John Lydgate

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.

Online Resources

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:

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.

Selected Scholarship