Lydgate, John

Lydgate, John
(ca. 1370–ca. 1449)
   John Lydgate was a Benedictine monk from Bury Saint Edmunds who wrote more poetry than any other known medieval English poet.He was much praised by his contemporaries and by writers in the years immediately following his death, but his reputation declined rapidly after the late 16th century. For example, in the famous poem “Lament to the Makers” (1502),William DUNBAR lists the “Monk of Bury” among the three greatest English poets (along with John GOWER and Geoffrey CHAUCER), but by the beginning of the 19th century, the encyclopedist Joseph Ritson dismisses Lydgate as “a voluminous, prosaic and drivelling monk” (1802).
   Lydgate’s work is indeed voluminous, encompassing some 145,000 lines of poetry, which is three times the known work of Chaucer and twice the amount written by William Shakespeare. Lydgate’s poems cover a wide range of religious, historical, and moral subjects, written in a similarly wide range of verse forms. His works include both original pieces and expanded translations of works originally in Latin, French, and Italian.
   Much of the modern reader’s dissatisfaction with Lydgate comes from the length of his poems and their difficult language. Critic Derek Pearsall defends Lydgate’s leisurely style as one appropriate to a culture in which works were read aloud, making repetition and use of conventional language strategies welcomed by listeners. The difficulty of Lydgate’s language stems largely from his desire to promote English as a serious literary language by using English to imitate the rhetorical flourishes common to classical Latin poetry. In fact, Lydgate is credited with having introduced more than 800 Latin-based words into the English language. Much of Lydgate’s work was commissioned for important patrons in the nobility and royal family. Under a patronage system, a poet produces works on demand when requested by a particular patron. The patron might specify the occasion for which a poem was composed, and he or she might further specify the subject matter of the poem. Rather than being stifled by the patron’s requests, Lydgate used the occasions of the commissioned poems to pursue his own agendas of poetic theory and moral guidance.
   For example, when Prince Hal, later Henry V, commissioned a poem about the fall of Troy, Lydgate spent eight years producing the TROY BOOK (1420), based on a translation of GUIDO DELLE COLONNE’s Historia Troians (1287) as well as other works on the Trojan legends, including Chaucer’s TROILUS AND CRISEYDE. Lydgate uses the examples of the classical heroes to demonstrate his belief that yielding to passion risks destruction and that dedication to chivalry leads to success. In the closing lines, he stresses the vanity of worldly affairs, affirms Henry’s French conquests, and wishes blessings on Henry’s reign.
   Another of Lydgate’s reworkings of classical material is his SIEGE OF THEBES (ca. 1420–22), which retells the destruction of Thebes.As with the Troy Book, Lydgate is able to show how the classical past is relevant to understanding life in the modern world. Here Lydgate moralizes the Thebes story to show the advantage of words over swords, perhaps as another message to Henry V. The Siege of Thebes is often associated with the Chaucer canon because of the interpretation it gives of Chaucer’s work. Because Chaucer’s KNIGHT’S TALE begins with the destruction of Thebes, Lydgate’s poem is a prequel to Chaucer’s story. Lydgate makes the Chaucer connection more explicit with a frame tale in which the pilgrims from Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES are preparing to leave Canterbury for London. When invited to join the pilgrims’ tale-telling contest, Lydgate tells his story about Thebes. Early printed editions of Chaucer’s work included The Siege of Thebes as late as 1598.
   Not surprisingly for a monk, Lydgate wrote a number of religious poems in which he worked deliberately to use elevated English as a means of moving people to religious devotion, thus creating a new standard of English religious poetry. The religious poems include religious instruction, prayers, lyrics, SAINTS’ LIVES, and other religious narratives, as well as translations of various hymns and psalms. Perhaps the best known of the religious materials is his Life of Our Lady (ca. 1409–11), a tribute to the Virgin Mary.
   Lydgate also contributed to the development of English drama through a series of seven so-called “mumming poems.” These works were commissioned for various holidays and provide a kind of narration to be read aloud during performances of pantomimes. For example, in the Mumming at Eltham (1424), written as entertainment for the king and queen’s Christmas residency at Eltham Palace, the characters of Bacchus, Juno, and Ceres present gifts of wine, wheat, and oil to the king. Lydgate’s commentary assures the king and queen that through the intervention of these gifts, the kingdom shall have peace.
   Another of Lydgate’s famous works is the Fall of Princes (ca. 1431–39), an encyclopedic collection of people of high position who fell from power. Lydgate surveys biblical, historical, and legendary materials to consider examples ranging from Adam and Eve all the way to France’s King John. The tradition of cataloging the unfortunate was well established in Lydgate’s time. BOCCACCIO had produced a well-known similar work,De Casibus virorum illustrium (1358), and Chaucer had adapted Boccaccio for his MONK’S TALE in the Canterbury Tales. Lydgate’s work exceeds these examples in scope and in his emphasis that a wise reader can benefit from these examples. Individual moral choices as much as fortune determine fate. Fall of Princes is also interesting because of its patronage history. The work was commissioned by Humphrey, duke of Gloucester and younger brother of Henry V. In the early sections of Fall of Princes, Lydgate praises Humphrey for his generosity and contributions to humanistic learning in England, but by the end of the poem, Lydgate incorporates several hints about his poverty and need for money. Apparently, Humphrey was more generous in theory than in fact.
   Lydgate was born around 1370 in the village of Lidgate or Lydgate. By 1382 he entered the Benedictine abbey in the nearby town of Bury St. Edmunds. This abbey was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful abbeys in England. Even though Lydgate’s parents were probably peasants, he advanced rapidly in the monastery.He was ordained in 1389, made a deacon in 1393, and reached the full order of priesthood in 1397. The abbey library was reputed to house over 2,000 books, one of the largest collections in England. With access to this collection, Lydgate developed an encyclopedic learning. And, through his role in the abbey, Lydgate was brought into contact with important political figures, including members of the royal family.
   Part of Lydgate’s life was spent away from the abbey. He apparently read theology at Gloucester College, Oxford, a college tied to Bury St. Edmund’s abbey. He spent time in the English royal courts of London,Windsor, and in Paris. He also served as the prior of the Benedictine house at Hatfield Regis from 1423–34. Most of his long life, however, was spent in Bury St. Edmunds. He died, presumably at the abbey, in 1449. The location of his tomb is not known. Tradition held that he was buried in the abbey, but the abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of English monasteries (1539) and only scant ruins remain.
   Few modern readers consider Lydgate an author read for pleasure, but he remains an important literary figure for several reasons. His volume of poetry and the popularity that poetry achieved reveal much about aesthetic taste of the 15th and 16th centuries. Because the critical movement known as New Historicism has paid special interest to ways literary culture and history intersect, recent critics concentrate on ways Lydgate used his role as poet to address social and political concerns, even in commissioned works. Finally, Lydgate did much to promote the acceptance of formal poetry written in English.
   ■ Ebin, Lois. John Lydgate. Twayne’s English Authors, 407. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
   ■ Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970.
   ■ Renoir,Alain. The Poetry of John Lydgate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
   ■ Schirmer,Walter. John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century. Translated by Ann E. Keep. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.
   David Sprunger

