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  John Lydgate (c.1370–1449/50?), manuscript illumination [kneeling left, with Henry V] John Lydgate (c.1370–1449/50?), manuscript illumination [kneeling left, with Henry V]
Lydgate, John (c.1370–1449/50?), poet and prior of Hatfield Regis, was born at Lidgate in Suffolk, ‘wher Bachus licour doth ful scarsli flete’ (The Fall of Princes, bk 8, l. 194), a few miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds where he was to spend most of his life, and where, presumably, there was a better supply of wine to refresh his ‘drie soule’. Later in the poem he refers to his village, at the time of the slaying of St Edmund at Hoxne, with some pride as:
be olde tyme a famous castel toun;
In Danys tyme it was bete doun.
(ibid., bk 9, ll. 3431–5)
Elsewhere, in his Isopes fabules, an apology for his lack of rhetorical skill leads him to remark wryly:
Have me excusyd: I was born in Lydgate;
Of Tullius gardeyn I passyd nat the gate.
(Minor Poems, 567)
The date of his birth can be estimated from two references in his works: in the prologue to The Siege of Thebes (1420–22?) he says he is ‘nygh fyfty yere of age’ (Siege of Thebes, l. 93), and in The Fall of Princes (completed in 1438 or 1439) he speaks of his ‘mor than thre score yeeris’ (Fall of Princes, bk 8, l. 191)—and of his ‘pallid age’ and ‘tremblyng joyntes’.

Youth and education

In his Testament, a penitential poem which contains some apparently autobiographical material, Lydgate describes his conversion from a sinful life through the sight of a crucifix with the inscription vide (‘Behold my mekenesse, O child, and leve thy pryde’) depicted on the wall of a cloister in the monastery. This event occurred when he was ‘wythinne xv’ years of age (Minor Poems, 356), after he had ‘entered religion’. The poem, probably in traditional manner, somewhat heightens its portrayal of his ‘myspent tyme’ (Lydgate says that he ‘ran into gardyns’ to steal apples—just as St Augustine robbed a pear tree), but there is no reason to doubt the general truth of its biographical details. Lydgate presents himself as a feckless child:
loth to lerne, loved no besynesse,
Save pley or merth, straunge to spelle or rede
who did not want to go to school and was:
redier cheristones for to telle
Than gon to chirche, or here the sacryng belle.
(Minor Poems, 352–3)
He was a jester and a scoffer, who went to bed late and got up late, did not wash for dinner, and hated rebukes or correction—in short, ‘a chyld resemblyng which was not lyke to thryve’, ‘like a truant’. Even in the monastery, where he made his profession ‘a yere complete’, he was at first ill-disciplined and riotous (preferring ‘good wyne that was clere’ to contemplation and ‘holy histories’) until his life was changed. The recollection of the word vide causes him, now in his ‘last age’, to take up his pen and compose a ‘litel dite’—which is an eloquent lament from the crucified Christ to sinful man.

Lydgate's literary career clearly owes much to his monastic upbringing. The majority of his poems bear the mark of a pious and learned mind. He is often referred to simply as the Monk of Bury—by others and by himself (Siege of Thebes, l. 93), and that rich and powerful abbey provided him with one of the finest libraries in England, and, probably, with valuable connections to sources of literary patronage. At some stage he studied at Oxford, probably at Gloucester College, the Benedictine hall, although the surviving evidence is thin. John Shirley, the fifteenth-century scribe who seems to have had a fairly close connection with him, and who provides much valuable and generally trustworthy information in his rubrics to his poems, says in his copy of the version of the Aesopic fable of the dog and the cheese (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 59, second half of the fifteenth century) that Lydgate made it ‘in Oxenford’ (Minor Poems, 598). That Lydgate is probably to be identified with ‘notre treschier en dieu Dan J. L. vostre commoigne [your fellow monk]’ for whom Prince Henry wrote to the abbot of Bury, between 1406 and 1408, for the ‘continuance in the study of divinity or canon law at Oxford’ on the recommendation of the chancellor of the university, Richard Courtenay (Legge, 411–12), may indicate that he returned to Oxford later for a period of further study. It has been suggested by J. Norton-Smith (Poems, 195) that during his time at Oxford he made the acquaintance of the prince of Wales (who was probably at Queen's College c.1398), his future patron, and of Edmund Lacy of University College, who went on to become dean of the royal chapel at Windsor and (from 1420) the bishop of Exeter for whom Lydgate translated Gloriosa dicta sunt de te (Minor Poems, 315–23). Bale's claim that he also studied at Cambridge does not seem to be supported by any evidence—that Lydgate wrote a set of verses on the foundation of that university (ibid., 652–5) need not be significant. Bale also says that after returning from travelling in France and Italy, Lydgate opened a school for the sons of noblemen. This too is unproven, though some lines in God is myn Helpere may, if they are genuinely autobiographical, support the idea of travel (and, perhaps, some adventure):
I have been offte in dyvers londys
And in many dyvers regiouns,
Have eskapyd fro my foois bondys
In citees, castellys, and in touns;
Among folk of sundry naciouns
Wente ay forth.
(ibid., 28)

