In This Article John Lydgate

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Critical Studies
  • Studies of Lydgate Criticism
  • Critical Studies of the Troy Book
  • Critical Studies of the Siege of Thebes
  • Critical Studies of the Fall of Princes
  • Critical Studies of the Temple of Glas (Or Temple of Glass)
  • Critical Studies of the Life of Our Lady (or Lyf of Our Lady)
  • Critical Studies of the Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund
  • Critical Studies of the Mummings and Spectacles
  • Studies of Early Printings

Medieval Studies John Lydgate
by
Robert J. Meyer-Lee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0164

Introduction

John Lydgate (b. c. 1370–d. c. 1450) was a Benedictine monk of the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. He entered the novitiate at fifteen and in his forties served as prior of Hatfield Broad Oak (Hatfield Regis) in Essex. He was also indisputably the most prominent vernacular poet in England in the first half of the 15th century. Over the course of his long writing career, he produced an astonishing amount of verse—some 145,000 lines. He wrote in a wide array of genres, from accounts of ancient military conflicts, such as the Troy Book; to sophisticated devotional works, such as the Life of Our Lady; to secular performance pieces, such as the Mumming at Windsor; to the sprawling, tragic account of human history of the Fall of Princes; to the popular courtesy poem Stans puer ad mensam; to numerous short devotional and didactic works. Unlike for Chaucer—the poet whom on several occasions Lydgate names his “maister”—we know that Lydgate was broadly patronized by the rich and powerful, including royalty, ecclesiastical leaders, London guilds, and country gentry. And also unlike for Chaucer, manuscripts of Lydgate’s works, which survive in the hundreds, enjoyed high circulation in his own lifetime; hence it is no surprise that his characteristic aureate style was markedly influential, adopted by poets throughout the century and into the next, some of whom explicitly cite him as a poetic authority. Yet no poet in English literary history has suffered a more precipitous decline in critical standing. Celebrated in his own lifetime and enthroned as one of the fathers of English verse through the 17th century, by the turn of the 18th century Lydgate was vilified as an inept versifier who reproduced mindless commonplaces ad nauseum. He became, so to speak, the poster child for the failure of 15th-century literature to live up to Chaucer’s promise. This situation began to change only in the second half of the 20th century, with critical interest in Lydgate accelerating especially from the 1990s. This scholarship has shown how the derogation of Lydgate derived from, among other things, aesthetic parochialism, anti-Catholic bias, and a historiographical desire to distinguish modernity from the Middle Ages. It has emphasized, in contrast, the complexity of his poetics, engagement with the politics of his Lancastrian princes and patrons, interventions into religious controversies, sociocultural significance, and his status as a crucial figure in the establishment of an English poetic tradition and in the history of English literary manuscripts and printings. This bibliography largely focuses on this recent Lydgate scholarship; for an annotated listing of earlier studies, see Renoir and Benson’s entry on “John Lydgate” in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English (1980).

General Overviews

The appearance of three monographs on Lydgate over the space of a decade in the mid-20th century (although one appeared earlier in its German original) marked the initial revival of critical interest in Lydgate, and today these monographs still serve as useful overviews of the poet’s works, his historical circumstances, and his biography, with Pearsall 1970 in particular remaining the starting place for Lydgate scholarship. Schirmer 1961 sets Lydgate’s work against a very detailed historical backdrop in order to show how that work participates in the larger-scale changes that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Although some of this study’s historical details and historiographical assumptions have since come into question, it remains the most comprehensive situating of Lydgate in his historical context. Renoir 1967 is likewise interested in Lydgate’s transitional status, seeing in particular seeds of humanism in his writing, but this monograph is more strictly literary in orientation, focusing on four principal thematic characteristics in Lydgate’s poetry that anticipate the future. Pearsall 1970 explicitly sets out to counter the Lydgate-as-transitional proposals of Schirmer and Renoir, arguing instead that Lydgate is quintessentially, and often stereotypically, representative of the late medieval period, “himself a comprehensive definition of the Middle Ages” (p. 4). Within this approach, Pearsall provides a broad set of deeply informed and perceptive readings of Lydgate’s poetry in light of their literary as well as historical contexts, offering still-authoritative accounts of the functions, intended audiences, manuscript dissemination, and sources of much of Lydgate’s oeuvre. Later critics, however, have troubled Pearsall’s thesis of Lydgate’s medieval representativeness, finding that this thesis tends to discount or ignore what is most unusual or complex about Lydgate’s work. Ebin 1985 is intended as a more compact, introductory volume than the three earlier monographs, which Ebin draws heavily upon, although she also provides her own argument about Lydgate’s significance (which she develops in more detail in Ebin 1988, cited under Critical Studies of Multiple Works: Poetics). Pearsall offers a very succinct overview of Lydgate’s life and works as part of Pearsall 1997, cited under Reference Works.

  • Ebin, Lois A. John Lydgate. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

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    Designed to introduce Lydgate to new readers. Efficiently covers Lydgate’s life and works, drawing from such earlier studies as Schirmer 1961 and Pearsall 1970. Offers the argument that “Lydgate asserts that the poet’s activity is ennobling and that his language directs men to wisdom and virtue” (pp. 18–19).

  • Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

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    Still the place to begin scholarship on Lydgate. Remains authoritative on many matters and offers compelling readings of much of Lydgate’s oeuvre. The thesis—that Lydgate’s work reflects a quintessential late medieval outlook—has been contested on several grounds, but it stands yet as the most influential critical understanding of the poet.

  • Renoir, Alain. The Poetry of John Lydgate. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

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    Argues for a critical reappraisal of Lydgate as a poet of transition, as evident in his “enthusiastic approbation for classical antiquity, a passionate belief in the intrinsic dignity of man, a sharp sense of nationalism, and an active concern for the conduct of princes” (pp. 44–45).

  • Schirmer, Walter F. John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century. Translated by Ann E. Keep. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

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    English translation of John Lydgate: Ein Kulturbild aus dem 15. Jahrhundert, first published in 1952. A still-useful consideration of the full catalog of Lydgate’s literary efforts against their various historical backdrops (biographical, political, literary, etc.), with an eye to Lydgate’s transitional status between medieval and Renaissance.

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