Further reading

Eulk, Robert D. A History of Old English Meter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Larry J. Swain

HANDLYNG SYNNE Robert Mannyng of Brunne (ca. 1303-ca. 1338) Unusual for a work of Middle English religious poetry, Handlyng Synne, an early 14th-century penitential poem, clearly announces the identity of its author, Robert Mannyng of Brunne. The poem numbers almost 12,600 lines of East Midlands Middle English. Three complete copies and six fragments survive.

Handlyng Synne is a free and fluid translation of the French poem Manuel des Pechiez (ca. 1270s). Like the original, it clearly states its intent as being the religious education of the "lewd" [common] person. The poem successively focuses on each of the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, and the Seven Sacraments, relying primarily on a series of amusing and edifying exempla (see exemplum). Mannyng omits many of the original's tales, however, substituting local ones or his own additions. The result is a poem 50 percent longer than its French model, containing considerably more didactic commentary.

Mannyng's greatest skill as a writer lies in his narrative technique, wherein he demonstrates a particular ability to manipulate his audience's emotions, especially by vividly detailing the torments of hell. For example, a backbiting (gossiping) English monk is sentenced to perpetually gnaw his own tongue, while a proud lady is continually reduced to ashes by a burning wheel, only to be restored again in order for the cycle to continue.

While Mannyng covers numerous spiritual infractions, he reserves particularly hostile treatment for the rich who oppress the poor. Similarly condemned are those who attend church for social intercourse rather than for spiritual improvement. As is typical of monastic literature of the period, women are often selected for especially harsh treatment. Inevitably, they are cast as providing a primary source of temptation, sin, and damnation, luring men away from salvation. Finally, clerics and monks are closely scrutinized. For these Mannyng offers unflinchingly acerbic criticism and punishment for sins that include receiving bribes, coveting worldly reward, and general moral hypocrisy. His compassion tends to be reserved for the poor and for children, although he advocates the need for strict corporal punishment.

Metrically, Handlyng Synne generally conforms to that of the French original. It is written in rhyming couplets, using an octosyllabic iambic meter. However, within this framework there is considerable irregularity, due in part to the transitional, nonstan-dardized nature of Middle English, but also to the liberties Mannyng takes with his model. The poem is remarkable for its direct, lively narrative, its accessible simplicity, and its insightful use of vivid metaphor and exempla, as well as for its use of the vernacular and local identity.

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