John Lydgate Lydgate, John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Lydgate 1370(?)-1450(?)

English poet, translator, and prose writer.

Lydgate was one of the most popular and prolific English poets of the fifteenth century. His works, many of which were commissioned by prominent personages, include poems written in the Chaucerian manner, such as the Complaint of the Black Knight (1400?) and the allegory The Temple of Glass (1403?). His translations include the Troy Book, (1412-20), The Fall of Princes, (1431-39), and The Siege of Thebes (1420?). He also wrote fables, devotional, philosophic, and occasional poems, and a prose work, The Serpent of Division (1422), about Caesar's wars and death. Lydgate's reputation has largely been overshadowed by Geoffrey Chaucer, and most modern critics fault his prolixity and prosaic style. Lydgate does however have admirers, including the poet Thomas Gray, who praised the carefulness of his phraseology and the smoothness of his verse.

Biographical Information

Although many details of his life remain unclear, critics are reasonably certain that Lydgate was born at Lydgate, Suffolk, around 1370 to a family of peasant stock. When he was fifteen, he entered the Benedictine abbey at Bury to begin a career in the priesthood. In 1389 Lydgate became a subdeacon, and in 1393 he was raised to the order of deacon. He was ordained a priest in 1397. As an initiate, Lydgate was schooled in Latin grammar, theology, logic, rhetoric, and writing. He may have also studied at both Oxford and Cambridge between 1406 and 1408, and it is probable that he traveled in France and Italy. He is thought to have opened a school for sons of the nobility in the monastery of Bury, and he most likely began writing poetry around 1400. However, most of his major works were composed between 1412 and 1440, when he was associated with the monastery as well as the royal court. His verses were much in request by noble lords and ladies (he wrote many of his poems on commission), and he composed a ballad for the coronation of Henry VI. From 1423 to 1434 Lydgate was prior of Hatfield Broadoak, but is said not to have busied himself much with his duties there. He took up residence in Paris from 1426 to 1429, where he joined the retinue of the duke of Bedford. In 1434, after spending time in London, Windsor, and Hatfield, Lydgate returned to Bury, where he remained the rest of his life. He continued to receive commissions and grants for his writings by various patrons until his death in 1450.

Major Works

Lydgate was a learned and industrious poet who wrote verse on various subjects. Much of his work has been lost, but he is thought to have composed some 251 poems. Many of his poems are of significant length, such as the extant Fall of Princes, which runs 36,000 lines. His earliest poems, written in approximately 1400, include The Flower of Courtesy, Bycorne and Chichevache, and Complaint of the Black Knight, the last of which was once ascribed to Chaucer. This and a number of other works by Lydgate were imitations of his great predecessor. Lydgate's long allegorical love poem Temple of Glass, for example, is modeled on Chaucer's House of Fame. In his 4716-line Siege of Thebes, which is regarded by many to be his best work, Lydgate represents himself as having been invited to join the pilgrims from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on their return journey. The work includes a prologue modeled on Chaucer's and then tells of the foundation of Thebes, the struggle between the brothers Ethiocles and Polymetes for supremacy, and the siege and destruction of Troy.

A number of Lydgate's works are actually lengthy translations from Latin and French. His Troy Book is based on a Latin work by Guido della Colonna, and Fall of Princes paraphrases Laurent de Premierfait's Des Cas des Nobles Hommes et Femmes. Lydgate also wrote a number of devotional works, notably Life of Our Lady (1409 or 1434[?]) and Dance of Death (1426-29). He also composed beast fables, such as “The Horse, the Sheep, and the Goose” and “The Churl and the Bird,” and a number of short, popular poems. Lydgate's only prose tract, The Serpent of Division, was among the first political pamphlets in English history and the most comprehensive discussion of Julius Caesar in Middle English literature.

