Lydgate No Fun?

John Lydgate is known primarily for his more serious works such as Troy Book, the Fall of Princes, and the Siege of Thebes. The heavy moral didactic emphases in these works are something of a Lydgate trademark.  Even in the more amusing works, including the debate poems “The Churl and the Bird” (179ff) and “The  Debate of Horse, Goose and Sheep” (48ff), this tendency is apparent. Based on the majority of his work, Lydgate seems to have a hard time writing ‘just for fun’ pieces.

“The Churl and the Bird” is told in the style of a fable, and in accordance with this tradition, Lydgate includes a moral at the end of the poem. The final three stanzas specifically label the poem as a fable, and present four lessons to be taken from the poem.  The first is “Now forged talis  I counsaille you to fle”, and the second “For losse of goode takethe not to gret hede” (192). This second lesson is reiterated as “Coveitethe no thing that may not be” (192). The third lesson is “Bettir is freedom withe litelle in gladnesse/ Than to be thralle withe al worldly richesse” (193).

The fourth and final lesson is less direct. In the final stanza of the poem, Lydgate presents the traditional sending of his book to his patron. Conventional though this conclusion may be, the final lines still contain instructions. Lydgate says, “And as touching the translacioun/ Oute of Frenshe, hough ever the Englisshe be,/ Al thing is saide undir correctioun/ With supportacion of your benignite.” (193) The humility and  self deprecation are conventional, but the comment about the imperfection of translation contains the suggestion that the reader needs to take some responsibility for their own reading and interpretation.

In “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”, the moral is more direct. After the narrative of the court case has concluded, Lydgate adds another section, fourteen stanzas long, to explain ‘the moralite’ of the debate. The moralite opens with the lines, “Of this fable conceyveth the sentence,/ At goode leyser doth the matier see,/ Whiche  importith grete intelligence,/ Yif ye list take the moralyte,/ Profitable to evry comunaulte;/ Whiche inculdith in many sundry wyse:/ Noman sholde, of high or low degre,/ For no peragatif his neyhbour  to despise.” The rest of the lesson in interpreting the debate never refers to the actual debate, and instead presents a sermon on social equality.

There are very few texts by Lydgate in which the author does not indulge in his monkish habit of turning everything into a lecture. Lydgate wrote a series of ‘mummings’ (alternatively titled ‘disguisings’) which make up the majority of his ‘just for fun’ work. The Mumming at Hertford will serve as an example. Mummings are a kind of dramatic performance intended for entertainment purposes often produced on commission.  What kind of performance will be coming in this particular example is made clear by the prologue, which explains, “Nowe in þe vigyle of þis nuwe yeere/ Certeyne sweynes ful [froward of ther chere]/ Of entent comen, [fallen on ther kne],/ For to compleyne vn-to Yuoure Magestee/ Vpon þe mescheef of gret aduersytee,/ Vpon þe trouble and þe cruweltee/ Which þat þey haue endured in þeyre lyves/ By þe felnesse of þeyre fierce wyves;”

A series of caricatures follows the prologue, but Lydagate does not rely exclusively on wife-bashing for the entertainment. After all of the husbands present their complaints, the wives get a chance to respond. This group of women appear more educated than their husbands, which off-sets the shrewish characterizations. All though it is a collective speech, as opposed to each woman getting her own response, the women make references to literature as opposed to pure folklore and convention at the beginning of their defense: “And for oure partye þe worthy Wyff of Bathe/ Cane shewe statutes moo þan six or seven,/ Howe wyves make hir housbandes wynne heven,/ Maugre þe feonde and al his vyolence;/ For þeyre vertu of parfyte pacyence/ Parteneþe not to wyves nowe-adayes,/ Sauf on þeyre housbandes for to make assayes./ Þer pacyence was buryed long agoo,/ Gresyldes story recordeþe pleinly soo.” The ladies clearly have read Chaucer.

The decision by the ‘king’ also supports the idea that the women have outsmarted their husbands: “Wher-fore þe Kyng wol al þis nexst[e] yeere/ Þat wyves fraunchyse stonde hoole and entier,/ And þat no man with-stonde it, ne with-drawe,/ Til man may fynde some processe oute by lawe,/ Þat þey shoulde by nature in þeyre lyves/ Haue souerayntee on þeyre prudent wyves,/ A thing vnkouþe, which was neuer founde.” In contrast to this potentially feminist stance, the final words of the performance return to the traditional view of women causing men nothing but trouble: “Let me be-ware þer-fore or þey beo bounde./ Þe bonde is harde, who-soo þat lookeþe weel;/ Some man were leuer fetterd beon in steel,/ Raunsoun might help his peyne to aswaage,/ But whoo is wedded lyueþe euer in seruage.”

“The Mumming at Hertford” shows that Lydgate was capable of composing a text purely for entertainment, with no lecture or overall moral. One wonders what the effects might have been if he had allowed “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep” or “The Churl and the Bird” to stand without the emphasis and re-emphasis on the specific lessons he wanted his reader to take away.


Encounters with Lydgate

I don’t remember much if any experience with the works of John Lydgate as an undergraduate, nor as an MA student. Lydgate was on the MA exam reading list, but otherwise I don’t think I really thought much about his writings. Not until my dissertation work started did I actually start reading Lydgate. I ended up including significant attention to two of Lydgate’s poems, “The Churl and the Bird” and “The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”, both as poems and as manuscripts.

