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The scholarly study of fifteenth-century English verse is very much a late twentieth-century phenomenon. A number of the writings associated with the fifteenth-century authors covered in this collection of essays were not accessible in usable editions until some point in the twentieth century, and the critical tendency to overlook fifteenth-century poetry was in part an inevitable result of its simple unavailability. But the early decades of the twentieth century saw significant changes in the landscape of fifteenth-century verse, attributable largely to the efforts of dedicated individuals working in isolation. Henry Bergen, most significantly, produced in the first two decades of the twentieth century notable editions of the two longest poetic works of the fifteenth century, John Lydgate's Troy Book and Fall of Princes, each over 30,000 lines (Bergen 1906–35 and 1924-27). The work of Eleanor Hammond on fifteenth-century manuscript and textual culture in England generated partial editions and an important survey of fifteenth-century poetry in the form of English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey (1927). And Walter Schirmer's study of John Lydgate, published originally in German in 1952 and translated into English in 1961, offered a Kulturbild, a historical and cultural analysis of the most prolific poet of the century that has still not been superseded. These figures stand apart from a general tendency to see the verse of the period between Chaucer and the early sixteenth century as largely unrewarding.
In the fervent, contentious, and sometimes ostentatious religious culture of fifteenth-century England, one writer stands out as a particularly prolific and versatile author of devotional texts: the monk of Bury St Edmunds, John Lydgate (c.1370–1449). Lydgate wrote thousands of lines of religious poetry for a wide range of patrons, both individual and institutional, and his poetry provides a comprehensive picture of orthodox fifteenth-century English religious life and its concerns: highly sacramental, habitually influenced by meditative spirituality and imitatio Christi, defiantly anti-Lollard, and profoundly invested in the cults of the saints and of the Virgin. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, Lydgate's religious poetry is, like his more overtly political poems, often highly topical. Lydgate was long viewed as a repetitive monk, cloistered in self-indulgent rhetoric (Mortimer 2005: 2–20, summarises the relevant unflattering assessments and Lydgate's changing critical fortunes). Now, Lydgate is increasingly seen as a poet who innovated and experimented: he negotiated the vernacular translation of religious material, the incorporation of Chaucerian diction and themes, and the use of aureate language and humanist ideas all within the parameters of orthodoxy. Lydgate's poetry also inaugurates several new European traditions into English devotional culture: subjects such as the Dance of Death and visual-material forms such as mural poetry and the pietà or image of pity find early English expressions in Lydgate's poetry. In short, Lydgate provides us with a ready conspectus of religious literary forms, from short prayers to epic narratives, poised between cloistered monasticism and a vigorous patronage culture of ‘pray and display’.
This collection of seventeen original essays by leading authorities offers, for the first time, a comprehensive overview of the significant authors and important aspects of fifteenth-century English poetry. The major poets of the century, John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve, receive detailed analysis, alongside perhaps lesser-known authors: John Capgrave, Osbern Bokenham, Peter Idley, George Ashby and John Audelay. In addition, several essays examine genres and topics, including romance, popular, historical and scientific poetry, and translations from the classics. Other chapters investigate the crucial contexts for approaching poetry of this period: manuscript circulation, patronage and the influence of Chaucer. Julia Boffey is Professor of Medieval Studies at Queen Mary, University of London; A.S.G. Edwards is Professor of Medieval Manuscripts at the University of Kent. Contributors: Anthony Bale, Julia Boffey, A.S.G. Edwards, Susanna Fein, Alfred Hiatt, Simon Horobin, Sarah James, Andrew King, Sheila Lindenbaum, Joanna Martin, Carol Meale, Robert Meyer-Lee, Ad Putter, John Scattergood, Anke Timmermann, Daniel Wakelin, David Watt.