Critical Reception

Although Lydgate was admired by his contemporaries, in later centuries his reputation has suffered. The general consensus has been that although he wrote a great deal (twice as much as William Shakespeare and three times as much as Chaucer), the quality of his work is lacking. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, Lydgate's rhetorical skill was highly regarded. George Ashby, writing in 1470, called Chaucer, John Gower, and Lydgate the three “masters” of poetry in England; Lydgate continued to be associated with these two great poets until the early seventeenth century. When the popularity of Middle English literature faded, however, so too did interest in Lydgate's work. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was barely any mention of Lydgate by other writers. The notable exception was Thomas Gray. In a 1760 essay, in which he approached Lydgate from a historical point of view, he found the monk to be an able versifier. Other critics have not been so kind. In his 1802 Biographia poetica, Joseph Ritson called Lydgate a “voluminous, prosaic, and driveling monk” and lambasted his “stupid and fatiguing productions, which by no means deserve the name of poetry.” This damning criticism severely damaged Lydgate's reputation, which has not yet fully recovered. Many critics still maintain that his poetry is dull and rhythmically uneven. However, in the mid-twentieth century critics began to revisit Lydgate's work. While most acknowledge that some of his writing is dull and verbose, others have identified certain strengths in his literary output. The first substantial work of modern criticism on Lydgate was by the German scholar W. F. Schirmer, who, in John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the Fifteenth Century, attempted to place Lydgate in historical context. Schirmer and others since have also paid careful attention to Lydgate's prosody, showing that there is more method to his meter than is immediately apparent. Since the 1960s, a number of scholars have written on Lydgate, discussing such issues as his “medievalism,” his choice of images, and how his background as a monk informs his work. Of all Lydgate's poems, commentators have paid most attention to The Siege of Thebes, probably because it is self-consciously imitative of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Indeed, a great deal of Lydgate scholarship surrounds the monk's indebtedness to and imitation of Chaucer. Even those who still find little that is worthy in Lydgate's poetry view him as important because of the light he sheds on the work of his acknowledged master—the towering literary figure of the Middle Ages, Chaucer.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Flour of Curtesye [The Flower of Courtesy] (poem) 1400(?)

Complaint of the Black Knight (poem) 1400(?)

Bycorne and Chichevache (poem) 1400(?)

Temple of Glas [The Temple of Glass] (poem) 1403(?)

Reson and Sensuallyte [Reason and Sensuality] (poem) 1406-1408(?)

Lyf of our Lady [The Life of Our Lady] (poem) 1409 or 1434(?)

A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe [A Complaint of a Lover's Life] (poem) before 1412; exact date unknown

Troy Book (poem) 1412-20

Ballade at the Departyng of Thomas Chaucyer into France [Ballad at the Departing of Thomas Chaucer into France] (poem) 1414(?)

Siege of Thebes (poem) 1420(?)

The Serpent of Division (prose treatise) 1422

Epithalamium for Gloucester [On Gloucester's Approaching Marriage] (poem) 1422-1423(?)

Mumming at Eltham (poem) 1424(?)

Title and Pedigree of Henry VI (poem) 1424-1426

Guy of Warwick (poem) 1425(?)

The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (poem) 1426-1429

Danse Macabre [Dance of Death] (poem) 1426-1429

Mumming at London (poem) 1427(?)

Mumming at Windsor (poem) 1429-1430

Mumming at Hertford (poem) 1429-1430(?)

Mumming for the Mercers (poem) 1429-1430(?)

Mumming for the Goldsmiths (poem) 1429-1430(?)

Legend of St. Margaret (poem) 1429-1430

Roundel for the Coronation of Henry VI (poem) 1429-1430

Fall of Princes (poem) 1431-1439

Lives of St. Edmund and St. Fremund (poem) 1434

The Lyfe of Seint Alban and the Lyfe of Seint Amphabel [The Life of Saint Albon and Saint Anphibalus] (poem) 1439

Verses for the Pageants at the Entry of Queen Margaret [Verses for Queen Margaret's Entry into London] (poem) 1441

Testament (poem) 1448-1449

R. H. Bowers (essay date 1948)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bowers, R. H. “Iconography in Lydgate's ‘Dance of Death.’” Southern Folklore Quarterly 12, no. 2 (June 1948): 111-28.

[In the following essay, Bowers points out the various ideas and motifs that informed Dance of Death and discusses the work's significance in the medieval danse macabre tradition.]

John Lydgate, the “monk of Bury” (c.1375-c.1448), dealt almost entirely with medieval themes in his poetry, themes which one might suppose would no longer interest the modern world; yet when the English poet Auden published his acrid poem The Dance of Death in 1933, he was drawing on a motif (likewise used by Lydgate) and sentiment...

(The entire section is 8283 words.)

Alain Renoir (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Renoir, Alain. “The Binding Knot: Three Uses of One Image in Lydgate's Poetry.” Neophilologus 41, no. 3 (July 1957): 202-24.

[In the following essay, Renoir claims that Lydgate uses the image of a binding knot to express permanence of union, and argues further that this metaphor is used to serve different purposes in The Temple of Glass, Mumming at Hertford, and “A Gentlewoman's Lament.”]

The literary critics of the nineteenth and twentieth century have taught us to look upon John Lydgate as the most inept writer in the English language. One recalls Joseph Ritson's scathing account of him, in Bibliographia Poetica (London: 1802), as “a...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

R. W. Ayers (essay date 1958)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ayers, R. W. “Medieval History, Moral Purpose, and the Structure of Lydgate's Siege of ThebesPublications of the Modern Language Association 73, no. 5 (December 1958): 463-74.