Early works and patronage

By the end of the fourteenth century Lydgate was well advanced on his ecclesiastical career. He was ordained acolyte on 13 March 1389, and subdeacon on 17 November or December of that year. He became deacon on 31 May 1393, and four years later priest, on 7 April 1397. The earlier stages of his literary career are less clear. Apart from Shirley's not very informative note on the Aesop, there is nothing to fix the dates of many poems in the early years before c.1412. It is often assumed that his poems concerned with love are from this period, but this is simply conjecture. There are a number of these without any indication of date, like the Ballade of her that hath All Virtues (Minor Poems, 379), written ‘at the request of a squyer that served in loves court’. One might guess that this kind of commission is likely to have come his way after he had already become known as a poet. His very ‘Chaucerian’ poems The Complaint of the Black Knight (alternatively known as A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe) and The Flour of Curtesye are often thought to have been written at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, as imitations of and perhaps acts of homage to the recently dead poet whom Lydgate admired and always refers to as his ‘master’. His indebtedness to Chaucer can hardly be exaggerated: his poetry is full of Chaucerian topics, themes, and verbal echoes. He praises Chaucer again and again for his eloquence and for the way that he has ‘illumined’ the English language, but does not claim to have met him. He was, however, a friend of the poet's son Thomas Chaucer (d. 1434), for whom he wrote an elegant poem on the occasion of his departure on a journey (perhaps as part of an embassy to Burgundy in 1414). Thomas Chaucer seems to have had a circle of friends with literary interests. His daughter Alice (d. 1475) married (as her second husband) Thomas Montagu, earl of Salisbury (d. 1428), and after his death William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk (d. 1450), both men with some literary tastes. Lydgate's Virtues of the Mass (Minor Poems, 87–115) is said in a rubric in one manuscript to have been done at the request of the countess of Suffolk.

Lydgate seems to have begun enjoying literary patronage at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The Temple of Glass, an ambitious Chaucerian dream poem, is usually regarded as an early work: the manuscripts indicate a process of extensive revision. The poem was very popular in the fifteenth century. It is, according to Shirley, written ‘à la request d'un amoureux’—if so, he cannot be identified. In the final version a motto which the dreamer sees on the lady's garment reads de mieulx en mieulx: this is one that was used by the Pastons, but it also appears in earlier French poetry, so that the suggestion that it has some connection with them—and in particular with the marriage of William Paston and Agnes Berry in 1420—cannot be accepted with certainty. In the temple of Venus the dreamer overhears the lament of a beautiful lady who is bound to one whom she does not love, and later that of the knight her lover. Venus urges patience and faithfulness and consoles them with the hope that their future joy is fated. From this period probably comes Resoun and Sensuallyte (c.1408?), which is attributed to Lydgate by the sixteenth-century antiquary Stow: it is based on the first part of a French allegorical poem Les échecs amoureux expanded into a learned and encyclopaedic work (containing, for example, extensive information on mythology).

