About John Lydgate

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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

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, understanding how I as editor perceive the poet will serve to help deobfuscate any potential literary black boxes.

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 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
For Henry V

Lydgate wrote several poems either directly under the commission of Henry V, or in order to support the goals of the king and the Lancanstrian dynasty. Lydgate is already translating and composing the Troy Book in the months prior to Henry V’s ascension, a task given to him under commission by Henry and which he would finally complete in 1420. The goal of this exercise is in line with Henry’s desire to encourage the use of English to solidify a the English national identity and 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 and 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.

For Henry VI
For other Lancastrians

From early in his literary career, Lydgate benefited from the patronage of members of the Lancastrian court. As 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 his relationship with the Lancastrians continued for the rest of his life. Henry V instigated Lydgate’s work on The Troy Book and possibly on The Life of Our Lady; his brother Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, commissioned The Fall of Princes; and Lydgate wrote numerous shorter poems to support the rule of the infant Henry VI during his long minority. One of the more significant examples in this last category is The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, a work that was dedicated to Henry VI to provide him with an example of good rule and presented to him in one of the most elaborate manuscripts in existence.

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.

Dramatist

Although a writer of both dramatic and poetic works, Lydgate is often most remembered for the former. 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. 2 It has also worked to the detriment of our understanding of medieval drama in general and Lydgate’s works in particular.

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.

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.

Notes
  1. Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate (1371-1449) : a bio-bibliography. Victoria, B.C., Canada: University of Victoria, 1997, 9.
  2. Sponsler, Claire. The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater (U of Pennsylvania P, 2014), 1-12.