[In the following essay, Ayers argues that morality is at the heart of Lydgate's purpose in Siege of Thebes.]

Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is presented within the framing fiction of a supplementary Canterbury Tale, and, as one of the pilgrims, Lydgate tells the story of Statius' Thebaid as it had been reshaped by the romancers of the Middle Ages. Following the prologue (1-176),1 which is eminent as an imitation of Chaucer, Part i (177-1046) of the...

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Alain Renoir (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Renoir, Alain. “Attitudes Towards Women in Lydgate's Poetry.” English Studies 42, no. 1 (February 1961): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Renoir discusses the varied representation of women in Lydgate's works, which the critic maintains is influenced by the fact that the poet was a monk writing for courtly audiences who demanded poems in praise of women. He claims further that Lydgate's depiction of females reveals the versatility and talent of the poet.]

A little more than a century ago, Joseph Ritson described John Lydgate as ‘a voluminous, prosaick, and drivelling monk’1 whose ‘stupid and fatigueing productions, which by no means deserve...

(The entire section is 6769 words.)

J. Norton-Smith (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Norton-Smith, J. “Lydgate's Metaphors.” English Studies 42, no. 2 (April 1961): 90-3.

[In the following essay, Norton-Smith disagrees with the critic Alain Renoir that the image of the binding knot simply expresses permanence of union but claims rather that it also suggests, among other things, remembrance and the union of personified ideas.]

Lines 17-28 of Lydgate's Gentlewoman's Lament indicate that a precise classification of metaphors is always difficult. Mr. Renoir in a recent article1 assumes that all knots discussed by him are ‘binding knots used to express permanence of union’. He suggests that Lydgate's poetic ability is...

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W. F. Schirmer (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schirmer, W. F. “Lydgate's Early Works; The Chaucer Tradition and Lydgate's First Epics,” and “Lydgate's Troy Book.” In John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, translated by Anne E. Keep, pp. 31-51. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1961.

[In first essay that follows, Schirmer discusses several of Lydgate's early works, noting the poet's significance within the English language and examining his place in the tradition of Chaucer, courtly love poetry, and the bourgeois public of the fifteenth century. In the second, he closely examines the Troy Book, considering its patronage, style and political intent.]


(The entire section is 8997 words.)

Joseph A. Lauritis (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lauritis, Joseph A. “Second Thoughts on Style in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady.” In Essays and Studies in Language and Literature, edited by Herbert H. Petit, pp. 12-23. Pittsburgh: Dequesne University Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Lauritis claims that The Life of Our Lady is a poem less literary than “bardic,” as much of it has the ring of improvised speech rather than composed lyric.]

After pursuing with conventional apparatus the study of John Lydgate's use of methods and materials, there remains in the mind of the writer a lingering impression that in the Life of Our Lady1 we may have a poem less literary than...

(The entire section is 4376 words.)

A. S. G. Edwards (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Edwards, A. S. G. “Lydgate's Attitudes to Women.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 51, no. 5 (October 1970): 436-37.

[In the following essay, Edwards contends that Lydgate was not an anti-feminist, as suggested by the critic Alain Renoir, and says that some of the attitudes in his work reflect the views of his audience and not the poet himself.]

A. Renoir has suggested that Lydgate's attitude to women varies according to the nature of his audience. He finds three distinct attitudes:

  • 1) The attitude of the courtly audience: Women are wonderful.
  • 2) The attitude of the clergy: Women...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

Derek A. Pearsall (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pearsall, Derek A. “John Lydgate: The Critical Approach.” In John Lydgate, pp. 1-21. London: Routledge, 1970.

[In the following essay, Pearsall provides a critical overview of Lydgate's work and reputation and examines how one might answer the charges of dullness and prolixity that have been levelled at him by readers over the past five centuries.]

John Lydgate achieved an extraordinary pre-eminence in his own day. His origins were comparatively humble, and his life as a monk may seem to some an unlikely training-ground for a secular poet, yet by 1412 he was being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, later Henry V, to translate the story of Troy into...

(The entire section is 8652 words.)

James I. Miller, Jr. (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Miller, James I., Jr. “Lydgate the Hagiographer as Literary Artist.” In The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, edited by Larry D. Benson, pp. 270-90. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Miller maintains that previous critics have overlooked Lydgate's conscious literary artistry and notes in particular the design and control the poet shows in Lives of St. Edmund and St. Fremund.]