First mature works

The Troy Book is the first of Lydgate's major poems that can be precisely dated. It was commissioned by Prince Henry on 31 October 1412, and, after eight years, the completed work was presented to him, now Henry V, in 1420. The prince, says Lydgate in the prologue, wished to have recalled the ancient worthiness of ‘verray knyghthod’ and ‘the prowesse of olde chivalrie’ (Troy Book, prologue, ll. 75–8) and to have the ‘noble story’ made available in English (ibid., ll. 111–15). Lydgate's main source is the thirteenth-century Latin Historia destructionis Troiae of Guido delle Colonne (a copy of which was in the library at Bury) which itself is a version of Benoît de Ste Maure's Roman de Troie. In five books containing over 30,000 lines in couplets Lydgate records the whole story from the Argonauts, the founding and destruction of old Troy, to Priam and the building of the new city, Paris and Helen, the outbreak of war, the battles, and the fates of the heroes. The story has an episodic structure, and is elaborated with rhetorical laments, descriptions, and speeches. These often have an impressive eloquence—some of the natural descriptions (of dawns, for example), some of the laments for the dead heroes, or the lament of Troilus and Criseyde at their parting, or the lament for Troy (Troy Book, bk 4, ll. 7036ff.), for instance. Lydgate demonstrates here already his skill at constructing scenes of pathos. He works into the narrative a mass of encyclopaedic material relating to history and mythology (for example, the descriptions of the attributes of the goddesses in the judgement of Paris, or of the ancient theatre and the performance of tragedies). The Troy Book presents a ‘mirror for princes’, both in particular episodes marked by sententious comments:
late Priam alwey your merour ben,
Hasty errour be tymes to correcte
(Troy Book, bk 2, ll. 1898–9)
and as a whole, emphasizing a number of major themes including the dangers of political discord and war:
Lo what meschef lyth in variaunce
Amonge lordis, whan thei nat accorde
(ibid., bk 3, ll. 2342–3)
as well as the power of Fortune, the transitoriness of earthly things, and the impermanence of human ambition.The Siege of Thebes (1420?–22), probably based on a French prose version of the Roman de Thèbes, is not a commissioned work. No doubt intended as a companion piece to The Troy Book, it may also be a compliment to Chaucer (though hardly an attempt to improve on him, as has been suggested). In the prologue Lydgate imagines himself joining the Canterbury pilgrims on their return journey from Canterbury, and is persuaded by the Host to tell the first tale. The fiction is kept up throughout by a number of comments, and a reference to The Knight's Tale when Theseus appears. In three parts, amounting to only 4716 lines, it is notably shorter than The Troy Book, and, while not exactly brisk, it is less encyclopaedic. It contains some vivid descriptive passages and some fine pathetic scenes, but Lydgate is, as usual, concerned to underline the significance of the material, and again to offer a ‘mirror for princes’. A king should be generous and liberal, and free from ‘doubleness’—‘trouthe shulde longe to a kyng’ (Siege of Thebes, l. 1722)—and Lydgate warns of the dangers of falsehood and discord. In the opposing views of Jocasta, who urges negotiation rather than war (ibid., l. 3655ff.), and the council of Adrastus, which argues that to give up ‘the hegh emprise’ would be an act of cowardice and dishonour, and would betray their glorious ancestors, ‘that whilom [formerly] wern so manly conquerours’ (ibid., l. 4117ff.), Lydgate is presenting a contemporary English dilemma. The poem ends with a denunciation of the destructiveness of war (springing from pride, covetousness, and false ambition) and a vision of peace when the sword and spear of Mars will no longer menace, but ‘love and pees in hertys shal awake’ and bring between countries ‘pees and quyet, concord and unyte’—words that seem to be echoing the phrasing of the treaty of Troyes (1420) which (for a time) brought peace between England and France.

Perhaps from this period comes an impressive religious poem of some 6000 lines, The Life of Our Lady. It is impossible to be sure of its date, but a rubric in one manuscript says that it was compiled ‘at the excitation and styrryng of our worshipful prince, kyng Harry the fifthe’. If this is correct, it would support the date of 1421–2 given to it by its modern editors, but it is strange that there is no reference to Henry in the text itself. Possibly he suggested the work but died before it was completed.

