Medieval Studies Robert Mannyng of Brunne
Kate Greenspan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0242


English poet and historiographer Robert Mannyng (b. c. 1283–d. c. 1338), the author of Handlyng Synne and The Story of England, was born at Brunne (or Bourne) in Lincolnshire, England. Mannyng studied at Cambridge University between c. 1298 and 1302. Shortly thereafter he entered the priory of the Gilbertine order at Sempringham, probably as a canon, though his general condition and his precise relation to the Gilbertines is unclear. In 1303 he began work on Handlyng Synne, his translation/adaptation of the Anglo-Norman Manuel des pechiez, adding the prologue around 1318. Later, he moved to the Gilbertine priory of Sixhills, where he composed his Story of England (1338), a translation/adaptation of Wace’s Roman de Brute and the Anglo-Norman chronicle by Peter of Langtoft. The work outlines the history of England from Noah’s flood through the reign of Edward I (d. 1307). Like Handlyng Synne, it speaks in a robust vernacular style to a lay audience, whom Mannyng seeks to instruct in the history of their native land and language. Until the appearance of modern critical editions in the 1980s and 1990s, the complete Handlyng Synne and Story of England were accessible only in Early English Texts Society editions and, less accessibly, in the surviving manuscripts. Handlyng Synne enjoyed some individual attention, mostly as excerpts in college anthologies and in several dissertations in England, Germany, and the United States. Scholars showed less interest in the Story of England, which had acquired a reputation as unoriginal and clumsy. The attribution to Mannyng of a translation of St. Bonaventure’s “Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord” was based on its position following Handlyng Synne in two manuscripts; the attribution is not widely accepted. Since the 1980s, Mannyng has attracted the praise of scholars as one of the most skillful storytellers of his time, whose ear for the vernacular and ability to instruct while entertaining exceeded that of his predecessors and contemporaries. In both works he models how to engage a specifically English audience through his lively poetic style and his choice of popular genres such as saints’ lives, ghost stories, and legends. His works have in common an emphasis on instructing those illiterate in Latin, in terms they will enjoy and remember, in their religion and history. Mannyng’s insistence on encouraging English identity among the laity is manifest in his defense of vernacular preaching, his definition of national character, and his retelling of English history.

Reference Works

A host of medieval encyclopedias exist online and in print, but most do not offer much beyond the standard (sometimes contested) information about Mannyng’s life and literary production. The works listed here share with other entries on Mannyng the little information on his life available chiefly through the prologues to Handlyng Synne and The Story of England, but they are by far the most authoritative and useful reference works for scholarly research on him. Wallace 1999 discusses the world of religious literary production to which Mannyng belonged; Ward, et al. 1907–1921 offers a particularly useful set of essays on the prosody, style, and sources of Mannyng’s poems.

  • Wallace, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    The most recent and best of full-scale histories of English literature, containing authoritative articles by renowned medievalists. Parts II (“Writing in the British Isles”) and III (“Institutional Productions”) will be of considerable use to scholars seeking to understand the complex ideas about nation, language, otherness, and religious writing to which Mannyng responded both in Handlyng Synne and The Story of England.

  • Ward, A. W., A. R. Waller, William P. Trent, John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl Van Doren, eds. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1907–1921.

    Part XVI (“Later Transition English”) contains four detailed, authoritative discussions of the prosodic elements, stylistic qualities, and treatment of the sources of Handlyng Synne and the Story of England: section 7, “Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne”; section 8, “Characteristics of Mannyng’s Style”; section 9, “Mannyng’s Debt to Wadington”; and section 10, “Mannyng’s Chronicle.” Also available online.

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