Medieval Studies John Audelay
Susanna Fein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0154


English religious poet John Audelay (fl. 1417–?1432) was the first priest assigned to the Lestrange family chantry founded in the 1420s at Haughmond Abbey, a wealthy Augustinian house located a few miles east of Shrewsbury. Before becoming chantrist—a position perhaps granted him as a form of retirement—Audelay had lived an active career as chaplain to Lord Richard Lestrange, whose ancient marcher seat was Knockin Castle, Shropshire. A court record shows that Audelay traveled to London on at least one occasion in his lord’s entourage (in 1417), and it seems therefore likely that he moved about England and the Continent and that he witnessed national events as are sometimes celebrated in his verse, such as Henry V’s founding of Syon Abbey and Henry VI’s coronation. Audelay’s collected works are preserved solely in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302, a book likely to be the original compilation supervised by the poet. It is the collaborative product of two scribes who might have been Haughmond monks. One-third to one-fourth of the book is lost, but in what remains—thirty-five folios—there are eighty-eight items, mainly in English verse: carols; salutations to God or saints; didactic and narrative poems (sometimes in alliterative meter); poems of pastoral instruction; Latin prayers; a bit of prose borrowed from Richard Rolle; an allegory on preparing for death; a Latin colophon dated 1426; a Latin poem on worldly vanity; and a drawing of the Holy Face meant to serve as a meditative mirror. The book’s contents are organized as four genre-based mini-anthologies, each possessing an internal, sequential logic: The first one bears a sacerdotal title, The Counsel of Conscience, and this section is succeeded by Salutations, Carols, and a Meditative Close. Audelay’s name is invoked eighteen times in the book, and autobiographical details surface: the poet claims to be blind, deaf, and seriously ill. His disabilities are probably the gradual ravages of old age, for it is inconceivable that a fully blind and deaf poet could have supervised the making of the book. Nonetheless, he must have been very dependent on his scribes, who followed his instructions on how the well-planned anthology was to be compiled. Audelay’s orthodox, devotional aesthetic adds a distinctive angle to how we understand late-medieval English authorship, for no other writer combines the range of elements seen in his verse: an avowed stance as blind seer, prophecy mixed with reformist aims, didactic counsel as provided to an aristocratic patron, penance expressed in intimate terms, persistent self-naming so as to be remembered in others’ prayers, and a rich coloring in Latin piety, liturgical music, and visual image. Recent attention to the verse of John Audelay is earning him a spot among important 15th-century poets.

General Overviews

Study of Audelay—his life, texts, verse sequences, and anthology—is a relatively new field because early editors and scholars considered the Audelay manuscript little more than “a faithful specimen of the Salopian dialect” (Halliwell 1844, p. vi). Now, however, we have a scholarly climate of intense scrutiny of the pre-Reformation period in England and its social turmoil and fraught exchanges, as preserved in early-15th-century texts of literature, politics, and religion, and thus there is a compelling motive to assimilate the writings of Audelay—a contemporary of Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, and Margery Kempe—into our sense of the era. Recent scholarship, most of it published in the 21st century, has highlighted useful threads in the study of Audelay, threads not yet completely integrated with each other. Edwards 2000 examines the arresting presence of a full-blown author anthology at a time when Chaucer and Lydgate were themselves barely receiving such treatment, and Hanna 2000 includes Audelay in a survey of late-medieval English Augustinian writers. Separate tendencies of theme, method, or outlook are examined in Bose 2011 (reform urged by poetic prophesy), in Citrome 2006 (medical metaphors of penance), and in Matsuda 1997 (a purgatorial imagination). Fein 2009 surveys issues in Audelay studies that warrant future scholarly treatment. Wheatley 2010 situates Audelay in his blindness as an important exemplar to be considered within the field of medieval disability studies. References pertaining to the poet’s life, to specific genres and sections of the manuscript, or to specific texts—especially Marcolf and Solomon and Three Dead Kings—are treated in other parts of this bibliography.

  • Bose, Mishtooni. “Useless Mouths: Reformist Poetics in Audelay and Skelton.” In Form and Reform: Reading across the Fifteenth Century. Edited by Shannon Gayk and Kathleen Tonry, 159–179. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011.

    Bose argues that Audelay shares with the later John Skelton a compelling concern for reformist politics. She characterizes the poet’s prophetic voice as both clerically based and produced by established literary traditions of ecclesiastical satire.

  • Citrome, Jeremy J. “Surgery and the Priest: The Penitential Poetry of John Audelay.” In The Surgeon in Medieval English Literature. By Jeremy J. Citrome, 83–111. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Citrome discusses the poet’s use of the tropes of the wounds of sin and their medical treatment in the context of English penitential literature.

  • Edwards, A. S. G. “Fifteenth-Century Middle English Verse Author Collections.” In The English Medieval Book: Studies in Memory of Jeremy Griffiths. Edited by A. S. G. Edwards, Vincent Gillespie, and Ralph Hanna, 101–112. London: British Library, 2000.

    Edwards examines 15th-century manuscripts that represent an author and in this context places Audelay among the very few poets who were anthologized at this early time, for example, Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, and d’Orléans (p. 105).

  • Fein, Susanna. “John Audelay and His Book: Critical Overview and Major Issues.” In My Wyl and My Wrytyng: Essays on John the Blind Audelay. Edited by Susanna Fein, 3–29. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2009.

    Fein reviews Audelay studies and identifies areas that warrant more attention: the makeup of the manuscript; the sequential logic of the contents; Audelay’s varied stances; Audelay’s metrical range; and questions of attribution. Also see the Manuscript.

  • Halliwell, James Orchard, ed. The Poems of John Audelay: A Specimen of the Shropshire Dialect in the Fifteenth Century. Percy Society 47. London: Richards, 1844.

    This edition marks the first time any Audelay works were put into print. Halliwell edits the poems found on fols. 1–9 plus Virtues of the Mass and the Henry VI carol. Halliwell attempts to characterize the poet (“He was no Lollard”) but laments that “nothing seems to be known of Audelay” (pp. v, xi).

  • Hanna, Ralph. “Augustinian Canons and Middle English Literature.” In The English Medieval Book: Studies in Memory of Jeremy Griffiths. Edited by A. S. G. Edwards, Vincent Gillespie, and Ralph Hanna, 27–42. London: British Library, 2000.

    Hanna situates the poet in the broader context of Augustinian literary activity in England (p. 33). Audelay’s status at Haughmond was probably not as a monk but as a long-term “guest,” and yet his book represents an instance of Augustinian manuscript production.

  • Matsuda, Takami. “Purgatory in the Poems of John Audelay.” In Death and Purgatory in Middle English Didactic Poetry. By Takami Matsuda, 167–174. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1997.

    Matsuda examines the prevailing themes of death and purgatory in Audelay’s verse, showing the ars moriendi nature of his oeuvre. For Audelay, sickness has a purgative function, and purgatory becomes a merciful place of hope and spiritual healing. According to Matsuda, Audelay preaches a theology of “pragmatic prudence” before death (p. 170). See also the Poems in Thirteen-Line Stanzas.

  • Wheatley, Edward. “Medieval Science and Blindness: Case Studies of Jean l’Aveugle, Gilles Le Muisit, and John Audelay.” In Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability. By Edward Wheatley, 186–219. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

    Wheatley examines Audelay’s situation (see esp. pp. 212–219) as a self-proclaimed blind man, using historically reframed modern disability theory. Audelay is made a case study beside other prominent medieval instances of living with blindness: Jean l’Aveugle and Gilles Le Muisit. Also see the Poet.

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