The death of Henry V on 31 August 1422 did not cause any interruption in Lydgate's Lancastrian patronage. Since the heir to the throne was only nine months old, the effective government was in the hands of a regency council, and it may be that an awareness of the tensions within this and of the potential dangers led Lydgate to compose his only known prose work, The Serpent of Division. A date of December 1422 has been suggested, but has not been universally accepted, nor has the suggested identification of the ‘most worshipful master’ at whose request it was written with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, the protector of England. It is a tract on the horrors of civil war as exemplified in the life of Julius Caesar. The material comes from Lucan's Pharsalia, a French version of that, and the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais. Whatever the precise date of The Serpent of Division, the topic was relevant and the moral direct: ‘all prudent prynces whiche have governaunce in provynces and regions schulde take ensample what harme and damage is and how finall a destruccion is to bene devyded amonge hemselfe’ (The Serpent of Division, 58). Duke Humphrey was later certainly an important patron of Lydgate, and the poem that Lydgate wrote (1422–3) for his approaching marriage with Jacqueline of Hainault (Minor Poems, 601–8) suggests an already close relationship. A poem entitled a Complaint for my Lady of Gloucester and Holland (ibid., 608–13), which expresses warm sympathy for Jacqueline after her abandonment by Humphrey, carries the annotation ‘Lidegate daun Iohan’ in Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 59, a late Shirley manuscript, but Shirley's rubric attributes it to ‘a chapellayne of my lordes of Gloucestre’.

In 1423 Lydgate was elected prior of Hatfield Regis, Essex, a small alien priory appropriated to Bury, an office that he held until 8 April 1434, although he was probably not resident throughout that period (in 1426 he was at Paris, and at other times at London or Bury). It is usually thought that perhaps c.1425 he wrote his version of the story of Guy of Warwick (Minor Poems, 516–38), based on chronicle rather than romance sources, for Margaret, the eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and his first wife, Elizabeth, though the rubric recording her request gives her later title countess of Shrewsbury and Lady Talbot, and, if it is not simply an indication of the date of the copying, could support a later date (she married John Talbot in 1433, and became countess of Shrewsbury in 1442). Lydgate, however, certainly had connections with Beauchamp in the period 1425–6, and his The Fyfftene Joyes of Oure Lady (ibid., 260–67) is said in one rubric to have been done at the instance of his second wife, Isabella, the daughter of Thomas, Lord Despenser.

Paris: translations from French

It was perhaps in the service of the earl of Warwick, then acting regent of France during Bedford's absence, that Lydgate went to Paris in 1426. In July of that year at Warwick's request he wrote a verse account (from the French of Laurence Calot) of The Title and Pedigree of Henry VI designed to prove the king's claim to the French throne (Minor Poems, 621–8). The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, a verse translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine done for Warwick's deputy Thomas Montagu, earl of Salisbury, and his wife, Alice Chaucer, was begun in 1426 and was finished by 3 November 1428, the date of Montagu's death from a wound received at the siege of Orléans—unless ‘we assume that the abruptness of the end, and the lack of the usual dedicatory epilogue, indicate that the patron was already dead’ (Pearsall, 173). Unusually, Lydgate does not record his authorship in the text, and it has been questioned. The illustration often reproduced as showing Lydgate and a pilgrim presenting the book to Montagu is in fact pasted in as a title-page in BL, Harley MS 4826, which includes a copy of Lydgate's St Edmund but not the Pilgrimage. The work is attributed to Lydgate by Stow, but it has been suggested that this rests on a misunderstanding of an ambiguous remark by Shirley in a versified list of contents to one of his manuscripts, in which he mentions a prose translation of the ‘humayne pilgrymage’ and then about ten lines later refers to Lydgate's translation ‘of this booke and of other mo’. The question is whether the ‘book’ is the Middle English prose translation (not, it seems, by Lydgate) or the French original. If it is not the latter, it would seem that here lies the origin of a misattribution. There would perhaps be more urgency in solving the problem if the verse translation were more distinguished.

