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Robert Mannyng

Born: c. 1264
Died: c. 1340
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Handlyng Synne

Robert Mannyng, also known as Robert of Brunne, an English poet, was a native of Brunne, now Bourne, in Lincolnshire. About 6 miles from Bourne was the Gilbertine monastery of Sempringham, founded by Sir Gilbert de Sempringham in 1139. The foundation provided for seven to thirteen canons, with a number of lay brothers and a community of nuns. No books were allowed to the lay brothers and nothing could be written in the monastery without the prior's consent. Mannyng entered this house in 1288, when, according to the rules, he must have been at least 24 years of age, if, as is supposed, he was a lay brother. He says he was at Cambridge with Robert de Bruce and his two brothers, Thomas and Alexander, but this does not necessarily imply that he was a fellow student. There was a Gilbertine monastery at Cambridge, and Mannyng may have been there on business connected with his order. When he wrote Handlyng Synne he had been fifteen years at the priory, beginning to write in "englysch rime in 1303." Thirty-five years later he began his Story of Inglande, and had removed to the monastery of Sixille (now Sixhills) near Market Rasen, in north Lincolnshire. Handlyng Synne, a poem of nearly 13,000 lines, is a free translation, with many additions and amplifications, from William of Waddington's Manuel des Pechiez. It is a series of metrical homilies on the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, illustrated by a number of amusing stories from various sources. The Cursor Mundi had turned religious history into something not very different from a romance of chivalry, and in the stories of Handlyng Synne the influence of the fabliaux is not far to seek. Mannyng wrote in the English tongue not for learned but for "lewd" men, "that talys and ryme wyl blethly here", to occupy the leisure hours during which they might otherwise fall into "vylanye, dedly synne or other folye." Each of his twenty-four topics has its complement of stories. He tells of the English observance of Saturday afternoon as holy to the Virgin, and has much to say of popular amusements, which become sins when they keep people away from church. Tournaments in particular are fertile occasions of all the deadly sins; and mystery plays, except those of the birth and resurrection of Christ performed in the churches, also lead men into transgression. He inveighs against the oppression of the poor by the rich, reproves those who, weary of matins or mass, spend their time in church "jangling", telling tales, and wondering where they will get the best ale, and revives the legend of the dancers at the church door during mass who were cursed by the priest and went on dancing for a twelvemonth without cessation. He loved music himself, and justified this profane pleasure by the example of Bishop Robert Grosseteste, who lodged his harper in the chamber next his own; but he holds up as a warning to gleemen the fate of the minstrel who sang loud while the bishop said grace, and was miserably killed by a falling stone in consequence. The old monk's keen observation makes the book a far more valuable contribution to history than his professed chronicle. It is a storehouse of quaint stories and out-of-the-way information on manners and customs.

His chronicle, The Story of Inglande, was also written for the solace and amusement of the unlearned when they sit together in fellowship. The earlier half is written in octosyllabic verse, and begins with the story of the Deluge. The genealogy of Locrine, king of Britain, is traced back to Noah, through Aeneas, and the chronicler relates the incidents of the Trojan war as told by Dares the Phrygian. From this point he follows closely the Brut of Wace. He loved stories for their own sake, and found fault with Wace for questioning the miraculous elements in the legend of Arthur. In the second half of his chronicle, which is less simple in style, he translates from the French of Pierre de Langtoft. He writes in rhyming alexandrines, and in the latter part of the work uses middle rhymes. Mannyng's Chronicle marks a change in national sentiment. Though he regards the Norman domination as a "bondage", he is loud in his praises of King Edward I, "Edward of Inglond."

The linguistic importance of Mannyng's work is very great. He used very few of those Teutonic words which, though still in use, were eventually to drop out of the language, and he introduced a great number of French words destined to be permanently adopted in English. Moreover, he employed comparatively few obsolete inflexions, and his work no doubt furthered the adoption of the Midland dialect as the acknowledged literary instrument. T. L. Kington-Oliphant (Old and Middle English, 1878) regards his work as the definite starting point of the New English which with slight changes was to form the language of the Book of Common Prayer.

A third work, usually ascribed to Mannyng, chiefly on the ground of its existing side by side with the Handlyng Synne in the Harleian and Bodleian manuscripts, is the Medytacyuns of the Soper of oure lorde Jhesu, And also of hys passyun And eke of the peynes of hys swete modyr, Mayden marye, a free translation of St. Bonaventura's De coena et passione Domini.

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