John Lydgate (c. 1371-c. 1449) was a poet and monk of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England. Adept at writing for a variety of patrons and purposes and in a wide range of styles, he penned short devotional lyrics as well as vast moralistic tomes running to tens of thousands of lines each. Although after the Protestant Reformation, his reputation waned, during the 15th century Lydgate was the most popular didactic poet in England. Some of his works survive in more late- medieval manuscript copies than even certain poems by Geoffrey Chaucer, whom modern readers generally consider to be Lydgate’s superior as a poet. The longwinded didacticism of “the Monk of Bury” has left him open to the frequent charge of tediousness. This and the apparent irregularity of his meter (in comparison with Chaucer’s) drew widespread critical disparagement from the 19th to well into the 20th century. In the context of discussions about time, however, Lydgate is interesting both because of his attitudes toward the history of civilizations and because of his place in the history of literature.
Born around 1371, the poet apparently followed customary practice among medieval monks by taking his surname from his place of birth, in this case what is now the modern village of Lidgate in the county of Suffolk. He entered St. Edmund’s Abbey as a teenager and was sent to the University of Oxford for further training in theology. Although he was a Benedictine monk, he spent plenty of time in the world outside the cloister and, because of his skill as a moralistic versifier, garnered the patronage—essential to premodern poets—of some of the most illustrious figures of his day. These included Henry V (whom he evidently met at Oxford), Henry VI, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, among others; they were either the recipients of or the guiding influences behind some of Lydgate’s longest productions. For example, The Troy Book (c. 1420-1422) addresses Henry V’s victory over the French at Agincourt, while The Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund was written to commemorate Henry VI’s Christmastide sojourn at St. Edmund’s in 1433-1434. The immense Fall of Princes (c. 1431-1439), Lydgate’s longest work at over 36,000 lines, was commissioned by Duke Humphrey.
Both in his so-called courtly works, written for royal or aristocratic patrons, and in his less ambitious poems, Lydgate was chiefly concerned to praise God and his saints and remind his readers of their own dependence upon them. As creatures living out their lives in earthly time, Lydgate’s readers were expected to conform their wills to Christ’s in eternity and to prepare their souls for final judgment at his hands.
Until late in the 20th century, literary critics dazzled by Chaucer and other contemporary poets like William Langland and the anonymous (presumed) author of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight found little to commend in the writings of a derivative, digression-prone moralist. Since the 1980s, however, scholars have returned to literary history with a keen interest in the relationship between writers and the sociopolitical conditions of their times. Much has been done of late to salvage modern understanding of his importance by situating Lydgate in the contexts of contemporary court politics and religious devotion.
To broach the topic of Lydgate and time, however, is to return to older critical discussions that dismissed 15th-century English literature as little more than an artistically arid interim between the ages of Chaucer and Spenser (or, alternatively, Shakespeare). In some respects, Lydgate does indeed seem self-consciously traditional. He affirmed pious orthodoxy at a time when the church in 15th-century England sought to curtail speculation on religious matters. Moreover, he appears to confirm modern scholars’ suspicion that medieval writers lacked a sense of historical change, a basic awareness that customs, religious rituals, and dress did not remain the same over the course of 2,000 years. Finally, Lydgate was seemingly unaware of, or hostile to, the advances in humanistic thought characteristic of the Renaissance taking place in the Italy of his day.
Even so, the Benedictine poet had clear notions about time and history, whether or not those notions were reactionary. His interest in classical antiquity was real. It is evident in his long historical romances, The Siege of Thebes (early 1420s) and The Troy Book, as well as in The Fall of Princes, a series of didactic vignettes about illustrious biblical, classical, and medieval personages who rose to great heights of prosperity only to suffer abrupt downfalls. Yet Lydgate was no archaeologist: He was not concerned to investigate the distant past as it “really” unfolded. On the contrary, in his work he often rails against those pagan customs that he judges to be irreconcilable with Christianity.
To say that he therefore lacked a historical sensibility, however, is to assume that he should have shared the modern historian’s dispassionate interest in learning exactly what happened and where and why it did. His reasons for studying antiquity were very different. He used ancient narrative materials such as the Troy and Thebes legends partly because he had a bookish interest in old stories, partly to find evidence for what he believed were eternally valid moral principles, and partly for the purpose of addressing political concerns that were current in the England of his own day. In unfolding the tragedies of Thebes with unstinting attention to their violence, he may have wished, as some scholars have argued recently, not so much to condemn the “ancient” and the “pagan” out of hand as to warn English kings and princes against the recurrent perils of empire building in all times and places.
Admirable attempts were made in the 1950s (by Walter Schirmer) and 1960s (by Alain Renoir) to treat Lydgate as a harbinger of English Renaissance humanism. Derek Pearsall’s landmark study of the poet (1970) instead argued, without apology, that the Monk of Bury was much the product of his time and place. Debate continues apace, with ever more energetic scholarship focusing on the very meaning of formerly unexamined terms like medieval, conventional, and humanistic. To this ongoing conversation scholars like Lee Patterson, David Lawton, Paul Strohm, James Simpson, and others have made valuable contributions. All agree that Lydgate was a more active thinker and a more purposeful commentator on history than earlier scholars suspected.
See also Alighieri, Dante; Chaucer, Geoffrey; Christianity;
Humanism; Novels, Time in; Poetry
Nolan, M. (2005). John Lydgate and the making of public culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pearsall, D. (1970). John Lydgate. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Scanlon, L., & Simpson, J. (Eds.). (2006). John Lydgate: Poetry, culture, and Lancastrian England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Schirmer, W. (1961). John Lydgate: A study in the culture of the XVth century (A. Keep, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Simpson, J. (2002). Reform and cultural revolution: 1350-1547. The Oxford English literary history (Vol. 2). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.