Handling Pilgrims: Robert Mannyng and the Gilbertine Cult

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Little attention has been paid to the cult of St. Gilbert of Sempringham, founder of the Gilbertine Order. Although the shrine of Gilbert in Sempringham Priory began attracting pilgrims as soon as he was canonized and his bones translated, in 1202, he or his cult receives only passing mention even in studies focused on English pilgrimage, such as Diana Webb's recent Pilgrimage in Medieval England. (1) Brian Golding notes that Gilbert's cult "remained a minor one," and was soon overshadowed by those of the Virgin of Walsingham and the two Hughs of Lincoln. (2) The records of Gilbert's miracles show that the great majority of those who experienced or witnessed these events came from the immediate area of Lincolnshire. (3)

If the Gilbertine pilgrimage has been little studied, the same cannot be said for the Gilbertine canon Robert Mannyng. His penitential manual Handlyng Synne (1303-17), translated from the Anglo-Norman Manuel des pechiez (c. 1260), attracts attention both for its doctrines and for the well-told exempla it employs, some of them taken from local folklore. (4) It also includes denunciations of the seigneurial system so impassioned as to have earned the epithet "class attacks." (5) Ten years after completing this work, Mannyng began translating and compiling what he called The Story of England (1327-38), one of the earliest histories written in English. In both works Mannyng comments on his use of English, passages that have led to much commentary for the view they give of linguistic and political nationalism. (6)

Mannyng, the only known Gilbertine author, was born (c. 1283) and grew up in Bourne, eight miles south of Sempringham. After studying for some time in Cambridge, he spent the rest of his life as a Gilbertine canon. Despite this close association, and despite the fact that he was resident in Sempringham Priory throughout the composition of Handlyng Synne (65-74), few if any scholars have connected that text to the pilgrims who periodically poured into the priory's church and guest-houses. (7) Because Handlyng Synne teaches the basic elements of faith, illustrated with engaging exempla, it has been assumed that Mannyng was an instructor of the novices. (8) Many scholars declare that Mannyng wrote his book to be read by or to these novices, to the priory's conversi (lay brothers), or to both. (9) I will argue, however, that pilgrimage is precisely the context in which Handlyng Synne should be viewed: that Mannyng was probably the priory's hospitarius (guest-master), and that Handlyng Synne was written both to edify the pilgrims and to induce them to contribute to the rebuilding of the priory church.

The text itself leads us quickly away from any limited conception of the audience. Mannyng states:

 
   For lewed men y vndyr toke 
   On englyssh tonge to make pys boke, 
   For many beyn of swyche manere 
   pat talys & rymys wyle bleply here 
   Yn gamys, yn festys, & at pe ale, 
   Loue men to lestene trotouale [pleasant talk], 
   pat may falle ofte to velanye 
   To dedly synne or outher folye. 
   For swyche men haue y made pys ryme 
   pat pey may weyl dyspende here tyme 
   And per yn sumwhat for to here 
   To leue al swyche foul manere. 
   (43-54) 

Either Mannyng's target audience extended considerably beyond the novices and conversi of Sempringham Priory, or these individuals were allowed entertainment far beyond the scope envisioned by St. Gilbert. (10) Other clues come from the "thou" whom Mannyng guides to examine his or her conscience. This "thou" is usually identifiable as lay; e.g., in discussing the keeping of Sundays, Mannyng says:

 
   How dur pan oper prestys or clerkys 
   Or pou lewyd man pat day werche, 
   Whan pat day ys halewyd yn holy cherche? 
   (832-34) 

Sometimes, however, a clerical audience is invoked; e.g., in offering advice on marriage:

 
   Gyf pou hast auowyd pe 
   py lyff to holde yn chastyte, 
   Or pou art yn state of prest 
   Or yn two ordrys all, ernest, 
   Suddekene or dekene hy, 
   pys lettyp weddyng & dede flesshly. …