Poems for illustrations and pageants

It is, however, certain that Lydgate translated the French Danse macabre (‘The Dance of Death’), which he says he saw on a wall in Paris (it had been painted in the cemetery of the Innocents in 1424–5). This is a good translation and it was used to accompany a painting of the dance in the cloister of the Pardon churchyard on the north side of St Paul's Cathedral in London, where it survived until 1549. It is one of a number of poems which are intended to, or could be made to, accompany illustrations, whether in manuscripts or in the form of wall-paintings or painted cloths. His Bycorne and Chichevache (Minor Poems, 433–8) on the monsters that eat, respectively, patient husbands and patient wives, is a ‘devise of a peynted or desteyned clothe for an halle a parlour or a chaumbre’, and provides (at the request of a worthy citizen of London) what is apparently a text to accompany a series of images. Religious poems of this kind include The Dolerous Pyte of Crystes Passioun (ibid., 250–52), which seems designed to be used with the imago pietatis of the wounded Christ (‘looke on this fygure’, ‘my bloody woundis, set here in picture’, and so on). Similarly, On the Image of Pity (ibid., 297–9) is to accompany an image of a pietà. ‘Beholde and se this glorious fygure’, begins The Image of Our Lady (ibid., 290–91), which is apparently to accompany a copy of the painting of the Virgin by St Luke in Rome. Stanzas from Lydgate's Lamentation of Mary Magdalen and his Testament were painted in the Clopton chapel of the Holy Trinity at Long Melford, Suffolk (a church that belonged to Bury), in the later fifteenth century.

These poems are sometimes close to pageants or mummings. The Legend of St George (Minor Poems, 145–54) was, according to Shirley's rubric, ‘the devyse of a steyned [painted] halle … ymagyned by Daun Johan the Monk of Bury Lydegate, and made with the balades’ for the London Guild of Armourers (St George ‘roode in steel armed bright’). The note in the manuscript ‘the poete first declarethe’ suggests that the verses were read out when the paintings were first presented or installed. However, they may also have been painted on the walls with them. A number of Lydgate's semi-dramatic mummings or disguisings survive. Some of these are for royal occasions—Christmas celebrations at Eltham or Windsor—some for city guilds or civic occasions—for the mercers (Epiphany 1429), the goldsmiths (Candlemas 1429), the sheriffs of London at Bishopswood (May day). They are sometimes simply the verses to be spoken by a presenter before the giving of gifts, sometimes introducing or accompanying processions or the entry of characters (as perhaps Fortune and the four cardinal Virtues in the London mumming for ‘the great estates’) or mimed actions (as perhaps in the Mumming at Hertford, a rather lively piece described by Shirley as ‘a disguysing of the rude upplandisshe [rustic] people compleyning on hir wyves, with the boystous aunswere of hir wyves’).

Henry VI's coronation (at the age of seven) in London in 1429, and later in Paris, is celebrated in a Roundel for the Coronation (Minor Poems, 622) and other poems. There is also a verse description of the pageants that greeted the young king on his return and entry into London in 1432 after his coronation in Paris (ibid., 630–48). A number of courtly occasional poems probably come from this time, as for instance the Balade on a New Year's Gift of an Eagle (ibid., 649–51), which according to Shirley was presented to the king and his mother, Queen Catherine, on new year's day at the castle of Hertford. In 1433 the king spent Christmas at Bury. He was received with great splendour, and remained until Easter 1434, when he became a member of the abbey's confraternity (which included a number of powerful nobles and their wives, some of whom were Lydgate's patrons). At the request of the abbot, William Curteys (d. 1446), Lydgate wrote for the king the legend of the patron saint of the abbey and the region, St Edmund, and of St Fremund, the martyr's nephew. In the Legend of SS Edmund and Fremund, Lydgate brings to the saint's life the epic quality already attempted in The Life of Our Lady. Its 3700 lines, divided into three books, tells the traditional story of his martyrdom at the hands of the Danes in a fluent narrative with some excellent dialogue and dramatic scenes. The king, presented as both hero and martyr, lion and lamb, is presented as the protector of and the exemplar for the young ‘sixth Harry’. His three crowns, expounded in the prologue as those of the kingdom, martyrdom, and chastity, correspond to Henry's English, French, and heavenly crowns. Lydgate wrote a number of other saints' legends, not all of which can be dated—those, for instance, of St Margaret (ibid., 173) for Lady March, or the Legend of SS Alban and Amphibel (in 1439 at the request of Whethamstede, the abbot of St Albans), in 4700 lines treating the ‘prothomartyr of Brutis Albion’ in a rather grand manner.

