Study Guide

The Holy Sinner

by Thomas Mann

The Holy Sinner Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Based mainly on an epic poem of the twelfth century which was derived from a French chivalric romance, The Holy Sinner relates the lives of two legendary figures, the beautiful and noble twins Sibylla and Wiligis. Their mother having died at their birth, the two are devoted to each other and believe that no one else is equal to them in any way. Unable, therefore, to be parted in childhood and youth, the two become lovers when their father, Duke Grimald, dies. In time, Sibylla conceives a child. To do penance for their sinful attachment, Wiligis goes on a pilgrimage to Rome but dies before he achieves his goal. Sibylla, in the meantime, is taken to the home of the Sieur Eisengrein, a loyal baron and the counselor of their father. When her son is born, he is set adrift in a small boat, wrapped in rich cloths and identified on a small ivory tablet carved by his mother, telling only of his noble but sinful origin, not his name or place of birth.

Miraculously, the infant survives and is found by two fishing men from the imaginary village of St. Dunstan in a channel of the North Sea. He is adopted by the abbot Gregorius, who baptizes him and gives him his own name. The baby is reared by the wife of one of the fishermen. At the age of six, he moves to the monastery and becomes a scholar, studying Latin, grammar, theology, and law, all the while dreaming of becoming not a monk but a knight-errant. When at seventeen he learns of his origins by eavesdropping on his foster mother, he determines to leave the monastery, bearing the ivory tablet, in search of his parents.

Gregorius’ ship brings him to Bruges, where the duchess Sibylla lives like a nun, refusing to give herself in marriage to any man. The most persistent suitor, King Roger of Arelat, has for years been conducting a war between Burgundy...

(The entire section is 746 words.)