Even though Lydgate is one of the medieval authors with whom I  spent the least time pre-dissertation,  I had my first “I’m a grown-up scholar” moment thanks to him. I was in Chicago for a paleography seminar at the Newberry Library. Class didn’t start until early afternoon, and I got into downtown early. I decided to go to the Corner Bakery near the library for lunch and do some reading. I had the latest issue of Speculum with me, and I was planning to read an article about paleography. I had the journal out on the table when in walked the professor who was leading the seminar, looking for a place to sit in the crowded cafe. He noticed the journal and it started a conversation. Normally it could have been awkward to run into an instructor outside of class, but thanks to that journal article it wasn’t. The professor didn’t maintain a personal subscription to Speculum, so he was unaware of the relevant article. On a side-note, I also ended up with some good tips for exploring and applying for travel fellowships.

This is the article:   Faulkner, Mark and W.H.E. Sweet. “The Autograph Hand of John Lydgate and a manuscript from Bury St Edmunds Abbey.” Speculum 87.3 (2012): 766-792.

Chaucer In Perpetuam

At one point in my academic career, I swore that I would not be using Chaucer in my dissertation. I also suggested that Chaucer was over-studied. This was before my DQE (qualifying exam), and before ENG 8830, a course/independent study that is designed to prepare the student for the DQE and beyond. I have since completed 8330, the DQE, and the dissertation itself. I still stand by my assertion that certain things about/by Chaucer have been over-studied. However, I did end up including Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls” in my final chapter.  I will not be putting forth major scholarly analysis of any Chaucerian text here. Rather, I intend to comment on the relevance of Chaucer’s poetry today.

1) Chaucer provides proof that human nature hasn’t changed much in 650 years. For example, Chaucer proves that even as early as the fourteenth century, fart jokes were funny. Read The Miller’s Tale if you are skeptical.  For another example, Chaucer  insinuates in more than one poem that writers are under-appreciated, and that the job of a writer/scholar can be very difficult . The biggest example of Chaucer speaking out as a writer is in The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, and he also hints at the difficulties a writer can face in The Parliament of Fowls when the dreamer-poet-scholar  first prays to  Venus for help with poetry (112-119) and Scipio later tells him that he (Scipio) will help the dreamer with his writing (162-168). The Parliament begins with a scholar struggling with an academic book (22-35, 92-98), although it does end with the scholar hopeful that he can find the answer he is looking for (693-699). For a more modern reference, Chaucer inspired what may be the first ever fan-fics in English. Robert Henryson, in the fifteenth century, wrote The Testament of Criseyde which presents what happened to her after the conclusion of Chaucer’s story. John Lydgate framed his Siege of Thebes as a Canterbury Tale about twenty years after Chaucer died.

2) Reading Chaucer is a gateway to lots of medieval stuff including history, literature, culture, and education. The historical and cultural allusions and direct references illustrate examples of how people in Chaucer’s time may have viewed figures and events that would turn out to be of enduring historical interest. The possible references to a royal courtship or engagement in Parliament of Fowls and the dedication of Book of the Duchess to John of Gaunt, and a reference to John Gower in Troilus and Criseyde (5, 1856) are only  three of many such references. Chaucer wrote some teaching texts, including An ABC and Treatise on the Astrolabe, and in many of his poems, he presents people who are or are trying to study.

3) Chaucer is known as “The Father of English Poetry/Literature” for a reason. While this title may be disputed and questioned, the fact remains that Chaucer was a gifted and intelligent poet. Two hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde (scroll down to find T&C). Both stories are about a pair of doomed lovers, but Chaucer’s gives much more insight into the psychology and motivations of his characters. Yes, Troilus and Criseyde are probably older than Romeo and Juliet,  and Chaucer was not writing for the stage. However, the individuality and struggles of the individual characters are far more detailed in Chaucer’s work, and level of detail regarding character or motivation is not restricted by genre or age of the characters. The same can be said of The Canterbury Tales, especially the General Prologue, and in some of the inter-tale dialogue among the characters.

Back to the personal for a final notion. Here’s the fan-fic that I think needs to happen. I would do it, but I am a terrible creative writer. Dr Who ends up in medieval London, and meets Chaucer.  Chaucer would be in the early stages of his literary career, and assists the Doctor through some court intrigue in return for the Doctor promising to come back with some stories to help fill in plans for The Canterbury Tales. NB – Since, as of this writing, Doctor 12 is mostly unknown, I will cast the one Doctor who is still available, and that is the regeneration clone of Doctor 10.

The Doctor would leave for a while,  and he would come back only to find out that Chaucer has died very recently under mysterious circumstances, and he and companions decide to solve the mystery of Chaucer’s death. This would allow for some exploration of the real historical possibilities of what might have happened to Chaucer when he died, and also allow for the requisite Whovian monster to make its appearance. Said creature would be some kind of demon that feasts on words and ideas, and it got to liking Chaucer a little too much. The Doctor would defeat whatever it is, but while he and the companion(s) were looking through Chaucer’s papers for clues to solving the murder, the Doctor would start doodling in the margins of one of the books which would eventually turn out to be the Hengwert manuscript.  Click here for the digital facsimile.

To the reader: If you have ideas on how to expand my above scenario, please share! This is one of the great advantages of the digital humanities, that people can collaborate so easily on ideas.