Medieval Studies Osbern Bokenham
by
Simon Horobin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0195

Introduction

Osbern Bokenham was a prolific vernacular hagiographer, active in the first half of the 15th century. He is chiefly remembered today for his two legendary collections, which comprise translations of the entirety of Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century Latin hagiographical compilation Legenda Aurea, supplemented with legends of various other British and female saints not part of that collection. Bokenham was influenced by the writings of Chaucer and Lydgate, experimenting with the variety of verse forms and stylistic registers he encountered in their works. Bokenham also knew the work of his confrère and fellow East Anglian John Capgrave, whose vernacular hagiographies, written at the bequest of local patrons, both secular and religious, provided another model for Bokenham’s work and its modes of dissemination.

Biography

Osbern Bokenham was born on 6 October in 1392 or 1393. Having been admitted to the Cambridge house of the Augustinian friars in 1423, Bokenham received the degree of doctor of divinity in 1427; he spent the remainder of his life at the Augustinian house of Clare Priory in the Suffolk village of Clare. Although he was probably born in Old Buckenham in Norfolk, he refers to himself as speaking and writing in “Suthfolk speche.” Despite spending much of his life in the convent at Clare, Bokenham traveled widely, visiting pilgrimage shrines in Britain, Spain, and Italy. He traveled to Rome twice: once in 1423 and for a second time in 1438; in 1445 he undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Serjeantson conjectured that Bokenham died before 1447, but this was contradicted by M. B. Hackett, who published evidence that he was appointed to the position of president of the provincial chapter of the English province of the Austin friars in 1461 and 1463 by the order’s prior general. Hackett also noted Bokenham’s inclusion as witness to a document drawn up at Clare Priory in 1464, which supplies the latest datable reference to our poet. Biographical treatments of Bokenham’s life are few. For a listing of the relevant documentary records pertaining to Bokenham’s life and Clare Priory, see Hackett 1961, Harper-Bill 1991, and Roth 1961. Gray 2004 supplies the most recent account of Bokenham’s life.

  • Gray, Douglas. “Bokenham, Osbern (b. 1392/3, d. in or after 1464).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    A generally accurate account, though predating the discovery of Bokenham’s translation of Legenda Aurea.

  • Hackett, M. B. “A Note on Osbern Bokenham.” Notes and Queries 206 (1961): 246–247.

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    Identifies biographical references to Bokenham among the records of the English Austin friars, which provide important evidence concerning his position within the order and the date of his death.

  • Harper-Bill, Christopher, ed., The Cartulary of the Augustinian Friars of Clare. Suffolk Charters 11. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 1991.

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    A scholarly edition, with accompanying translation, of the Clare Priory cartulary, now British Library MS Harley 4835, which contains records relating to the priory stretching from its foundation in the mid-13th to the late 15th centuries.

  • Roth, Francis X. The English Austin Friars, 1249–1538. 2 vols. Cassiciacum Vol. 7. New York: Augustinian Historical Institute, 1961.

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    A compendium of the documentary records relating to the activities of the Austin Friars in England, including several documented references to Bokenham.

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