John Lydgate was born into turbulent times. His life spanned seventy years of the Hundred Years’ War with France, and, when he died, the Wars of the Roses were about to begin. In 1381, he witnessed the Peasants’ Revolt; in 1399, he saw Richard II deposed. The earlier years of his life were those of the Great Western Schism, with popes in both Avignon and Rome. At the same time, the anticlerical Lollards were stirring up trouble for the Church in England. Even nature seemed to conspire against the peace, for, beginning in 1349, the plague struck regularly, killing large portions of the English population.
Born of peasant stock, Lydgate was reared in the quiet village of Lydgate, far from the civil turmoil that raged elsewhere. He must have had a fairly normal childhood, for he later wrote: “Loth to lerne [I] loved no besyness,/ Save pley/ or merth . . . Folowyng alle appetytes longyng to childhede” (The Testament of J. Lydgate, 11). His serious side prevailed, however, and perhaps as early as 1385 he joined the Benedictine monastery at Bury St. Edmunds, about sixty-five miles northeast of London. Bury St. Edmunds was one of the richest of England’s monasteries, with eighty monks, twenty-one chaplains, and 111 servants. Here Lydgate received much of his formal education, although it is likely that he also spent a few years at Oxford, where he may have begun his literary career by writing his Translation of Aesop, the first book of fables written in Middle English. If Oxford was a good place to begin writing, however, the magnificent library of Bury St. Edmunds was just the place to nourish such a career, for it is thought to have contained about two thousand volumes, at the time making it one of the finest in England.
By the time he was ordained a priest in 1397, Lydgate probably had begun building a modest literary reputation. Indeed, John Bale, a sixteenth century biographer, suggests that Lydgate had already started a school of rhetoric for the sons of noblemen. Although some scholars are dubious about this, it is certain that Lydgate at this time began to make friends among the aristocracy, many of whom were later to become his literary patrons.
As a matter of fact, Lydgate soon came to the attention of Prince Hal, later Henry V, who in 1409 charged him with writing a life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus Lydgate wrote his first saint’s legend, The Life of Our Lady. This was to be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between Lydgate and the Lancastrian dynasty, a dynasty that both the poet and his brother monks saw as a strong bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy against the Lollards.
Henry V was more interested in battle, conquest, and deeds of chivalry than in piety, however, and by October, 1412, he conceived a different sort of project for Lydgate’s talent: a retelling of the popular story of Troy. It took Lydgate eight years, relying mostly on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia Troiana (c. 1285), to construct The Hystorye, Sege, and Dystruccyon of Troye, a long epic of thirty thousand lines. His taste for versifying history, however, was hardly sated by this massive work, for very soon after completing Troy Book, Lydgate set out on another long poem: The Siege of Thebes. He found the frame for this tale in Chaucer’s works; he presents the work as a continuation of The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). Thus the pilgrim “Daun John” Lydgate himself tells the Thebes story—at length. In the prologue, Lydgate shows his sense of...
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