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Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 109-121

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Lessons for the Priest, Lessons for the People:

Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Audiences for Handlyng Synne

Skidmore College

Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Handlyng Synne (ca. 1338)1 is a compendium of sixty-six colorful exempla: ghost stories, miracle tales, saints' legends, and other accounts of intrusions of the supernatural into everyday life. Mannyng translated the Anglo-French poem Manuel des Pechiez2 for priests to use in order to entertain and educate their lay listeners, whom Mannyng characterizes as lovers of tales, rhymes and games. Mannyng not only renders the French into English (both in language and sensibility), but also freely adds and omits tales, supplements and replaces commentary, shifts the emphasis from homily to narrative, and, in particular, adds to the existing lessons for the lay audience in both exempla and commentary a layer of instruction to the priests who use his book.3

Previous studies of Handlyng Synne have identified the genre and cultural traditions to which the work belongs. Scholars agree that Handlyng Synne was likely to have been used to move and direct hearers to make confession to their priest. Many note Mannyng's tolerance for human folly, his refusal to discuss punishment, and his sympathy with speakers of English as victims of social oppression.4 What has attracted less notice is Mannyng's concern with clerical corruption, though it was the subject of lively comment in his time and profession.5 In what follows I shall argue that Mannyng's "englysshing" of the Manuel des Pechiez makes both veiled and explicit reference to the weaknesses of English priests. Recognizing that Englishmen may have legitimate grounds for doubting their priests' virtue, he offers two kinds of instruction to two distinct audiences: one by direct address to laymen, admonishing them to respect their priests, no matter what; the other, by implication for the most part, to the preachers using his manual, from whom he expects a more developed sensitivity to hidden layers of meaning.6

Mannyng discerns two actual audiences for Handlyng Synne.7 Assuming that the preacher will attend to the words as he says them, Mannyng treats him [End Page 109] as a receiver of the text at first hand. That the instruction he receives could call his authority into question as he offers instruction at second hand to the layman constitutes the peculiar difficulty of the problem Mannyng, as translator/compiler/author, sets for himself.

By the fourteenth century, some penitentials (a genre to which Handlyng Synne has some relation) tailored their questions and penances to persons of the various estates they addressed. The kinds of punishment assigned to the same transgression, as even a cursory glance at penitentials and law codes reveals, had always differed in severity from rank to rank, as, for example, the lighter punishments for boys than for men guilty of sodomy, or the lesser amount of wergild calculated for the rape of a maidservant than of a daughter. Mannyng's task of assigning different values to the same deed, therefore, had its precedents. His special challenge in Handlyng Synne, though, was to make the preacher recognize his own sinfulness while convincingly urging repentance upon the flock to whom he preached.

Mannyng's famous tolerance manifests itself in his clear expectation that neither the lay nor the clerical audience will be free of sin. He expects only that they try to "handle" their failings. The method Mannyng prescribes is the standard one: recognition of sin, repentance, and confession, each of which he defines as a form of "handlyng." With that in mind, he explains his translation of the word manual, a handbook, as "handling with honde," turning the object the preacher uses for reference into a practical method for laymen to deal with their sins and misapprehensions. The priest, too, "handles" the text by reading to his lay listeners, for, as he reads and interprets it for them, he actively explains it to himself. He is as much his own...