The fall of princes

Lydgate was now already embarked on his most ambitious work. The Fall of Princes was begun c.1431 at the request of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and completed in 1438 or 1439. It is based on Laurent de Premierfait's French version of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, and runs to 36,365 lines in nine books. The long task weighed heavily even on Lydgate, who makes a number of semi-comic references to it, and at some point wrote a begging poem, the Letter to Gloucester (Minor Poems, 665–7), a witty request for funds. If Humphrey was niggardly with money, he was less so with advice and encouragement, suggesting, for instance, the inclusion of envoys (which summarize, comment, present ‘remedies’ of Fortune, and instruct princes), or the use of Coluccio Salutati's Declamation of Lucretia, which he lent to Lydgate. The poem follows the pattern familiar to English readers from Chaucer's Monk's Tale of a succession of ‘tragedies’ ranging chronologically from Adam to King Jean of France, captured at Poitiers in 1356. The fallen princes pass in front of the author, Bochas, in his study, lament, tell their stories, or urge him to do so. Lydgate's strong sense of pathos is evident in some of his expansions, for example of the lament of Canacee. His sententious envoys sometimes become sombre choric laments for heroes (such as that on Alcibiades), and he can achieve moments of melancholy grandeur, as in the envoy on Rome at the end of the second book. There is much evidence of his wide reading and of a sympathy for the stories of the ancient world. He urges the traditional doctrines of moderation, the avoidance of pride, and the pursuit of virtue, and demonstrates the horror of discord and strife between kinsfolk. This advice, though couched in general terms, was highly relevant to contemporary princes. The Fall of Princes was very popular in the fifteenth century: more than thirty manuscripts survive, some of them finely illustrated, and it was quarried for excerpts. It goes into sixteenth-century printed editions, and is a model for The Mirror for Magistrates.

Later poems and death

Lydgate was at Bury, it seems, from 1434 until his death. He was awarded a royal annuity of 10 marks (22 April 1439), the last grant of which was made at Michaelmas 1449. From this period comes The Debate between the Horse, Goose and Sheep (Minor Poems, 539–66), which contains an allusion to Philip of Burgundy's attack on Calais in 1436. During the last years of his life Lydgate wrote some verses on the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou and the pageants for her entry into London in 1445. What seems to be his last long poem, The Secrees of Philisoffres, a translation of the Secreta secretorum then attributed to Aristotle was left unfinished, and was completed by his disciple Benedict Burgh. That Lydgate's final line (1491) with the words ‘deth al consumyth’ is followed by the note ‘here dyed this translator, and nobil poete: and the yonge folowere gan his prologe on this wyse’ makes a very dramatic story.

The actual date of Lydgate's death is not certain, but is probably 1449 or 1450. The suggested later date of 1451 depends on a remark by Bishop Alcock that Lydgate wrote a poem on the occasion of the final loss of France and Gascony, but the fact that his royal grant ceases after 29 September 1449 suggests that Lydgate died between that date and Michaelmas of the following year. This seems to be confirmed by the description of him as ‘sumtyme monke of Byry’ in John Metham's Amoryus and Cleopes, written in the twenty-seventh year of the sixth King Henry, by which he may mean 1449. He was buried at Bury abbey, and a three-line epitaph (according to Tanner) described him as one ‘qui fuit quondam celebris Brittaniae fama Poesis’ (‘who was once renowned poet of famous Britain’).

