John Lydgate's Prologue to the Siege of Thebes: Introduction

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John Lydgate's Prologue to the Siege of Thebes: Introduction

John Lydgate was born c. 1370 when Chaucer was completing The Book of the Duchess; he was admitted to the monastery at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1385 when Chaucer was finishing Troilus and Criseyde; and he was ordained a priest in 1397 when Chaucer was in the final phase of The Canterbury Tales. Probably while studying at Oxford in the late 1390s, he made contact with Thomas Chaucer, who resided at Ewelme in the neighboring Oxfordshire countryside (Schirmer 59-65). The conjunction of these two rising stars, the one with political ambitions and the other with poetic aspirations, led to a great outpouring of Chaucerian versifications spanning the entire first half of the fifteenth century, until Lydgate's death c. 1450 (Pearsall 1970, 49-82).

The Siege of Thebes falls about midway in Lydgate's career. An allusion near the end of the poem to the Treaty of Troyes means it was concluded after May 1420; its general address to Henry V indicates it was completed before the monarch's premature death in August 1422. The Prologue's portrayal of Lydgate as a monk adhering to the strict regulations of his order seems to be a direct, almost point-by-point reply to the king's formal list of complaints against laxness among the Benedictines, leading to a special convocation of Black Monks at Westminster in May 1421 (Pantin 98-134). It is possible that Lydgate wrote the Siege first, then backed up to compose the Prologue.

The work's chief interest has been its relationship to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, whose decasyllabic or "heroic" couplets were adapted by Lydgate with mixed success. Based on some version of the French Roman de Thèbes (c. 1175) and entitled in several manuscripts "The Destruction of Thebes," the main body of the work is a sprawling 4540-line exemplum chronicling the disastrous careers of a series of deeply flawed kings: Edippus, his sons Ethyocles and Polymyte, and finally Creon (Spearing 66-88; Allen). The end of the three-part Theban tragedy is extended to those episodes treated by Chaucer at the beginning of The Knight's Tale. Indeed, Lydgate drew material directly from his master in ten specific passages, intent on making the two histories dovetail with one another, using narrative congruence and verbal echoes to knit up the end of his tale with the beginning of Chaucer's (Bowers 1985, 45-49).

The Prologue, printed here, offers even greater interest because it attempts to revive and extend the frame-narrative of The Canterbury Tales left vexingly incomplete by Chaucer. Here we are offered a springtime setting reckoned by the Zodiac, the arrival of the pilgrims at their sacred destination, the robust figure of the Host, the beginning of the journey back to Southwark, and a continuation of the tale-telling. With Chaucer dead for two decades, Lydgate replaces him by projecting himself into the story as the new pilgrim-narrator. Though he says he had come to Canterbury on the devout mission of giving thanks to St. Thomas for helping him recover from a recent illness, he is drawn into the company by the Host - here descending into vulgar caricature in his references to haggis-eating and farting - and persuaded to offer the first tale for the homeward journey. For better or worse, Lydgate chose not to include a close-frame episode bringing the pilgrims back to the Tabard Inn.

The work was popular enough to survive in twenty-nine manuscripts, mostly quality texts produced for aristocratic patrons. The organizers of at least five manuscripts interpreted Lydgate's intentions very literally, including the Siege in the same volume with Chaucer's original collection of Tales. In 1561 the editor John Stow printed the work in his edition of Chaucer, as did Thomas Speght in 1598 - and for the most part it lingered as a ghost-presence in the Chaucer canon until the nineteenth century.

The Text

The edition of Siege of Thebes prepared for the Early English Text Society (EETS) by Erdmann affords a critical apparatus with full corpus of variants indicating a textual stability that accords with what we know about Lydgate as a poet who wrote on commission and supervised presentation copies for his patrons. It is therefore not surprising that British Library [BL] Arundel 119, the manuscript selected by Erdmann as his copy-text, bears the coat-of-arms of William de la Pole (d. 1450), Duke of Suffolk and husband of Alice Chaucer, Thomas's daughter and Geoffrey's only known grandchild. Since this ownership bestows a social authority that complements the textual authority established by the editors, I too have used Arundel 119 (fols. 1aB4a) as copy-text for the opening section of the poem printed here, granting it the status of "best text" for its substantive readings as well as its accidentals of spelling and grammar (see Hanna).

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