment, their delight in horses, hounds and hawks, all come under his lash, and, in words which may not have been unknown to Chaucer, he draws the picture of the ideal parish priest.

    Although the order to which Mannyng belonged was originally founded for women, they receive little indulgence at his hands. Indeed, he surpasses William of Wadington and the average monastic writer in his strictures on their conduct. God intended woman to help man, to be his companion and to behave meekly to her master and lord. But women are generally “right unkind” in wedlock; for one sharp word they will return forty, and they desire always to get the upper hand. They spend what should be given to the poor in long trains and wimples; they deck themselves out to attract masculine attention, and thus make themselves responsible for the sins of men. Even when the author has occasion to tell the story of a faithful wife who made constant prayer and offerings for the husband whom she supposed to be dead, he adds, grudgingly,

  • This woman pleyned (pitied) her husbonde sore,
  • Wuld Gode that many such women wore!
  • For the ordinary amusements of the people Mannyng has little sympathy; he looks at them from the shadow of the cloister, and, to him, “carols, wrestlings, and summer games” are all so many allurements of the devil to entice men from heaven. The gay song of the wandering minstrel and the loose tales of ribald jongleurs who lie in wait for men at tavern doors are as hateful to him as to the author or authors of Piers Plowman; even in the garlands with which girls deck their tresses he sees a subtle snare of Satan. Towards children he shows some tenderness, recognising their need for greater physical indulgence than their elders; but he upholds the counsel of Solomon to give them the sharp end of the rod, so long as no bones be broken.

    Mannyng’s mode of translation renders a precise estimate of his indebtedness to Wadington somewhat difficult. A hint from his original will sometimes set him off on a long digression, at other times he keeps fairly close to the sense, but interweaves with it observations and parentheses of his own. He does not always tell the same tales as Wadington, but omits, substitutes or adds at will; the fifty-four stories in the Manuel des Pechiez are represented in Handlyng Synne by sixty-five. Many of his additions are taken from local legends, and it is in these that his skill as a narrator is most apparent. Unhampered by any precedent, the stories move quietly and lightly along, and may almost challenge comparison with those of Chaucer.

    The verse of Handlyng Synne is the eight-syllabled iambic metre of the original; but, as in the Manuel des Pechiez, many lines occur which defy the most ingenious scansion. The language in its state of transition afforded special opportunity for these irregularities; when there was no fixed standard for the sounding of the inflectional -e this was apt to be added or omitted at the will of the scribe. The three manuscripts in which the poem has survived, the Harleian, dated about 1360, and the Bodleian and Dulwich, about 1400, show many discrepancies.

    The dialect of Handlyng Synne is east midland, of a northern type, containing more Scandinavian forms than are found in the language of Chaucer. The number of romance words is much greater than in the Gloucester Chronicle, which may be explained partly by locality and partly by the fact that such forms are always more numerous in translations from the French than in original English compositions.