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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  • Lydgate, John — • Writer, born at Lydgate, Suffolk, about 1370; d. probably about 1450. He entered the Benedictine abbey at Bury when fifteen and may have been educated earlier at the school of the Benedictine monks there and have been afterwards at the… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Lydgate, John — ▪ English writer born c. 1370, Lidgate, Suffolk, Eng. died c. 1450, Bury St. Edmunds?  English poet, known principally for long moralistic and devotional works.       In his Testament Lydgate says that while still a boy he became a novice in the… …   Universalium

  • Lydgate,John — Lyd·gate (lĭdʹgāt , gət), John. 1370? 1451?. English poet who is best known for his long narrative works. * * * …   Universalium

  • LYDGATE, JOHN —    an early English poet; was a monk of Bury St. Edmunds in the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries; was a teacher of rhetoric as well as a poet, and a man of some note in his day …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Lydgate, John — (1370? 1451?)    Poet, b. in Suffolk, was ordained a priest in 1397. After studying at Oxf., Paris, and Padua, he taught literature in his monastery at Bury St. Edmunds. He appears to have been a bright, clear minded, earnest man, with a love of… …   Short biographical dictionary of English literature

  • Lydgate, John — (?1370 ?1451)    He was born at Lidgate, Suffolk, and at fifteen was a novice in the Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, where he became a priest in 1397. He knew Chaucer, who was his inspiration as a poet. That he knew what it was like to be… …   British and Irish poets

  • John Lydgate — John Lydgate. John Lydgate (cerca 1370 1451), monje y poeta inglés, nacido en Lidgate, Suffolk, Inglaterra, y muerto en Bury Saint Edmunds, Suffolk. Contenido …   Wikipedia Español

  • Lydgate — John Lydgate John Lydgate (* um 1370 in Lidgate, Suffolk; † um 1451) war ein englischer Mönch und Dichter. Im Alter von fünfzehn Jahren wurde er im Benediktinerkonvent zu Bury St. Edmunds aufgenommen und eignete sich dort sowie vermutlich an den… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • John Lydgate —     John Lydgate     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► John Lydgate     Born at Lydgate, Suffolk, about 1370; d. probably about 1450. He entered the Benedictine abbey at Bury when fifteen and may have been educated earlier at the school of the… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • LYDGATE (J.) — LYDGATE JOHN (1370 env. env. 1450) De l’œuvre très volumineuse de ce moine bénédictin, cent quarante cinq mille vers ont été conservés. Ses poèmes vont de vastes narrations, comme Le Livre de Troie (The Troy Book ) et La Chute des princes (The… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

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