John Capgrave, praised by the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Bale as "the most learned of all the Augustinians," was born on April 21, 1393. He spent at least part of his youth in the East Anglian port town of Lynn, now known as King's Lynn, and joined the Augustinian friary there circa 1410. From circa 1422 to 1425, he studied at Cambridge University, achieving the prestigious magisterium, or doctorate of theology, in record time. During the 1430s, he launched what would become a long and distinguished literary career, composing in Latin and English for kings, nobles, bishops, members of the local gentry, and the general public. An active and committed member of his order, he became prior of the Lynn friary by 1446. In 1453 he was unanimously elected Prior Provincial of the Augustinians in England, and he was reelected two years later. Capgrave died at Lynn in 1464.
Capgrave's earliest writings were Latin Biblical and theological commentaries. Over the course of his career, he produced voluminous commentaries on much of the Old Testament and all of the New. Unfortunately, only five of his Latin works have survived: his commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and Acts; his De Fidei Symbolis; and a collection of biographies of famous men named Henry. This Liber de Illustribus Henricis, or Book of the Illustrious Henries, is the only one of his Latin works to have been edited and translated into English. Capgrave also produced a substantial corpus of Middle English writings, consisting of the lives of Saints Norbert, Augustine, Gilbert, and Katherine; a guide for pilgrims to Rome, and a short chronicle of world history (with particular attention, in the later sections, to English history) from Creation to the 1417 Council of Constance. His saints' lives, particularly his 8000-line verse life of Saint Katherine, make him a major contributor to what was truly a golden age of hagiographical writing in fifteenth-century England. With the exception of the Life of Saint Katherine, all of Capgrave's surviving writings exist in manuscripts that were written and/or corrected by Capgrave himself. Three of them were signed by Capgrave. All of Capgrave's Middle English writings are available in printed editions. His Life of Saint Katherine is also available on-line as part of the TEAMS Middle English Text Series.
Coming: Background information on Lynn, East Anglia, and fifteenth-century English cultural life, plus links to Capgravian resources on the Web.