Medieval Studies John Capgrave
by
Karen A. Winstead
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0155

Introduction

John Capgrave (b. 1393–d. 1464), an Augustinian friar from King’s Lynn, Norfolk, was one of medieval England’s most prolific authors. His earliest surviving work is a Latin commentary on Genesis, one of many Latin theological tracts attributed to him, most of which are now lost. In 1440, he composed his first known work in Middle English, a verse life of Saint Norbert of Xanten, the founder of the Premonstratensian order, at the request of John Wygenhale, a Premonstratensian abbot in nearby West Dereham. More saints’ lives followed. Capgrave addressed a verse life (c. 1445) of one of the most popular saints of the time, Katherine of Alexandria, to a general audience; wrote a life of Augustine of Hippo (c. 1450) for an unnamed gentlewoman; and supplied a life of Gilbert of Sempringham (1451) for the Gilbertine nuns at Sempringham. Though Capgrave was long thought to have written the Nova Legenda Anglie, a voluminous anthology of lives of British saints, Peter Lucas has effectively refuted that attribution. Besides saints’ lives, Capgrave’s works include a pilgrim’s guide to Rome, The Solace of Pilgrims, completed shortly after his own pilgrimage in 1450, and historical works. A set of biographies about illustrious people named Henry was dedicated to King Henry VI in 1446. Capgrave’s final project, the Abbreviation of Chronicles, was a concise history of the world (with particular attention, in later sections, to England), from Creation to the 1417 Council of Constance. Augustinian historians undertook much of the early research on Capgrave in the 20th century. Because most of his works survive in manuscripts that he wrote or corrected himself, Capgrave has also been studied by scholars concerned with dialect and with matters of paleography and codicology. Lately literary scholars have taken an interest in Capgrave’s work. His Life of Saint Katherine, especially, is remarkable for its scope and complexity, with rich characterizations, extended forays into history and theology, and the first extended discussion in English literature of whether women are fit to rule. Once regarded as a dull denizen of a cultural wasteland, Capgrave, like many of his contemporaries, has benefited from revisionist scholarship on the 15th century. He is now widely regarded by medievalists as an innovator and a liberal thinker who, though orthodox, championed religious reform.

Life and Milieu

For facts about Capgrave’s career and writings, Seymour 1996 is indispensable, despite his acknowledged disdain for Capgrave. Fredeman 1979 illuminates Capgrave’s religious and intellectual milieus, and Moore 1912 locates him within a flourishing East Anglian network of authors and patrons. Roth 1961 chronicles his career within the Augustinian order, and Colledge 1977 discusses how he used his literary talents to serve his religious order. Lucas 1997 studies Capgrave not just as an author but also as a scribe and publisher of his own writings. De Meijer 1955 was the first to attempt a thoroughgoing biography and bibliography, though his articles contain factual errors that have been corrected by later scholars.

  • Colledge, Edmund. “John Capgrave’s Literary Vocation.” Analecta Augustiniana 40 (1977): 187–195.

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    A useful and succinct discussion of Capgrave as an innovative Augustinian who put his literary skills in the service of his church and order. Colledge discusses Capgrave in relation to his fellow East Anglian clerical authors, Bokenham and Lydgate.

  • De Meijer, Albéric. “John Capgrave, O.E.S.A.” Augustiniana 5 (1955): 400–440.

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    Foundational study of Capgrave’s life and writings. Continued in Augustiniana 7 (1957): 118–148 and 531–575.

  • Fredeman, Jane. “The Life of John Capgrave, O.E.S.A. (1393–1464).” Augustiniana 29 (1979): 197–237.

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    A richly textured study of Capgrave’s career and milieu, with particular attention to urban and academic life.

  • Lucas, Peter J. From Author to Audience: John Capgrave and Medieval Publication. Dublin, Ireland: University College Dublin Press, 1997.

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    The most thorough account of Capgrave’s career as editor and publisher, as well as author, of his writings.

  • Moore, Samuel. “Patrons of Letters in Norfolk and Suffolk, c. 1450.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 27 (1912): 188–207.

    DOI: 10.2307/456777E-mail Citation »

    Moore was the first to identify 15th-century East Anglia as an important center of literary patronage that benefited Capgrave and other authors of his generation. See also Publications of the Modern Language Association 28 (1913), pp. 79–105.

  • Roth, Francis. The English Austin Friars, 1249–1538. 2 vols. New York: Augustinian Historical Institute, 1961.

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    Abundant information about Capgrave as an Augustinian that covers both his literary career and his activities as prior of the Lynn friary and Prior Provincial of the Augustinians in England. Volume 2 published in 1966.

  • Seymour, M. C. John Capgrave. Authors of the Middle Ages 11. Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1996.

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    Thoroughly documents Capgrave’s life and writings.

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