John Lydgate

The English poet John Lydgate (ca. 1370-1449) ranks as one of the most prolific, versatile writers of the Middle Ages.

Little is known of John Lydgate's life. He was a professed disciple of Geoffrey Chaucer, and for many years his fame rivaled Chaucer's. Lydgate became a Benedictine monk at Bury St. Edmund's about 1385, and he was ordained a priest in 1397. He studied at Oxford. His early poems, written before 1412, include The Temple of Glas, perhaps composed to be read at a wedding ceremony, and Reson and Sensuallyte, an adaptation of part of a long French allegory.

Lydgate's first major poem was his Troy Book (1412-1420), based on the Historia Troiana of Guido delle Colonne (1287). It contains more than 30,000 lines and was dedicated to Henry V. The poet became associated with Chaucer's son Thomas, who entertained a number of prominent persons, including Humphrey of Gloucester, John Tiptoft, Thomas Montague, and William de la Pole, at his estate not far from Oxford. Between 1420 and 1422 Lydgate wrote The Siege of Thebes, a tribute to Geoffrey Chaucer and, in form, a continuation of The Canterbury Tales. Probably at the request of Humphrey, Lydgate wrote The Serpent of Division (1422), a prose life of Julius Caesar designed as a warning against division in the kingdom.

In 1423 Lydgate became prior of Hatfield. During the next few years he wrote a number of "mummings," or allegorical performances, in which various figures appeared and performed symbolic actions while a narrator described the proceedings in verse. About 1426 the poet went to Paris for a visit of about 2 years. There he wrote his verse adaptation of Deguileville's Pelerinage de la vie humaine (original revised about 1355) for Thomas Montague, Earl of Salisbury. This long allegory of salvation contains more than 24,000 lines. He also composed an English version of the Danse macabre.

Between 1431 and 1439 Lydgate worked on his masterpiece, The Fall of Princes, written for Duke Humphrey. Giovanni Boccaccio had written a series of "tragedies," or stories of great men who through a weakness subjected themselves to fortune and thus fell, in a collection called De casibus virorum illustrium (1355-1360). These stories had been adapted into French prose by Laurent de Premierfait. Lydgate turned Laurent's version into an enormously long and popular English poem in nine books.

In addition to these works, Lydgate also wrote saints' lives, devotional poems, and occasional pieces. Generally, artificial diction and obvious moralizing mark his poetry, but it represents the attitudes and tastes of his time.

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Further Reading on John Lydgate

An interesting study of the poet and his work is Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Schirmer, Walter F. (Walter Franz), John Lydgate: a study in the culture of the XVth century, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979, 1961.