John Lydgate (1370/1-1451?) was a Benedictine monk belonging to the ancient and prestigious abbey of Bury St. Edmunds
in Suffolk. He was also a vocal admirer of
Chaucer, a Lancastrian court poet, and the author of some 150,000 lines of verse. Lydgate's varied œuvre includes romances, satires, debates,
mummings, hymns, love ballades, dream visions, and saints' legends. His patrons included kings, abbots, aristocrats, and wealthy burghers, but
his works circulated in manuscript, and later in print, well beyond that political and cultural elite. Two of Lydgate's patrons—Duke Humphrey of
Gloucester and King Henry VI—were also patrons of Capgrave.
Though Lydgate's contemporaries considered him Chaucer's equal, perhaps even
his superior, generations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics dismissed him as a
failed Chaucerian and a Lancastrian sycophant. The new millenium is seeing something of a Lydgate revival, as scholars
are appreciating the subtlety of Lydgate's politics along with the complexity of his poetics.
Capgrave never mentions Lydgate, but he almost certainly read Lydgate's works.
The two saints' lives Capgrave composed in verse, the lives of Norbert and of Katherine, are written in the same rhyme royale form
that Lydgate (following Chaucer) used for his saints' lives. Capgrave's long and ambitious Life of Saint Katherine is almost
certainly indebted to Lydgate's "epic" lives of Edmund and Alban. However, Capgrave eschews Lydgate's ornate rhetoric for
the rhythm and idiom of popular romance, thus making an intellectually sophisticated hagiography more broadly appealing.
Capgrave and Lydgate had much in common as intellectuals and as hagiographers. Both used saints' lives
to explore political issues as well as moral and ethical dilemmas. Both represented the saints as vulnerable, even fallible individuals.
Both abhorred the Lollard heresy but showed that teaching is the best weapon against error—far more effective than the violence and
censorship advocated by
reactionaries within the English Church.
Printed Editions of Lydgate's Hagiograpny
Fortunately, all of Lydgate's writings are readily available in modern editions, mostly produced by the Early
English Text Society, some as part of the TEAMS Middle English Text Series.
Below is a listing of printed editions of Lydgate's saints' lives:
- Altenglische Legenden: Neue Folge. Ed. Carl Horstmann. 1881. Reprint, Hildesheim:
Georg Olms, 1969. [Life of Edmund and Fremund on pp. 376–440.]
- A Critical Edition of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady. Ed. Joseph A. Lauritis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1961.
- Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Ed. Sherry L. Reames. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. ["Margaret" on
pp. 147–68; also available online.]
- The Minor Poems of John Lydgate: Part I: Religious Poems. Ed. Henry Noble MacCracken. EETS.ES 107. London: Oxford University Press, 1911.
[Includes lives of Austin (Augustine of Canterbury), George, Giles, Margaret, and Petronilla.]
- Saint Albon and Saint Amphibalus by John Lydgate. Ed. George F. Reinecke. New York: Garland, 1985.
- Saints' Lives in Middle English Collections. Ed. E. Gordon Whatley. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004.
["Saint Austin at Compton" on pp. 213–23; also available
For translations of Lydgate's lives of Margaret and Petronilla, see Chaste Passions: Medieval English Virgin Marytr Legends,
ed. Karen A. Winstead (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 2000), 86–98.
- Cole, Andrew. Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. [See especially Chapter 6,
"Lydgate's Eucharists," for a discussion of the complexity of Lydgate's orthodoxy.]
- Ebin, Lois A. John Lydgate. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
- Green, Richard Firth. Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages. Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1980.
- Lerer, Seth. Chaucer and His Readers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. [Lydgate epitomized an age of failed Chaucerians.]
- Lewis, Katherine J. "Edmund of East Anglia, Henry VI and Ideals of Kingly Masculinity." In Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages.
Ed. Patricia H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004.
- Meyer-Lee, Robert J. Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
[A study of fifteenth-century English poetry through the lens of "Lydgatean laureate poetics."]
- Mortimer, Nigel. John Lydgate's "Fall of Princes": Narrative Tragedy in its Literary
and Political Contexts. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005.
- Patterson, Lee. "Making Identities in Fifteenth Century England: Henry V and John Lydgate." In New Historical Literary Study:
Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History
Eds. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 59–107.
- Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970. [Classic study of Lydgate with a very useful
- Nolan, Maura. John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. [Focusing on Lydgate's Serpent of
mummings, and other occasional poems, Nolan argues that "Lydgate, spurred on by a strong sense of crisis,
remade the forms of public culture available to him, and did so in a counterintuitive way that challenges our assumptions about propaganda" (3).]
- Scanlon, Larry, and James Simpson, eds. John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England. Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 2006. [Essays by Phillipa Hardman, Robert J. Meyer-Lee, Larry Scanlon, Scott-Morgan Straker, James Simpson,
C. David Benson, Maura B. Nolan, Jennifer Summit, Rita Copeland, Fiona Somerset, and Ruth Nisse analyze Lydgate's style, methods,
rhetoric, and politics while reassessing his place in the English literary tradition. Essays by Somerset and Nisse treat Lydgate's hagiography.]
- Simpson, James. Reform and Cultural Reformation. Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[Revisionary literary history establishes Lydgate's importance in the "reformist culture" of late medieval England.]
- Strohm, Paul. England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399–1422. New Haven, CT: Yale Univeristy Press, 1998.
[See especially Chapter 7, "Advising the Lancastrian Prince," which contrasts the strategies of Hoccleve and Lydgate.]
- Winstead, Karen A. "Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Alban: Martyrdom and 'Prudent Pollicie.'" Mediaevalia 17 (1994): 221–41.
[Discusses Lydgate's departures from the tradition of hagiography epitomized by Chaucer.]
- —. Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. [See Chapter 3,
- —. John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. [Chapter 5, "Capgrave
and Lydgate: Sainthood, Sovereignty, and the Common Good," reads Capgrave's Katherine and Lydgate's Edmund and Fremund as
commentaries on Henry VI.]
- The Life of St Edmund, King and Martyr: John Lydgate's Illustrated Verse Life Presented to Henry VI: A Facsimile of British Library MS
Harley 2278. Introduction by A. S. G. Edwards. London: British Library, 2004.