Assessment and reputation

Much of Lydgate's vast output is impossible to date, and the range of topics that he treats (outside those listed above) is very large: religious lyrics, translations of Latin hymns, verse prayers, poems of moral advice, didactic poems, fables, satires, instructional poems on table manners, rules of health, or in praise of the nine properties of wine, and so on. In the course of the fifteenth century many anonymous works were attributed to him: modern scholarship denies him the authorship of, for instance, The Assembly of the Gods, The Court of Sapience, and London Lickpenny. It has also been tentatively suggested that he may have had some hand in The Libel of English Policy, but there is no external evidence to support this. Equally impressive is the list of his patrons, beginning with two kings and continuing with royal dukes and noblemen and their wives to the lesser gentry in what is a veritable roll-call of the great and good in late medieval England. Add to this the London merchants and the guilds, and the justice of Thomas Warton's remark can be comprehended: ‘his muse was of universal access; and he was not only the poet of his monastery, but of the world in general’ (Warton, 1774–81, repr., 350).

Lydgate's reputation was at its height in the fifteenth century: he is praised again and again, and his name is regularly linked with those of Chaucer and Gower as one of the masters of English poetry. His fame continued through the sixteenth century, but gradually faded. In the eighteenth, interest was rekindled and he received a judicious account in Warton's History of English Poetry and enthusiastic praise from Thomas Gray (Some Remarks on the Poems of John Lydgate, 1760). This very sympathetic and thoughtful treatment of his compassion for suffering and his skill in creating scenes of pathos has been eclipsed by the vituperative denunciation of Lydgate by Joseph Ritson in 1802 as ‘this voluminous, prosaick, and driveling monk’, whose works ‘by no means deserve the name of poetry’ (Ritson, 87ff.). Scholarly interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Germany and England has produced edited texts of his works, and provided more material for understanding the literary culture that moulded him and which he helped to mould. This undoubtedly voluminous and often uneven poet will probably never recover his contemporary reputation, but at his best he can produce impressive moments and scenes, and is certainly a poet worthy of the name.

Douglas Gray

Sources  

D. Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970) · W. F. Schirmer, John Lydgate: a study in the culture of the XVth century, trans. A. E. Keep (1961) · Poems: John Lydgate, ed. J. Norton-Smith (1966) · Emden, Oxf. · M. D. Legge, ed., Anglo-Norman letters and petitions from All Souls MS 182, Anglo-Norman Texts, 3 (1941) · K. Walls, ‘Did Lydgate translate the Pèlerinage de la vie humaine?’, N&Q, 222 (1977), 103–5 · J. Lydgate, The fall of princes, ed. H. Bergen, EETS, extra ser., 121–4 (1924–7) · J. Lydgate, Lydgate's Troy book: AD 1412–20, ed. H. Bergen, 4 vols., EETS, extra ser., 97, 103, 106, 126 (1906–35) · J. Lydgate, Siege of Thebes, ed. A. Erdmann and E. Ekwall, EETS, extra ser., 108, 125 (1911–20) · J. Lydgate, Minor poems, ed. H. N. McCracken, EETS, extra ser., 107; old ser., 192 (1910–34) · J. Lydgate, The life of our Lady, ed. J. A. Lauritis, R. A. Klinefeller, and V. F. Gallagher, Duquesne Studies, Philological series, 2 (1961) · J. Lydgate, The serpent of division, ed. H. N. McCracken (1911) · [J. Lydgate], The dance of death, ed. F. Warren and B. White, EETS, 181 (1931) · T. Warton, The history of English poetry, 4 vols. (1774–81) · J. Ritson, Biographica poetica (1802)

Archives  

BL, Cotton MSS [copies] · BL, Harley MS 4826 · Bodl. Oxf., Ashmole MS 59 · Venerable English College, fifteenth-century collection of poems


Likenesses  

manuscript illumination, BL, Royal 18 D.ii; repro. in Pearsall, John Lydgate, frontispiece · manuscript illumination, BL, Harley MS 2278, fol. 9; repro. in Pearsall, John Lydgate, pl. 3 · manuscript illumination, BL, Arundel MS 119, fol. 1 · manuscript illumination, BL, Cotton Augustus A.1.v · manuscript illumination, BL, Harley MS 1766, fol. 3 · manuscript illumination, Bodl. Oxf., MS Digby 232, fol. 1 [see illus.] · tinted drawing, BL, Harley MS 4826, fol. 1* [paste-in]; see illus. in Montagu, Thomas, fourth earl of Salisbury (1388–1428)