The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhood (anonymous Middle English prose translation of Guillaume Deguileville, Pèlerinage de la vie humaine and Pèlerinage de l’ame), Lincolnshire, c. 1430. Avarice, fol. 63, pen and ink on parchment. State Library Victoria, Melbourne. (RARES 096 G94)

This devotional manuscript, probably made and decorated in Lincolnshire around 1430, was acquired from London bookseller WH Robinson in 1936. It includes two of Guillaume Deguileville’s Pèlerinage trilogy of allegorical poems translated into Middle English prose. The first of these, the Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode, is extant in six manuscripts, but only this example and Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 740 are illustrated. The Lyfe in the Melbourne manuscript is illustrated with 37 expressive drawings in pen and ink.

The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode is a dream allegory, in which the narrator undertakes a pilgrimage to the heavenly city of Jerusalem. Guided by Grace Dieu, a beautiful woman, and equipped with the staff of Hope and satchel of Faith, the pilgrim embarks on his hazardous journey through life. After foolishly taking the way of Idleness (an attractive woman twirling a glove) rather than that of Industry (an earnest man who weaves and reweaves a mat), he meets in close succession ghastly personifications of the seven deadly sins, all of whom attempt to ensnare him.

Deguileville’s sins are described in the most abject terms: vile, dreadful, horrible, monstrous, mossy, stinking, hideous, foul and old. All the sins are vile hags, the most fearsome of which is Avarice. She is a monstrous creation with six taking hands and two stumps (her giving hands have been cut off). On her head is an idol, a mawmet or Mahoun, “my god in whom I believe” and her ardour for possessions generates so much heat that she pants like a dog, her leprous, diseased tongue extended from her mouth.

Deguileville’s unusual representation of the sins as deformed and monstrous female bodies plays into the theme of alterity, the foreign and the “other”. It also reinforces the medieval view of women as agents of the devil, ridden with vice. The pilgrim ventures into uncharted lands, populated by heathen, barbarous beings akin to those described in medieval accounts of foreign lands, such as Sir John Mandeville’s 14th-century Travels. The monster, which Mandeville defines as “a thing deformed against kind, both of man and of beast”, is characterised by excess, lack and hybridity, demonstrated by Avarice’s multiple arms, griffon claws and lolling dog-like tongue. However, while Mandeville’s foreign bodies are ripe for conversion, Deguileville’s female monsters lie within, the necessary antithesis of male Christian virtue.

Dr. Hilary Maddocks