John Lydgate is notorious as a poet in want of design and control, but the allegation, however time-honored and well established as a “fact” of literary history, is by no means unassailable. Indeed, it may not stand...

(The entire section is 2938 words.)

Elizabeth Walsh (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Walsh, Elizabeth. “John Lydgate and the Proverbial Tiger.” In The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, edited by Larry D. Benson, pp. 291-303. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Walsh provides an analysis of several of Lydgate's works to show that his use of recurrent tiger imagery marks a distinction between Christian and pagan heroes.]

In his collection of Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases B. J. Whiting gives fourteen entries having the tiger as the central focus of the expression.1 The fourteen entries contain fifty-four citations. In his survey of Scottish...

(The entire section is 4139 words.)

Janet Wilson (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wilson, Janet. “Poet and Patron in Early Fifteenth Century England: John Lydgate's Temple of GlasParergon: Bulletin of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Renaissance Studies no. 11 (April 1975): 25-32.

[In the following essay, Wilson argues that Lydgate modified the theme and organization of his courtly love poem Temple of Glas, injecting it with more realism, to suit the tastes of his middle-class audience.]

Recent critics have identified the emergence of a new reading public in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, whose literary interests, it is suggested, became influential in shaping the literary...

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Lois Ebin (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ebin, Lois. “Lydgate's Views on Poetry.” Annuale Mediaevale 18 (1977): 76-105.

[In the following essay, Ebin argues that Lydgate developed a new critical language to describe his craft, that his view of poetry differs substantially from that of his English predecessors, and that his language points to the beginnings of a new English poetic.]

Scattered through the more than 145,000 lines of Lydgate's poetry are numerous references to the process of writing and to his role as a poet. These lines, for the most part Lydgate's original additions to his sources, introduce assumptions about poetry which are at once significantly different from Chaucer's and also...

(The entire section is 11894 words.)

Richard A. Dwyer (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Dwyer, Richard A. “Arthur's Stellification in the Fall of Princes.Philological Quarterly 57, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 155-71.

[In the following essay, Dwyer discusses the unusual features of Lydgate's version of the legend of King Arthur, particularly his raising of the hero to the stars (“stellification”) at the end of the story, and argues that the poet was including scientific and philosophical thought in the Arthurian myth.]

Although medieval readers liked it well, they apparently had it no easier than Thomas Gray in his time or than we have in ours in responding to John Lydgate's mammoth Fall of Princes as a manageable work of art. They...

(The entire section is 6352 words.)

A. C. Spearing (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spearing, A. C. “Lydgate's Canterbury Tale: The Siege of Thebes and Fifteenth Century Chaucerianism.” In Fifteenth Century Studies: Recent Essays, edited by Robert F. Yeager, pp. 333-64. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

[In the following essay, Spearing examines the nature of Lydgate's attitude towards and indebtedness to his great contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer in The Siege of Thebes and goes on to identify the shortcomings and merits of the work.]

Poetic history, in the book's argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear...

(The entire section is 11864 words.)

Derek Pearsall (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pearsall, Derek. “Lydgate as Innovator.” Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 53, no. 1 (March 1992): 5-22.

[In the following essay, Pearsall argues that while Lydgate had a conventional attitude, he was a poetic innovator. Pearsall contends that Lydgate asserted the status of English as a competent literary language and invented new kinds of English poem while he was writing in response to commissions of various kinds.]

To offer to write on Lydgate as an innovator may seem at first sight a rash undertaking, especially since it is a view of his poetic achievement apparently quite contrary to the views I myself have put forward in the...

(The entire section is 7896 words.)

Scott-Morgan Straker (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Straker, Scott-Morgan. “Deference and Difference Lydgate, Chaucer, and The Siege of Thebes.The Review of English Studies, New Series 52, no. 205 (2001): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Straker argues that previous critics have overlooked two of Lydgate's references to himself in The Siege of Thebes that reveal his attitude toward Chaucer and his own work as a poet within the current political order.]

The 176-line prologue to John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is one of the most remarkable acts of literary appropriation in medieval literature: not only does Lydgate adopt the pilgrimage frame of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but he also...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate (1371-1449): A Bio-Bibliography. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1997, 95 p.

Aims to provide a reassessment of Lydgate as a poet important for his place in the literary and political culture of his day; includes a detailed extensive biography, describes manuscripts of the major works and other medieval documents relating to Lydgate, and lists the most important secondary sources.


Pearsall, Derek A. John Lydgate. London: Routledge, 1970, 312 p.

The most important critical biography of the poet, which examines all of his major...

(The entire section is 884 words.)