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About John Lydgate

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Work in Progress. Please contact the editor with any questions

A brief caveat: this page is by no means meant as a comprehensive biography of Lydgate. It is entirely possible (and others have—see the bibliography at the bottom of this page) to write more than can be comfortably read on a single webpage regarding Lydgate's life and poetic output. Instead, this page serves as a brief orienting overview, intended to give those not well-versed in Lydgate enough of a grounding to understand the transcription and editorial work throughout the site and more importantly to provide readers with an understanding of the major aspects of Lydgate's life as I see them. Since the argument is made throughout the site that all editorial interventions serve as a form of mediation that must be made transparent to the reader, I believe it to be important that readers understand how I as editor perceive the poet. This will serve to help deobfuscate any potential literary black boxes.

Introduction

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about Lydgate is that despite his relative obscurity today he was considered the legitimate successor to Chaucer and Gower both during his lifetime and for roughly 150 years following. As his near-contemporary Osbern Bokenham commented in his Life of St. Anne

If I hadde cunnyng and eloquens
My conceytes craftely to dilate,
Als whilom hadde the fyrsh rethoryens
Gowere, Chauncere, and now Lytgate (1-4)

As this position in the accepted canon of his time suggests, Lydgate had a significant influence over the development of English literature both directly by his continuation of the stylistic elements generated or championed by Chaucer and indirectly through his sheer output by any numeric measure. He produced, as Derek Pearsall notes, "something close to 140,000 lines" of poetry that we can account for.1 Perhaps more imporantly, these 140,000 lines have come down to us in over four hundred extant witnesses, with significant works such as the Fall of Princes or Life of Our Lady existing in dozens of witnesses. As survival rates of medieval manuscripts, and especially English medieval manuscripts with a religious connotation, are low when compared to how many were likely produced this speaks to both the prodigiousness of Lydgate's output and his popularity as an author.

Also important for my purposes in developing this site is how much of this poetic output has not made its way into our thinking about the poet and his culture. Of the 476 editions that contain one of the 958 individual witnesses of the 189 items by Lydgate in the Digital Index of Middle English Verse (DIMEV):

Thus, the editions we are using and teaching our students from make assumptions not only about the theoretical framework surrounding medieval studies scholarship (after all, even if we ignore the theoretical debates of the last twenty years it still has to be acknowledged that a hundred or even fifty years ago notions of the middle ages that owed more to nineteeth-century racist and nationalist enterprises than an understanding of the culture of the period in its own context still held sway), but also about Lydgate and the medieval English history writ large. These assumptions often do not hold water on further inspection. We won't know, however, because as a culture we have internalized the negative opinion of Lydgate promulgated by Joseph Ritson in his Bibliographica Poetica and still expressed in conversation, if not in print, by most textual scholars working with the English language. Unfortunately, this includes many who work in the medieval and early modern periods. Ideally, making more items available for scholars to read alongside the editions of the last hundred to hundred and fifty years will help us to reassess Lydgate's role in the development of late-medieval English culture as well as his role as a poet in the decades following his death.3

Early Life

John Lydgate, the “monk of Bury,” was born around 1370 in the Suffolk town of Lidgate, roughly eight miles from the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds where he would spend most of his life. His birthdate can be estimated from two references – line 93 of the Siege of Thebes, where he states he is ‘nygh fifty yere of age,’ and line 191 of book 8 of the Fall of Princes, where he talks about his age being ‘mor than thre score yeeris.’ Since we can date the two poems to roughly around 1420 and 1439, respectively, this yields the birth year of 1370.

Lydgate was taken into the abbey as a boy but by his own account he was not particularly religious. He describes himself in the Testament as

Voyd of resovn, youe to wilfulnesse
Froward to vertu, of thryfte take litel hede,
Loth to lerne, loued no besynesse
Saue pley or merth, straunge to spelle or rede
Folowyng alle appetytes longyng to childhede
Lyghtly turnyng, wylde and selde sad,
Wepyng for nowȝt, and anone after glad. (614-620)

This could easily be the result of poetic artiface, however. None of the crimes Lydgate mentions in the Testament are particularly shocking, and they serve to present the author as a lost lamb in a fairly conventional manner. Firmer ground, however, can be found for the moment of Lydgate’s conversion, where he claims that, at fifteen, he saw a crucifix in the cloister of the abbey with the word “vide” next to it. The change of heart upon viewing the crucifix is also a common trope of fifteenth-century confessional poetry, but several points of Lydgate’s narrative are not: he mentions that he became a novitate at fifteen and took his vows a year later. He attended schooling at the monestary while he moved through the minor orders, finally becoming an acolyte in 1389. Over the next eight years he would work his way through the ranks, becoming a deacon in 1393 and a priest in 1397.

He attended Gloucester College at Oxford, where he became known to the future Henry V: a letter written by the prince sometime between 1406-1408 requests that the abbot of Bury allow Lydgate to continue in his studies. It is not known if he completed his degree, but this intervention marks the beginning of Lydgate’s personal association with the Lancasterian royals. It is one that would continue throughout his life.

Court Poet

From early in his literary career, Lydgate benefited from the patronage of members of the Lancastrian court, and it is this aspect of his literary career that receives the most attention. As stated above, while a student at Oxford Lydgate apparently was to be recalled prematurely from his studies until the future Henry V intervened, allowing him to continue. It is unclear if Lydgate finally finished a degree, but this relationship with the Lancastrians continued for the rest of his life and much of his work was done either at the commission of Lancastrians or in order to support the goals of the Lancastrian dynasty. Henry V instigated Lydgate’s work on The Troy Book, which he was already composing in the months prior to Henry's ascension and would finally complete in 1420. He also possibly commissioned Lydgate's The Life of Our Lady. The new king's brother Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, commissioned The Fall of Princes, perhaps Lydgate's most famous work (and certainly the most widespread, if the surviving witnesses are any indication!). Finally, Lydgate wrote numerous shorter poems to support the rule of the infant Henry VI during his long minority, with one of the most significant being "The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund", a work that was dedicated to Henry VI in order to provide him with an example of good rule and presented to him in one of the most elaborate manuscripts in existence.

