Saintly Women and Priestly Poets: The Fifteenth-Century English Poetry of Osbern Bokenham, John Capgrave, and John Audelay

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright © 2007 by Matthew C. Giancarlo, Robert J. Meyer-Lee, Karen A. Winstead, and Shannon Gayk

Part 2. Detailed description of session

In the last quarter century, and especially over the last ten years, English poetry of the early fifteenth century has received its long overdue critical reassessment. The poets Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) and John Lydgate (d. 1449) have, in particular, emerged from the shadows of Chaucer discipleship, and, instead of being considered merely derivative, their works have been recognized as, on the one hand, playing a decisive role in the shaping of late medieval literacy culture and, on the other, possessing exceptionally complex relations to their political, social, and religious contexts. Especially productive has been the scholarship devoted to the subtleties of vernacular devotional poetry which frequently featured female protagonists in an age in which such poetry, officially placed under censorship by Archbishop Arundel in 1409, was politically fraught. This MLA special session proposes to build on this scholarship by examining in new ways three, lesser-studied authors of such verse in this period: Osbern Bokenham (d. after 1467), John Capgrave (d. 1464), and John Audelay (d. after 1426). Each of these poets was a cleric, each composed verse celebrating a female saint, and each produced devotional poems in the vernacular marked by unusual self-consciousness both of themselves as poets and of the charged climate in which they wrote.

Bokenham was an Augustinian friar who is best known for his Legendys of Hooly Wummen (1443-47), a collection of thirteen verse lives of female saints. Unusually chatty in his prologues, Bokenham drops the names of several aristocratic female patrons, making the work a fascinating example of a male cleric's attempt to shape female piety. In addition, the collection has been characterized both as a thoroughgoing response to Chaucer's Legends of Good Women and, as well, an early and subtle poetic statement of sympathy for Richard of York (see Shelia Delany, Impolitic Bodies [OUP, 1998]). Professor Karen Winstead (who, in addition to her work on Bokenham, has emerged as the leading scholar on both female saints' lives and Capgrave) will show in her paper how a newly discovered manuscript containing poems by Bokenham revises our understanding of the poet's cultural significance and religious outlook. This manuscript, discovered in Sir Walter Scott's library in 2004, contains Bokenham's version of seven saints' lives from the Legend Aurea. His rendering of these lives, Winstead will argue, elucidates his participation in a radical redefinition of holiness that was taking place during the fifteenth century, showing him to be a more daring and innovative poet than was evident from his known oeuvre.

Capgrave was also an Augustinian friar, a friend of Bokenham, and fellow resident of East Anglia. An important churchman and a prolific writer, in regard to English verse he is best known for his Life of St. Katherine (1440s). Consisting of some 8,000 lines arranged in five books, this remarkably ambitious life, as Winstead has shown, represents a sustained reading of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, as well as a commentary on the precarious rule of Henry VI. Professor Shannon Gayk will argue that, in this work, Capgrave seeks to translate Latinate, monastic modes of reading into vernacular, lay piety. More specifically, she will show how linked images of consumption, eating, and taste suggest that Capgrave, though far from a Lollard, was committed not only to lay access to the scriptures in the vernacular but also to instructing the laity in hermeneutic practices previously reserved for the clergy. In so doing, Gayk (like Winstead for Bokehnam) will contribute to the reevaluation of the orthodoxy of fifteenth-century poets like Capgrave and suggest that fifteenth-century authors' reformist leanings may be seen as much in their literary and hermeneutic practices as in the doctrinal positions they explicitly articulate.

John Audelay was, at his death, a chantry priest at a chapel endowed by still-living Lord Lestrange of Knockin. The one manuscript containing his poems, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302, is, at first glance, apparently a rather dull collection of didactic religious verse, noteworthy mostly as being the source of the earliest surviving collection of carols. A closer look, however, reveals the manuscript to be a carefully orchestrated poetic performance, one exceptionally conscious of itself as a fully coherent book, in which the poems (as Susanna Fein has shown) are organized to exhort the reader to die well even while being the means for the poet's own good death. In his paper, Professor Robert Meyer-Lee will situate Audelay's collection in the poetic/political context that the describes in his recent book, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. There, he argues that Hoccleve's and Lydgate's characteristic self-representational habits are politically motivated; in this paper, he will show how, against the models of Hoccleve and Lydgate as proto-professional poet/clerics, Audelay's earlier position as Lestrange's household chaplain may be understood similarly to have influenced his later poetic self-representation. Hence, this aspect of his poetry may also be constructed politically, especially as evidenced in his lyric celebration of St. Bridget. Yet, he will also show how Audelay's final occupation alters this self-representation in decisive ways, resulting in a spiritually-motivated textual self-consciousness unlike anything seen before in English verse.

Together, these three papers will expand upon, and add nuance to, the current understanding of the multivalent themes and functions of early fifteenth-century devotional poetry. In particular, they will examine closely the innovative ways in which clerical poets deployed holy women to intervene in the religious and political controversies of the period.