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In 365, Libanius wrote a letter to Theodorus, a friend serving as the governor of Bithynia, and thanked Theodorus for a portrait that he had sent of the famous second-century rhetorician Aelius Aristides. The remarkable letter reads like something that the leader of a modern fan club would write about a picture of a teen idol. Libanius sat by the portrait and read a work of Aristides. When he looked deeply at the portrait, Libanius knew that ‘it was only proper that such a handsome man should produce such eloquence’ (Letter 1534.2). But this was not the first painting of Aristides that Libanius had received. Four years earlier, Libanius’ friend Italicianus had sent another portrait of Aristides, though one that Libanius (who appears to have been a connoisseur of such things) thought showed his idol with too much hair. Libanius concludes by asking for a third picture of Aristides that shows ‘his hands and feet’ and requesting that his friend ask some old men ‘What is the idea with the hair?’ – two odd requests that only the most dedicated admirer would make.
It is fitting that Libanius felt such kinship with Aristides. Not only were both men accomplished rhetoricians, but they each shared something of the same character. In fact, Libanius seems at times to have modelled his self-presentation on Aristides. Both Aristides and Libanius claimed with pride to have kept emperors waiting before delivering welcoming discourses. They also famously possessed rather delicate constitutions. Aristides’ particular personal foibles have become well known primarily through his Sacred Tales, a work which certainly provides an extremely exaggerated view of the sophist’s peculiar interests. Libanius rarely gets the same sneering scrutiny. Instead, scholars tend to accept Libanius’ frequent complaints about his emotional and physical maladies as more or less accurate descriptions of his condition at a given moment in his life.
Damascius' presentation of Isidore in the historical work called variously the Philosophical History or the Life of Isidore has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding over the centuries. Although Damascius had great respect for and close personal ties to his philosophical father, many readers have seen his text as a highly critical one that has little positive to say about its subjects. Photius, for example, states: “[Damascius] sets himself up as judge, not leaving a single one of those on whom he has lavished praise without some deficiency … thus pulling down and throwing to the ground each one of those whom he has extolled and glorified, he imperceptibly establishes his own authority in every way above everybody else. This is why he continually matches praise of Isidore with criticism”. Photius obviously read more of Damascius' text than we can, but even the fragments that survive reveal that Damascius' presentation of the intellectuals of his day has much more nuance to it than Photius allows. The text does contain a great deal of criticism, but readers make a mistake if, like Photius, they let this criticism overshadow the positive aspects of Damascius' portraits. This mistake is particularly acute if they do not appreciate what Damascius is trying to convey about Isidore.
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’.