While on both secular and religious subjects, these poems served as a means to promulgate Lancanstrian political policy alongside their moral or entertainment value. As stated above, Henry V commissions the Troy Book before he has even taken the throne, with the goal of encouraging the use of English over the dialect of French common amongst the nobility of England (think Chaucer's mention of the French of "Stratford atte Bowe" in his description of the Prioress in his General Prologue). That use of English, in turn, would solidify an English national identity and, perhaps as importantly, the Lancanstrian central position in that identity. The composition of the Life of Our Lady may also have been encouraged by Henry as part of this program of elevating the position of English, as well as to undermine the position of the Lollards as the champions of religious verse in the vernacular. He is also reported to have written the "Benedic anima mea domino" for the chapel at Windsor and the "Eight Verses of St. Bernard" for the newly-ascended Henry’s own use at Mass.

Civic Poet

Among the aforementioned shorter poems written in support of Henry VI are a number of performance pieces that would have involved the wider citizenry of fifteenth-century London. Thus, Lydgate also worked as a civic poet. His involvement with the larger public provided incidental poems on life in the community and pieces commissioned by such guilds as the goldsmiths, mercers, and armorers, often framed as performance pieces. While many of these pieces come to us through texts in manuscript, it is known that a number of them, including "Bycorne and Chychevache" and the "Legend of St. George" for the Armorers of London, were originally produced for extra-codical purposes. Likewise, as I have written about elsewhere the "Testament" was rendered in an extracodical context at Holy Trinity, Long Melford in a version that is markedly different in the choice of verses displayed than any of the versions in the codex, and intended for a lay piety that has as much to do with community cohesion as with religious edification.

Dramatist

Although a writer of both dramatic and poetic works, Lydgate is often most remembered for the latter. As Claire Sponsler has pointed out, this is an artifact of the association between the poetic form and “literature,” which has significant impacts on our understanding of English culture in the middle ages.4 It has also worked to the detriment of our understanding of medieval drama in general and Lydgate’s works in particular, especially because the frame of Lydgate as "poet," full stop, has shaped what works of his are anthologized and the development of what are considered to be his canonical works.

Lydgate's dramatic works are primarily in two witnesses, British Library Addit. 29729 and Cambridge Trinity R.3.20, with a single outlier in Bodleian Ashmole 59. In those manuscripts they are primarily called "mummings" or "disguisings," but there are several items that have dramatic elements that are performative, but may not be "drama" as we think of it today. These include "Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London," "A Pageant of Knowledge,"5 and "A Procession of Corpus Christi," which have similarities in structure to several established dramatic works such as the York and Chester cycle plays and the Digby Mary Magdalene. For this reason, it is likely worthwhile to reconsider all of Lydgate's poetic output as potential performance pieces beyond basic recitation, and—as Sponsler suggests—give more consideration to Lydgate as dramatist than is currently considered.

Connections to Chaucer

Lydgate’s connections to Chaucer have been long and well established. Lydgate pays explicit homage to Chaucer in such works as The Life of Our Lady and The Siege of Thebes. The latter of these works he presents as a continuation of The Canterbury Tales, complete with a frame in which Lydgate sets himself up as a pilgrim narrator in the vein of Chaucer’s own pilgrim persona. Chaucer’s influence on Lydgate is so thorough that Lydgate incorporates lines and phrases from Chaucer into his own verse and even solidifies the place of words coined by Chaucer into English by using them again and again. As seen by Bokenham's reference above, Lydgate holds the same position for the generation that follows him.

The "Monk of Bury"

A final sphere in which Lydgate wrote was the religious. The village of his birth was in the radius of influence for the powerful Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, and it was this monastic house that provided him with his basic education as a child and in which he eventually became a brother. In addition to such lengthy examples as The Life of Our Lady and "The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund," Lydgate’s corpus includes many shorter devotional poems and saint’s lives. A number of these poems even make reference to Bury and to Lydgate’s abbot, indicating the clear importance of his brethren to his work and daily life.

Bibliography

Notes
  1. Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate (1371-1449) : a bio-bibliography. Victoria, B.C., Canada: University of Victoria, 1997, 9.
  2. It should be noted that the major edition of the majority of Lydgate's works, Henry Noble MacCraken's The Minor Poems of John Lydgate (EETS OS 107 and 192) came out in two volumes, the first of which appeared in 1911 and the second in 1934. This puts them on either side of the 100-year line. It should also be noted that the two EETS volumes were reprinted in 1962 and 1961, respectively, but since the editor has not changed I do not believe there were any significant changes made.
  3. Besides this push to improve the number of witnesses available, treating individual witnesses, complete or partial, as items worthy of study in their own right rather than as adjuncts to a purportedly complete text will help to reforce the ideal of Lydgate as a poet materially connected to his time and culture. Much like today, the fifteenth century has a number of examples of works being adapted, 'remixed' or otherwise altered either through intentional editing or by scribal error. The material aspects of these works, and what those decisions say about the people of the fifteenth century, are obscured through the traditional editorial process even when textual variation is provided by means of footnotes. In essence, each witness is an embodied witness with its own material context, and the site will hopefully help to reinforce that even while remaining aware of its own nature as a virtual adaptation of a material object.
  4. Sponsler, Claire. The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater (U of Pennsylvania P, 2014), 1-12.