‘A Good Conscience is a Continual Christmas’: The Manere of Good Lyving (Liber de modo bene vivendi): ‘A Devoute Tretes’ for Nuns


‘Cistercian nuns’, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 11, fol. 6r, Source Wikimedia Commons

With the approaching festive season, many people will concur with the following saying, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: ‘there cannot be good living where there is not good drinking’. The Manere of Good Lyvyng perhaps surprisingly does not completely disagree: ‘Drynke (…) my loved suster, wyne moderatly and meanly, and hit shal be to you helth of body and gladnes of mynde, and shall take awey from you sluggyshnes and dulnes and shall make you dyligent and devout in þe service of God’.

The Manere of Good Lyvyng is a translation of the Liber de modo bene vivendi, which has often been attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and was supposedly written for his sister, Humbelina, who entered a monastery in 1124. The  Latin text, one of many medieval works that lack a modern edition, can be found in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (PL 184. 1199-1306). Thus it is difficult to know how many manuscripts of the work in Latin have come down to us, but it is clear, when one considers the many early printed editions or translations into European vernaculars, that it was a popular text. One of the manuscripts in Sweden has a note (in another hand) to the effect that St Birgitta always carried this work with her. In England the text was translated into English three times, once in the fifteenth century and twice later. The medieval translation, which survives in a unique manuscript of the Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS Laud misc. 517) and was intended in all likelihood for the Bridgettine sisters of Syon, is quite faithful to the Latin and is introduced by the following rubric:

A devoute tretes of holy Saynt Bernard, drawne oute of Latyn into English, callid The Manere of Good Lyvyng, which he sent unto his own suster, wherin is conteyned the summe of every vertue necessary unto Cristis religion and holy conversacion.

Although Bernard of Clairvaux was not the author, the text was probably written at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the early thirteenth century. The author, whoever he was, and he may have been a religious following the Rule of St. Augustine, describes his efforts thus: ‘I have by the helpe of your devoute prayers, as Y myght not as I ouȝte, gadred togethyr som small lessons of religious conversacion oute of the writyngs of my forfathirs, which in this litell boke I sende unto youe accordyng to your peticion’. Although the text does not reveal its sources, a large number of these ‘small lessons’ are taken from Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae and Synonyma. But the text also specifically refers to St Augustine, St Jerome, St Ambrose, Gregory the Great and others.

In addition to a Prologue, The Manere of Good Lyvyng  consists of seventy-three chapters which the Middle English version calls ‘exhortacions’.These cover a wide range of subjects, including Virtues and Vices; advice for novices; Examples of Holy Fathers; Prayer, Reading, and Labour; an examination of the Active and Contemplative Lives, Psalms and Hymns; Dreams, and so on. The Prologue compares the text to a mirror and tells its reader: ‘therin looke ye as in a glasse’ to learn ‘howe ye shall love God and your neyghbour, howe ye shall dispyse all yerthly and transitorye thyngis, how ye shall covett everelastyng and hevenly thyngis, how for Crystis sake ye shall suffer paciently thadversitie of þis worlde and dispyse þe prosperite and the flateryng of the same […] howe in your prosperite ye shal not be hygh-mynded, ne in adversite broken with ire’.

The numerous addresses to the recipient, ‘my loved suster’, ‘wel beloved suster’, ‘good virgyn’, and the use of the first person by the author make the words come to life and the suggestion of a dialogue is sustained by questions and answers such as the following: ‘[A question] Peraventer ye wold aske me: broþere, what ys it þat is radd in Scriptur: “no man or woman ys holy, good and ryȝtwous, but oonly God?” [The answer] My loved suster, as it is writen, so yt ys. Sothly oonly God ys good, holy and riȝtwous, for he is very goodnes hymself’.

In many ways then, The Manere of Good Lyvyng may be compared to other texts written for female religious such as the Ancrene Wisse or The Doctrine of the Hert. It has the advantage over these two other works of being written in relatively short chapters which perhaps makes it easier for the reader to retain her ‘lessons’. Indeed the sister is advised to: ‘rede overe this boke, and rede it thorogh agayn and agayn’. Although The Manere of Good Lyvyng at times uses everyday images, as for instance in its discussion of the man or woman ‘þat be sory and wepe for their synnes’ and ‘doeth worthy and dewe penaunce’ ‘for he þat wepyth and ys sory for his syn and doeth the same agayn ys lyke to hym that doeth wasche a newe and a grene tyle-stone which the more he waschyth it, the fowler he makyth it’, such images are much less frequent than in the other two works mentioned.

The manuscript of The Manere of Good Lyvyng is unadorned and simple, but written in a beautiful script (‘fere-textura’) with the initial capital of every chapter, two-line long in blue ink and usually inscribed in a decorated square in red ink. Its appearance matches its contents and style, and the text could be described as a ‘quiet’ text, a text that appeals perhaps more to the intellect and helps its reader to ‘kepe [her] eyesight, withdrawe it and fixe it not upon the bewte of the stynkyng bodye’ or anything else which could detract her attention from God. She is told: ‘good suster, I counceyl yow and praye yow both to correcte your own lyfe with al diligence, so þat your communicacion be religious, your goyeng honest, your sight humble and meke, your speche well sette and spoken, your mynde full of love, your handis full of good werkis, and all with the helpe of God withoute whom ye can doo no good thyng’.

However, there is another side to the text, a more lyrical streak, which often expresses itself with quotations from and glosses on the Song of Songs. For example, ‘The ixth exhortacion sheweth how religiouse habite shuld not be precious nor curyous nor superfluous, and how the habite and good lyfe shuld agre togyther’. It warns the sister:

Good suster, lete clene gere be aboute yow, not for comlynes but for necessite of the bodye, les þat when ye ar arayed with preciouse ornamentis, ye fall in þe fylth of þe soule. For the more þe bodye ys appareled and arayed outeward for vaynglorye, so much more ys the soule withyn defyled. […]

Loved suster, clense your conscience from all malys that graciously it may be sayde to you of Jhesu Cryste, your celestyall spouse, þat is radd in Scriptur: ‘thou art verey fayr, my love, þu art verey bewteous, thy eyes be as þe eyes of culvers’.  That ys to sey, ye be feyr for the perfeccion of bodye and clennes of thouȝte. Ye ar betewes, havyng a clene and innocent intent of harte and mynde, for all þat ye doo, it ys not for favour of peple, but to please God. Ye have the eyes of the culver when ye be clere from all malice, symulacion and faynengs.

My moste loved suster in Cryste, therfor I shew yow all this, þat ye may be more gladde withyn in þe soule of holy vertues than withoute in þe bodye of gloryous vestures.

In order to be appreciated, The Manere of Good Lyvyng requires from the modern reader the same degree of attention that was required from its medieval audience. It is only when one ‘rede overe this boke, and rede it thorogh agayn and agayn’ that one can discover its quiet beauty.

One suspects that Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of ‘good living’ and ‘good drinking’ differed somewhat from what the author of The Manere of Good Lyvyng recommended to its readers. Nevertheless, since his work urges them to ‘clense [their] conscience from all malys’, although he may phrase it differently, he most probably would fully agree at least with another quotation from the American Founding Father: ‘a good conscience is a continual Christmas’.